Daughters of Misfortune
Coquetry is at core an issue of
consent, or the suspension of consent. In the seduction novels of the
1790s, and indeed, in the culture of the 1790s, a woman's refusal to
decide whether to accept or reject a suitor is a crime grave enough to
justify that woman's ruin. Eliza Wharton, the protagonist of Hannah
Foster Webster's The Coquette is the prototypical coquette:
desirable and intelligent, but reckless in her assertion of social
independence. Her eventual seducer, Peter Sanford, writes of Eliza:
I first saw her on a party of pleasure at Mr. Frazier's where we
walked, talked, sung, and danced together. I thought her cousin watched
her with a jealous eye; for she is, you must know, a prude; and
immaculate, more so than you or I must be the man who claims admission to
her society. But I fancy this young lady is a coquette; and if so, I
shall avenge my sex, by retaliating the mischiefs, she meditates against
us. Not that I have any ill designs; but only to play off her own
artillery, by using a little unmeaning gallantry. And let her beware of
the consequences. (Foster 118)
The identification of Eliza as a coquette clears the conscience of
her seducer. When her coquetry leaves her with no option but that offered
by Sanford, she suffers the consequences of consent even though her very
fault was nonconsensuality. "Sanford's campaign against Eliza is
novelistically and conventionally destined to succeed from the moment her
name is linked to the term coquette. For the point of anticoquetry
rhetoric, in either a feminist or patriarchalist agenda, is to bring women
to account--to bring the coquette to consequences" (Brown 640).
seducer is an incarnation of Satan, then the victim of his seduction,
a woman in league with Satan, is a witch (Reed 26). Even more witchlike
is a coquette. "The coquette appears in these novels as one of the modern
figures of sorcery. Despite the widely held belief that witches had been
expelled from the Age of Enlightenment and packed off far from the shores
of Reason along with their craft, the eighteenth-century novel brings the
sorceress back into our phantasms, back within the horizon of our desires.
Her secrets, her ability to hypnotize the other through her enticing
attire, her rites of initiation are all terrifying: once again, the witch
is back with her charms, potions and poisons" (Saint-Amand 5). The
implication of sorcery is just another way to deprive women of their
agency, since even the power of a witch derives from her connection with
Satan, a man. Freud felt that female seduction is an extension of
penis-envy, or a compensation for female sexual inferiority, or "genital
monstrosity" (Saint-Amand, 19).
Anticoquetry rhetoric is often political. Gillian Brown points
out two opposite readings of The Coquette. Mary Wollstonecraft
identified the coquette with Marie Antoinette and "the corrupt economic
and sexual practices of monarchy" (Brown 633). In this light, the suitor
who evades the charms of a coquette is like a revolutionary. On the other
hand, Eliza's "characterization of the change in her situation as a
movement from subordination to freedom conspicuously echoes the rhetoric
of filialism--the rights of each new generation over the claims of
hereditary authority embodied in monarchy--that figured so urgently in
American revolutionary polemics" (Brown 636). So the coquette, as well
as the suitor who escapes her, can be a revolutionary character.
1790s feminist Catherine Macaulay claimed that social equality
would eliminate coquetry (Brown 632). Her assertion is yet to be tested.
Libertine's Progress: Seduction in the Eighteenth-Century
French Novel. Hanover: Brown University Press, 1994.
Coquetry, and Consequences." American Literary
History 9.0 (1997), 625-652.
- Foster, Hannah Webster. The Coquette. In The Power of
Sympathy and The Coquette. Ed. Carla Mulford. New York: Penguin, 1996.
and their Victims in British Fiction. Lexington (KY):
The University Press of Kentucky, 1988.