Eliza Wharton writes to Lucy Freeman, saying she is happy to leave her parents' roof. She spent time caring for her betrothed, Mr. Haly, on his deathbed, and although she esteemed the man, she did not love him. She admires the way he gracefully bid goodbye to the world, and hopes she can learn something from his behavior. She now happily resides with good friends.
She continues in a new letter that she enjoys being with her friends after having been excluded from the world for some time now. She is thankful for Lucy's lecture not to be coquettish, but thinks even if she comes across that way, she is simply innocent and effusive.
She says that the other evening at Colonel Farington's she met a young man named Mr. Boyer, who is a minister. During the evening, Mrs. Laiton asked her about the newly deceased Mr. Haly, which made her mad since it did not seem appropriate. Mr. Boyer joined them in their walk and gave her his arm. It was a lovely evening.
Mr. Boyer writes to Mr. Selby about how he has met a lovely, fair, and admirable young woman named Eliza who currently resides with the Richmans. He speaks of how devoted she was to Mr. Haly. He also says he has not mentioned his attachment to her yet since she seems disinclined to entertain it, but he is very happy.
Eliza writes to Lucy about how, against her desires, she appears to have a serious lover in Mr. Boyer. She details his attentions to her and says he is agreeable, but she does not want to give up her newly gained freedom.
She writes again to Lucy and says she received a card this morning from a Major Sanford, who wished to take her to a ball at Mr. Atkins'. She thought she saw some disapproval flit across the faces of her friends but could not be sure. She is grateful for their kindness to her and hopes she can find out more about their reaction to Sanford's name.
Mr. Boyer writes to Mr. Selby, morose and disappointed. He believes his earlier hopes have been proven unfounded. He went to visit Eliza, but Major Sanford was already there. She came in and seemed unnerved, but managed to remain composed to both of them. He spoke later with the Richmans who tried to assure him Eliza did not know he was coming, and is a very delightful and amiable young woman. However, she seemed clearly taken by the Major. Mrs. Richman said outright that while the man's rank made him accepted in polite society, his manners and reputation left something to be desired. Mr. Boyer concludes that he is very piqued.
Peter Sanford writes to Mr. Charles Deighton that he has met a lovely young woman, who of late was attached to a dying man. He is amused to regard her as a coquette, and if this is confirmed, plans to "avenge my sex, by retaliating the mischiefs, she mediates against us" (18). He saw that the other man, Mr. Boyer, was better received by General Richman and his wife, but cares little.
Eliza writes to Lucy of the same encounter. She was embarrassed at first but recovered, while Mr. Boyer seemed disappointed in something. The ball was lovely and Major Sanford was quite attendant. The next day, though, Mrs. Richman told her that he lacks virtue. This surprised Eliza and she became confused at how to proceed.
In the next letter to Lucy she explains how Sanford came to visit her, and even though she was nervous about what her friend had said, she could not help but think of how agreeable, affectionate, and warm he was. Later she went to dine at the house of Mr. Laurence, who had one daughter, and encountered Major Sanford there as well. She finds him charming and pleasing.
Sanford writes to Charles and tells of how he managed to win Eliza over even though at first she seemed cool towards him. He too finds her charming, but says marriage is not part of his plan. He would only marry to secure fortune, and this girl cannot do that.
Eliza writes Lucy about how Mrs. Richman told her how pleased she would be if she gave Mr. Boyer her attention. Eliza wondered about marriage and friendship, and mused that marriage seemed to be the death knell of friendship. Mr. Boyer came by, and Eliza noticed how shy and reserved he was at first. He later relaxed and the two went for a walk. There he became more open about his interest in her, but she said she needed time to consider him and would relieve his mind soon. She asks for Lucy's advice.
Lucy writes to her, telling her friend she is nervous that she seems to prefer Major Sanford, who is clearly a rake. She encourages her unabashedly to favor Mr. Boyer, who will be a good husband to her. She tells Eliza to leave off her coquettish ways.
Eliza responds, saying how her friends too gave a long commendation of Mr. Boyer. She is hesitant, though, of forming a serious connection because she is just now participating in youth and freedom. She told that to her pursuer, and he said he understood and said he would wait for their connection to grow. After he left Mrs. Richman told Eliza how happy she was and that she should consider herself somewhat engaged to him. Eliza said she would not until it was an indissoluble knot.
Lucy writes back and congratulates her friend. She informs her that she also heard Major Sanford was looking at an estate nearby. People seem to be pleased, but she knows that he has a "vicious character" (31) and cannot be a member of respectable society. Eliza writes to Lucy that Mr. Boyer is setting out for his future residence and wants to write letters to her. She agreed. Major Sanford came in and this made the situation awkward. After the Major left, Mr. Boyer asked for more constancy, but she could give him none. She ends her letter saying what she cares about most right now is friendship, not marriage.
Mr. Boyer joyfully writes his friend that he has made addresses to Eliza. She does not possess the same ardor, though, which he hopes will appear.
Major Sanford writes his friend Charles and speaks of his intrigue with Eliza, but also his annoyance that she has another lover. He decides he will marry the daughter of Mr. Laurence, who will bring him a big fortune. She is not as appealing as Eliza but he can never risk a union with her. He still plans to carry on trying to make her love him though.
Eliza writes to Lucy of Major Sanford coming across her in one of her walks and confessing his ardor and affection. He was full of passion and she tried to dissuade him. She knew it was wrong but was charmed by him nonetheless. She told him of Mr. Boyer, and he listened but asked if he could still see her socially. She spoke some harsh words to him and he claimed that he might be imprudent but he is not malignant. He merely grew up in affluence and ease and was influenced by that state of affairs. He pressed her hand to his lips. General Richman was spotted at the same time, and their discourse was over. Mrs. Richman warned her about his behavior and his "insinuating attention" (38). She warned her of her own sincerity leading her astray. Eliza tells Lucy she might want to come home soon and rid herself of this man.
One of the important elements of the novel is its structure comprised of epistles or letters. Epistolary novels were very popular in the 18th century, especially due to Samuel Richardson’s two notable works, Clarissa (1749) and Pamela (1740). The first American novel written in the form was Fanny Brooke’s The History of Emily Montague (1769), and Foster’s Coquette followed thirty years later. An epistolary novel can heighten the sensation of realism, and provide great insights into the writer’s character, but it can also be limited because there is no authorial distance. The character of Eliza is indelibly influenced by the structure of the novel, and much ink has been spilled endeavoring to parse out her personality and the reality of events from her own words. Immediately apparent about Eliza is that she is happy to be free from her deathbed watch – her betrothed, Mr. Haly, has died, and she is happy to engage with the “gay world” (7). She writes to Lucy that she is aware she is often deemed coquettish, but assures her friend that she will not act like that, and that even if she does, such behaviors “are effusions of a youthful, and cheerful, mind” (7).
Right away, Foster begins to reveal Eliza’s character through the eyes of others. This is an important theme in the novel because Eliza is constantly watched, scrutinized, and judged. Initially, she receives glowing reviews. The enamored Mr. Boyer sees Eliza as polished, accomplished, and possessing excellent manners. Major Sanford identifies her as a coquette, although he claims to admire her manners as well. Her friends approve mightily when she begins to say that she might marry Mr. Boyer. However, their support for Eliza falters when it comes to her perceived and stated interest in Major Sanford. Mrs. Richman tells her to be wary of his “specious manners” (17) and that he is a “professed libertine” (20). She tells her that she should be wary of guarding her virtue and delicacy. Lucy also weighs in, gently admonishing Eliza for her “predilection for this Major Sanford… he is a rake, my dear friend” (26). She begins to offer her own advice as well, counseling her to marry a man of “sense and honor” (27), much, she implies, like her own fiancé.
Early on, the friendship between the women in the novel takes on great importance. Eliza is away from her mother, her father has died, and she is both physically and psychologically closer to her friends than anyone else. She is extremely confessional with Lucy and very open with the Richmans as well. She does not shy away from expressing her opinion that marriage can be the “tomb of friendship” (24) and “a very selfish state” (24). Marriage weakens friendships because people focus more on their spouses and families than their former friends. Later in the novel when Lucy gets married, Eliza praises her new husband and how perfect they are for each other, but she also says frankly that she could not be entirely happy about it and refused to express “the wishes of benevolence” (70).
Claire Pettengill's article on female friendship in the novel is very instructive. She begins by noting the "crucial role played by the tightly knit circle of women which supports, encourages, protects and provides for Eliza, even as it scolds and criticizes her." Social historians have convincingly documented how a female network of sisters and friends was important to American women in the post-revolutionary period. These women turned to each other for a shared sense of value, a support network, and establishment of identity. Such a network holds overwhelming importance, but can also experience a natural breakdown, such as when members marry, have children, or even "fall prey to seduction." Eliza's friends openly criticize her thoughts and actions, "almost always using true friendship to justify (and to soften) their words." They demand she tell them all she is doing, but they do not reciprocate. Eliza does not demand a detailed account of their own lives, and besides "platitudes about their happiness," they do not provide them. Mrs. Richman and Lucy, furthermore, are steps beyond Eliza in her journey. Julia is single, but much more moralizing than Eliza. Eliza needs her friends' support, especially as the novel progresses and her trouble deepens, but those friends cannot give her what she needs. Pettengill concludes her article by noting, "Both enabling and constraining, warm and 'disinterested,' the female circle...serves a relentlessly contradictory function, reflecting the striking cultural ambivalence about rapid economic and social change that was manifested in and reproduced through separate sphere ideology."