Foster’s tale was loosely based on the biography of Elizabeth Whitman (1752–88), whose death at 37 in a roadside tavern after giving birth to a stillborn child was widely publicized in the New England papers nine years before the novel’s publication. Like her fictional counterpart, Whitman was accomplished, vivacious, and widely admired. She is known to have been engaged to the Rev. Joseph Howe (prototype for Foster’s Rev. Hale), and then later to the Rev. Joseph Buckminster (fictionalized as Rev. Boyer), but she married neither. Whitman attracted the attention of the poet Joel Barlow (1754–1812), who wrote flirtatious letters to Whitman while also courting another woman, Ruth Baldwin, whom he eventually married.
Whitman, under the name “Mrs. Walker,” died at the Bell Tavern in Danvers, Massachusetts, after giving birth to a stillborn baby. Biographers are still not certain of the identity of her lover, who is referred to only as “Fidelio” in her letters. Her death notices, published in a variety of New England newspapers in 1788, quickly provoked moral lectures for young women. Whitman’s life was turned into a moral allegory, ministers and journalists blaming her demise on her reading of romance novels, which gave her improper ideas and turned her into a coquette. Foster responded with The Coquette, which offered a more sympathetic portrayal of Whitman and the restrictions placed on middle-class women in early American society.
The title page to The Coquette announces the tale as “A Novel Founded on Fact,” testifying both to the novel’s basis on newspaper accounts of Whitman’s death, as well as the prevailing suspicion of novelistic fiction in the early Republic as potentially corrupting, especially to the female mind. However, the novel can be argued to dignify Elizabeth’s character by playing down the sensationalism of the many newspaper accounts of her death, which Cathy N. Davidson has argued were “the stuff of good rumor, of gossip, of sentimental novels."
Elizabeth Whitman's grave, after her widely publicized death, became a tourist attraction in Peabody, Massachusetts where it still remains. The original tombstone has been chipped away by tourists seeking souvenirs. To the right of the remnants of this stone is a replication of the tombstone described in Foster's novel on which the inscription reads:
- This humble stone, in memory of ELIZABETH WHITMAN,
- Is inscribed by her weeping friends,
- To whom she endeared herself
- By uncommon tenderness and affection.
- Endowed with superior genius and accomplishments,
- She was still more distinguished by humility and benevolence.
- Let Candour throw a veil over her frailties,
- For great was her charity to others.
- She lived an example of calm resignation,
- And sustained the last painful scene,
- Far from every friend.
- Her departure was on the 25th of July, A.D. 1788.
- In the 37th year of her age;
- The tears of strangers watered her grave.
The new tombstone was erected in attempts to revive the community’s interest in the tale of Elizabeth Whitman and Foster's novel. It is now included on the Literacy Trail of Massachusetts. With the growing popularity of Foster's novel, the true Elizabeth Whitman and the fictional Eliza Wharton became melded into one and are barely differentiable by most readers today.