Hannah Webster Foster (17591840). The Coquette, or The History of Eliza Wharton. 1855.
Historical Preface, Including a Memoir of the Author
HE who waits beside the folded gates of mystery, over which forever float the impurpled vapors of the PAST, should stand with girded loins, and white, unshodden feet. So he who attempts to lift the veil that separates the REAL from the IDEAL, or to remove the heavy curtain that for a century may have concealed from view the actual personages of a well-drawn popular fiction, or what may have been received as such, should bring to his task a tender heart and a delicate and gentle hand.
Thus, in preparing an introductory chapter for these pages which are to follow, many and various thoughts suggest themselves, and it is necessary to recognize and pursue them with gentleness and caution.
The romance of Eliza Wharton appeared in print not many years subsequent to the assumed transactions it so faithfully attempts to record. Written as it was by one highly educated for the times,the popular wife of a popular clergyman, connected in no distant degree, by marriage, with the family of the heroine, and one who by the very profession and position of her husband was, as by necessity, brought into the sphere of actual intercourse with the principal characters of the novel, and as the book also took precedence in time of all American romances, when, too, the literature of the day was any thing but light,it is not surprising that it thus took precedence in interest as well of all American novels, at least throughout New England, and was found, in every cottage within its borders, beside the family Bible, and though pitifully, yet almost as carefully treasured.
Since that time it has run through a score of editions, at long intervals out of print, and again revived at the public call with an eagerness of distribution which few modern romances have enjoyed. Its author, Hannah Foster, was the daughter of Grant Webster, a well-known merchant of Boston, and wife of Rev. John Foster, of Brighton, Massachusetts, whose pedigree, but few removes backward in the line of her husband,1 interlinked, as has been already hinted, with that of the Coquette. Thus did they hold towards each other that very significant relationshipespecially in the past centuryof cousins, a relationship better heeded and more earnestly recognized and cherished than that of nearer kin at the present day. Therefore, not only by family ties, but by similarity of positions and community of interests, was she brought into immediate acquaintance with the circumstances herein combined, and especially qualified to write the history with power and effect. Nor is this the only work which bears the impress of her gifted pen. There is still another extant, of which I need not at this time and place make mention, besides many valuable literary contributions to the scattered periodicals of that day. It is to be regretted here that a short time previous to her death she destroyed the whole of her manuscripts, which might, in many respects, have been particularly valuable.
She has, however, transmitted her genius and her powers, which find expression and appreciation in two daughters still living in Montreal, Canada East, one of whom is the gifted author of Peep at the Pilgrims, Sketches from the Life of Christ, and Confessions of an early Martyr, all of which have been very popular; the first having been republished here within a short period, and also in England with still greater success. The other daughter, the widow of the late Dr. Cushing, who, while firm at his post as physician at the Emigrant Hospital, fell a victim to that terrible malady, ship fever, in 1846, is also author of many minor works, and co-editor of the Snowdrop, a monthly publication of much merit in Montreal. Mrs. Foster died in that place, at the residence of her daughter, Mrs. Cushing, April 17, 1840, at the advanced age of eighty-one years.
It may seem, however, at a period so long subsequent to the actual transpiration of events herein recorded, that little could be said to throw light or interest upon the history, and even less upon the character, or in extenuation of the follies or the frailties of the unfortunate subject of the following pages, and upon which public opinion had long ago rendered its verdict and sealed it for a higher tribunal. Yet I am happy in assuring any who may pause over these prefatory leaves that this is not the fact; and it harms us not to believe that over every life, however full of error it may be, there is an unwritten chapter which the angels take into account as they bear upward the tearful record, and which He, the great Scribe, who ever sitteth at the right hand of the Father, and from whose solemn utterance on earth dropped the forever cherished words which have so often given life and hope to the penitent fallen,neither do I condemn thee,interpolates on the mighty leger of eternity for the great reckoning day.
Eliza Wharton, generally known, perhaps, as Elizabeth Whitman, was the eldest of four childrenElizabeth, Mary, Abigail, and William; the latter of whom was a physician, twice married, and who also left a son of his own name, (William Elnathan,) who died in Philadelphia in 1846, unmarried. Her father, the Rev. Elnathan Whitman, was the son of Rev. Samuel Whitman, who was the third son of Rev. Zechariah Whitman, the youngest child of John, the original ancestor of the Whitman family. He (Rev. Samuel W.) graduated at Harvard University in 1696, and was for several years a tutor there. Thus having passed through the usual, though then somewhat limited, course of theology, he was ordained as minister of the gospel in Farmington, Connecticut, in 1706, at that time one of the largest towns in the state. He inherited by bequest one half of his fathers lands in Stow, Massachusetts, and was thereby also made executor of his will. He married, March 19, 1707, Mary Stoddard, daughter of Rev. Solomon Stoddard, second minister of Northampton, Massachusetts. Mr. Stoddard was born in Boston in 1643, and died in Northampton in 1729. This Solomon Stoddard was the great-grandfather of Hon. Solomon Stoddard, now residing in Northampton.
It is worthy of remark here that the early ancestors of Eliza Wharton intermarried also with the Edwards family; so that Hon. Pierpont Edwards, who figures in this volume as Major Sanford, could be no less than second cousin to his unfortunate victim.
Rev. Elnathan Whitman, the father of Elizabeth, was born January 12, 17089, and graduated from Yale College, New Haven, where he was for several subsequent years a tutor. He at length settled as minister over the Second Church in Hartford, Connecticut, and there married Abigail Stanley, daughter of Colonel Nathaniel Stanley, treasurer of the colony of Connecticut, a woman of uncommon energy of character and of superior mental acquirements, (a correct portrait of whom accompanies these pages, taken from an original painting.) He died in Hartford also, March 2, 1776, aged sixty-eight years, after having served in the ministry in that place forty-three of the same. His tombstone bears the following inscription:
IN MEMORY OF THE REV. ELNATHAN WHITMAN,
Pastor of the Second Church of Christ in Hartford, and one of the fellows of the corporation of Yale College, who departed this life the 2d day of March, A. D. 1776, in the 69th year of his age and 44th of his ministry.
Endowed with superior natural abilities and good literary acquirements, he was still more distinguished for his unaffected piety, primitive simplicity of manners, and true Christian benevolence. He closed a life spent in the service of his Creator in humble confidence of eternal happiness through the merits of the Savior.
His wife survived him nineteen years, and died November 19, 1795, aged seventy-six. It was during the dark, early period of her widowhood that the sad events occurred which have furnished the historian and the novelist with themes of the deepest pathos, and to which prominence is given in the following pages. But,
Woes cluster. Rare are solitary woes;
They love a trainthey tread each others heels.
So said the sublimest of poets, and so has all experience proved. Thus, in her case, this affliction did not come alone; but at a period nearly connected with this, in the dreary, solitary hours of the night,her night of sorrow too,her house was discovered on fire, which, for lack of modern appliances, was totally destroyed, with all its contents, consisting not only of many curious and valuable articles of furniture both for use and ornament, but embracing, also, an uncommon library, overflowing with rare books, pamphlets, &c., which her late husband had collected with great effort and research.
Elizabeth, the eldest of her family, was born in 1752. She was a child of early promise, and remarkable in maturer years for her genius (I use the term in no merely conventional sense, as will hereafter appear) and accomplishments, as well as for her genial spirit and tender and endearing qualities. Her maternal ancestor, Thomas Stanley, was an original owner and settler in Hartford, Connecticut, and removed to, and died in, Hadley, Massachusetts, January 30, 16623.
Thus nobly descended and connected, so singularly unfortunate, and her fate so afflicting and disastrous, it is no wonder that the novelist pointed her pen to record, with historical accuracy, a destiny so fearful, a career so terrible. By her exceeding personal beauty and accomplishments, added to the wealth of her mind, she attracted to her sphere the grave and the gay, the learned and the witty, the worshippers of the beautiful, with those who reverently bend before all inner graces.
Prominent among these was the Rev. Joseph Howe, then pastor at the New South Church, on Church Green, in this city, a young man of rare talents and eminent piety. Unfortunately, the fear and excitement consequent on the hostile relation of the colonies at that time towards the mother country forced him from his position here; and he left, with the family whose house had been his home, for a more quiet, temporary retreat in Norwich, Connecticut. Soon after this he repaired to the residence of Rev. Mr. Whitman, in Hartford, for a short visit, high in the anticipation of soon becoming the happy husband of the gifted daughter Elizabeth. But Providence, in wisdom, had ordered it otherwise; and, while on this visit, he suddenly sickened and died.
However much or little of soul or of sorrow she had in this event we are not to know; but another stood ready to worship in his place, what we will endeavor to believe was in some degree worthy of homage. This was J. Boyer, known as the Rev. Joseph Buckminster, a graduate of Yale College, and at that time tutor in the same institution, who afterwards settled as minister over the religious society in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and whose Biography was but a few years ago published.
We have no reason to believe, however, that either of these persons was her earliest choice, especially the latter, or that, in this case most certainly, there could have been at all that sacred congeniality of spirit so deeply necessary to womans nature, bearing out from her bosom that deathless affection which nor pride, nor affluence, nor folly, nor love of conquest, with the victory every where certain, could in any wise overcome.
The feeling that existed on her part was of circumstances only, influenced by strong parental predilection, and the desire which so often obtains in the heart of a true womanthat of soothing the love she cannot return, resolving itself at length into pity.
We might here also dwell upon the idiosyncrasies of genius as applicable to her case, which are generally banned, of whatever character they may be, and evermore shut out all sympathy, till, in despair or despite, folly is made crime. But since sin must ever be arraigned for itself, and error is prone to plead for mercy, I leave no word here that can be misconstrued or misapplied. Certain it is that Elizabeth Whitman was marked as one of strangely fluctuating moods, as the truly gifted ever are, and of a wild, incomprehensible nature, little understood by those who should have known her best, and with whom she was most intimate. Over this, in tracing her history, it were well to pause, were it not that thus we might give countenance to this prominent fact of modern days, that the eccentricities of genius are often substituted for genius itself, or are made its prime characteristics, as the gold of the jeweller is recommended for its beauty and strength in proportion to its alloy.
However much we may regret the waywardness of such a heart in the present instance, in that it rejected one so nobly qualified as was Mr. Buckminster to appreciate its genius and its love, while sympathizing with his own mortifying disappointment, (for this we must admit,) that she had in the secrets of her nature a preference for another, we cannot altogether know its results. So cautiously and discreetly did he, through a long and beautiful life, qualify both his lips and his pen, that little or nothing remains beyond these letters of the novelistwhich we may not doubt are authentic, as they were long in the possession of Mrs. Henry Hill, of Boston, the Mrs. Sumner of the novelto tell how the heart was instructed, and how blighted hope and blasted affection were made the lobes through which the spirit caught its sublimest and holiest respiration. We know
Through lacerations takes the spirit wing,
And in the hearts long death throe grasps true life.
One little remark which has been suffered to creep into his Memoirs is, however, of peculiar significance. I quote it here.
In speaking of Connecticut to a friend, he says, My place was there; I always wished that state to be my home; but Providence has directed my line of duty far away from the place of my first affections.
He alsoas one who had every means of knowing the fact has informed mewas deeply affected on reading the romance here following, and at the time remarked that, had the author been personally acquainted (not knowing that she was) with the circumstances of his engagement with Elizabeth Whitman, she could not have described them with more graphic truth.
The Hon. Pierrepont Edwards, to whom was given the preference and precedence above referred to, and who is made to assume in the chapters of the novel the name of Sanford, was the son of Rev. Jonathan Edwards, president of Princeton College, New Jersey. His maternal grandmother was Esther, the second daughter of the Rev. Solomon Stoddard, and sister to the paternal grandmother of Elizabeth Whitman, the wife of Rev. Samuel Whitman before mentioned. A Mr. Burt has by some been identified with this Sanford, the rival of Boyer, yet without the least pretension in history to authenticity. Nor can we place much reliance upon the letters here introduced as his in point of originality, as there is sufficient reason for believing that these are, for the most part, of the authors invention, founded upon the current reputation of his after years. And we may be happy in so considering them, since they would betray a character, even in earliest manhood, too depraved and debased for honorable mention, although his errors were no doubt altogether beyond the palliation of a womans pen. Yet we would fain look at him, in youth at least, as undebauched and uncorrupt, however stained may be the record of his manhood.
Between him and Elizabeth Whitman there was, notwithstanding, over all and under all, a close affinity of spirit; and there is no question, aside from the frailties and objections which the writer of the romance has introduced, that there was a marriage of the soul, superseding all after ties which worldliness and depravity might have consummated, that overshadows sin, and may not pass into our reckoning. Not only such a marriage, but one, though secret, actually sanctioned by the laws of the land, she is known to have declared a fact previous to her death.
Question this who may, that deep down under the impulses of surging passion there existed a purer and holier affection for her, is in history sufficiently clear. They had been set in family connection, intimate by kin, intimate in earliest life by every outward tie, and especially intimate by the subtile affinities of their spiritual natures. Yet he who can, under any circumstances, entreat the love of woman, and then take advantage of her weakness or her confidence, is an anomaly in nature, and should have a special judiciary here and in heaven.
Since so much of the romance here following is truth, veritable truth, it is to be regretted that any error of historical character was suffered to assume importance in the narrative. Yet this is so often the case in works of this kind, that it is not remarkable here. More surprising is it that truth was so carefully and conscientiously guarded and preserved.
In conflicting statements, it is difficult to determine the precise year of the marriage of Mr. Edwards, whether before or after the death of Eliza Wharton, although it may have been long before, even as one of his biographers has it, and that recklessness and extravagance may have lifted him to a too fearful height from the calm Eden of love and honor, till he at length compromised the influence of both to baser avarice.
That he married Frances Ogden, of Elizabethtown, New Jersey, for his first wife, is the fact, and the date given is 1769. Yet the ciphers may be questioned, I think, as it would make him but nineteen years of age at the time of the event, besides other considerations which make it appear more doubtful still.
He was, however, as has been already stated, the eleventh and youngest child of Rev. Jonathan Edwards, and was born in Northampton, Massachusetts, Sabbath. His biographer has been particularly faithful in thus recording it, as if the hallowed influences of the Sabbath upon birth have a bearing on subsequent life, and were in his case either strikingly marked or missed. He was born, then, Sabbath, April 8, 1750, and was cousin, in good or evil, to the notorious Aaron Burr. He was also brother to Rev. Jonathan Edwards, president of Union College.
His mother, Sarah Pierrepont, was of aristocratic origin, and the daughter of Rev. James Pierrepont, and granddaughter of John Pierrepont, of Roxbury, from whom descended Rev. John Pierpont, the celebrated poet and divine of our own time. The Pierrepont family was a branch of the family of the Duke of Kingston, (Pierrepont being the family name;) and the mother of Mr. Edwards was thus cousin-german to Mary Pierrepont, (Lady Mary Wortley Montague).
Through his whole ancestral line we trace the laying on of hands in the most conspicuous as in the divinest order; and thus might he be truly called a child of prayer and consecration. What pity that his biographer should have been compelled to record, The most remarkable feature of his character was his unbridled licentiousness! But we cannot drop the curtain here. We would relieve the picture by this somewhat lighter shade. His intellectual energies were gigantic. As a pleader and a determined and artful advocate, he had few equals. Hence, as a lawyer, he scarcely ever lost a case in his whole practice. An amusing anecdote is related of him in his professional career. In an insurance case, the evidence of which was strongly against him, he went in disguise to New London, where the witnesses, mostly sailors, resided. In a loafer-like swagger he proposed and secured bets from every material evidence in the case, and thus disqualified them from bearing testimony, on the ground that they were interested witnesses. In his old age he married his housekeeper, and closed an eventful and unblessed life at Bridgeport, April 14, 1826. Tis well to memorize him here, and thus register birth and death on the very page that records the most mysterious chapter of his history.
Let us return to unite and conclude our story. In June, 1788, a female of uncommon beauty of person, yet with an oppressed and melancholy bearing, suddenly appeared at the old Bell Tavern in Danvers, Massachusetts, (a drawing of which is here introduced.) She was habited in black, and was seldom seen abroad, never except alone, and at twilight, when she was observed to wander as far as the old burying ground hard by, and there to pause at its entrance, gazing long and earnestly upon its silent, scattered mounds, at length retracing her steps with the same melancholy gait and air.
Here she remained nearly a month, discovering to none her real name or situation. She passed her time in writing, and occasionally playing upon a guitar, which was the only companion of her solitude. After remaining there about two weeks a chaise was seen to pause before the door, upon the lintel of which had secretly been traced in chalk, as it afterwards appeared, the letters E. W. A gentleman hastily alighted, and was also observed through the darkness of the evening to examine the casing of the door, and then return to the chaise and drive rapidly away.
The opinion was, by those who were cognizant of the fact, that this was a secret, preconcerted sign by which the lover should recognize the place of her retreat; and being too faintly drawn, through the darkness of the night he failed to discover the characters.
This stranger had, in her peculiar situation, tenderly won upon the sympathies of a few kind-hearted individuals who had made their way to her, one of whom, a Mrs. Southwick, lived directly opposite the Bell Tavern. These were with her in her last great agony, in which all sense of guilt was lost in pity. Mrs. S. has related that no word of complaint or accusation was heard to fall from her lips, while the spirit seemed brightening with an unearthly hope, till what was charming in life was indescribably lovely in death. Thus they laid the beautiful stranger in the saintly robes of the sepulchre without censure and without accusation, not knowing how painfully she was mourned and missed, as a star shut out of vision by clouds and storm, in the home of her childhood and in the heart of a widowed mother.
She had passed under the assumed name of Walker while at the Bell Tavern of Danvers, and her wardrobe was found marked with the corresponding initials, E. W., although applying to her real name as well. These facts, in connection with her death, were immediately published in the Boston and Salem journals, and her friends advertised to appear; and thus were her real name and place of residence elicited.
A short time afterwards, and a stranger came and caused to be erected in the old burying ground in Danvers, on the spot where she was interred, two gray stones, after the manner of Ossian, with the touching inscription which this volume records; and the feet of strangers, moved by pity and humanity, have worn a path to her grave which he who covets most in the worlds memory might even envy.
The tombstones (which the fathers of that ancient town should shame to have recorded) have been battered and broken for relics, till much of the inscription is gone already, and the footstone entirely removed.
But I have noted that Elizabeth Whitman was of superior merit, and had been recognized as a child of genius in its most earnest sense. From her earliest childhood she had been remarkable for a deeply poetic temperament, and it appears she was recognized as a poet of no common order by the most distinguished writers of the dayBarlow, Trumbull, and others. Why her name and writings have not been handed down to us by those who have essayed to make careful compilations of the literature of the past century, I am unable to divine. She was a relative as well of the last-named poet, Trumbull, on the side of his mother, who was Sarah Whitman, a sister of Rev. Elnathan Whitman, the father of Elizabeth.
Among her papers, also, after her decease, was found a pastoral on Disappointment, which here follows, evidently written during her seclusion in Danvers, with this brief and pathetic letter in stenographic characters:
Must I die alone? Shall I never see you more? I know that you will come; but you will come too late. This is, I fear, my last ability. Tears fall so fast I know not how to write. Why did you leave me in such distress? But I will not reproach you. All that was dear I forsook for you, but do not regret it. May God forgive in both what was amiss. When I go from here, I will leave you some way to find me. If I die, will you come and drop a tear over my grave?
Still another poem, of more genuine beauty and strength than either of these, has been preserved in her own handwriting, which I doubt not the reader will thank me for introducing here, although it bears more of recrimination than the others.
These are but the fragmentary proofs of her poetic ability; still they are the most that have been preserved bearing full authenticity; yet these betray a skilful and accustomed pen, though stamped with the bitterness of woe.
Here, then, we will take up the idea which we left several pages back, in order to introduce a quotation from a volume of singular power in behalf of those thus gifted, who are every where looked upon with some degree of suspicion at least, as I find our heroine was even long before she wandered from the path of virtue. I quote it only to soften the harsher judgment of the world, ever eager to condemn what it cannot comprehend; yet must it by no means be made to apologize for any sin.
While I am willing to be known as believing that genius can be governed by no conventional laws, but is ever a law unto itself, I am also in the full belief of the independent moral power of every individual to regulate his own acts according to the purest code of morality. But to the quotation, which, with the above remarks, the reader would find pertinent to time and place had he turned over the historical pages having a bearing on this romance which I have.
The strong seductions and fierce trials of the heart of genius who shall estimate? * * * What does an ordinary mind know of the inner storm and whirlwind, as it were, of restlessness; the craving after excitement and high action; the inability to calm the breast and repose in fixity; the wild beatings and widowed longings after sympathy? * * * It is the severe lot of genius that its blessedness should be its bane; that that wherein its heavenly franchise gives it to excel mankind is the point wherein it should be cursed above its brethren!
Not many years ago the Bell Tavern, as it was ever named, was razed to its foundation, and a new building erected on the spot where it stood. At this time a pleasant jeu desprit from the humorous and ready penwhich has failed not to make its mark in the worldof Fitch Poole, Esq., of Danvers, was published, which gained a wide credence in its authenticity. This curious witticism affected to have discovered in the wall of the room which Eliza Wharton occupied an original letter from her to Mr. Edwards, dated May, 1778, besides various articles of her wearing apparel, such as slippers, &c., and also her guitar, all of which had been concealed in the ceiling since the sad close of her history. Numbers flocked to see them; but, as it was a mere pleasantry, the hoax was well received, and ended in the neighborhood of Danvers with the privileged April fools day of its date, although it may even yet have believers in distant places.
Thus, kind reader, have I accomplished the task assigned me with fidelity to truth and to humanity, and here lay the offering on the altar of universal love without excuse.
JANE E. LOCKE.
NOTE.For important facts which have greatly aided me in preparing this prefatory chapter I am much indebted, as I would here gratefully acknowledge, to Ezekiel White, Esq., of Easthampton, and Mrs. H. V. Cheney, of Montreal.
Note 1. John Whitman, whose father was brother to the grandfather of Eliza Wharton, married a daughter of Rev. Mr. Foster, of Stafford, Connecticut, who afterwards settled in Stow, Massachusetts, and who was father of Rev. John Foster, of Brighton, Massachusetts, the husband of the author of this book. [back]