Playing Preceptress – having fun during a pandemic with Hannah Webster Foster’s The Boarding School

Jonathan Beecher Field, Clemson University

I teach Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette whenever I can, because it is one of those 1790 epistolary novels that remains sadly relevant to the lives of my students. If you have not had the pleasure, it’s a novel about a young woman named Eliza Wharton. At the beginning of the novel, we learn that she had been affianced to an older clergyman named Mr. Haly, but he dies right before the novel opens. Eliza mourns Mr. Haly’s passing, but she does not regret the opportunity to entertain various overtures from various suitors, and to attend balls and enjoy the other pleasures of a young, white, and wealthy woman in 1790s New England.

Cover image for The Coquette and The Boarding School. A young woman looking bored, reclined on a couch.

Two suitors emerge. The first is Rev. Boyer, a minister bound to a post in rural western Massachusetts, and the kind of guy who uses verses from Thomson’s The Seasons to pitch woo. If you imagine a backwoods version of Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice, you are in the ballpark. The other is Col. Sanford, a dashing fellow, albeit one encumbered by a well-deserved reputation as a rake. Eliza’s chorus of dutiful friends exhort her to follow the path of reason, and a comfortable if dull life with Boyer, while Eliza herself is fascinated with the charms of Col. Sanford.

You will have to buy your own copy of the book to find out what happens next, but it is a novel that teaches like a dream. In the same way that some of us of a certain age can see things more clearly when we hold them away from ourselves, working through words like “rake” and “coquette” with students helps them see how these same ideas persist to this day, creating double standards and notions of sexual entitlement.

I have used the Broadview edition of this novel ever since it came out, primarily because of the robust annotations it has to the many references to eighteenth-century English polite letters that lard its pages. As editors, Jennifer Desiderio and Anglea Vietto open up whole new worlds within this novel. I have to mention here that it is Cathy Davidson’s heroic scholarship on the early American novel that led to her Penguin edition of the novel, which was the first accessible contemporary edition. I also treasure Brian Waterman’s Norton Critical Edition of the novel, but for the classroom, I prefer the Broadview.

Like the Norton, the Broadview also includes The Boarding School, Hannah Webster Foster’s followup to the enormously popular Coquette. In her second novel, Foster makes the somewhat unorthodox move of retaining the dreary chorus of Good Girls from the first novel, but does not come up with another volatile and conflicted protagonist.

Instead, The Boarding School is the story of a boarding school for young women called Harmony Grove. The first half of the book consists of Mrs. Williams, the preceptress of Harmony Grove, delivering a series of valedictory remarks to her charges on various topics. These lessons, on reading, writing and arithmetic, music and dancing, manners, dress, politeness, amusements, filial and fraternal affection, friendship, love and religion, take a form that is very similar to the Goofus and Gallant cartoons in Highlights Magazine. For reading, for example, we have the sad tale of Juliana, a wealthy young woman allowed to “indulge herself in the unlimited reading of novels,” which give her a distorted sense of what the world has to offer a girl like her, leading her to elope with a fortune hunter who absconds with her fortune. As a foil, we have Elvira, whose more judicious reading habits enable her to engage her husband with the “enlivening charms of rational and refined conversation.”

The second half of the novel consists of letters among the various alumnae of Harmony Grove as they make their way out into the world. This part of the novel operates very much in the same moral universe as The Coquette as the ladies of Harmony Grove share their own joys, and tales of woe from their less fortunate sisters. It is remarkable to see this representation of the tastes of young women in a new republic, perhaps most dramatically when Sophia Manchester writes to Maria Williams recounting a visit to a friend, Sylvia Star, whose brother, “Amnitor,” suggests novels by Laurence Sterne or Jonathan Swift to pass a rainy afternoon. The ladies reject these suggestions as unsuitably vulgar, and choose the Rev. Jeremy Belknap’s History of New Hampshire instead.

Perversely, I love The Boarding School maybe even more than The Coquette, but it can be hard to find room for it on a syllabus. At the same time, I feel bad making students buy a book if we only use half of it. This past fall for an honors lit survey, I hit on a solution of a bonus assignment based on a reading of The Boarding School. (My pandemic teaching strategy has involved a lot of chances for bonus work to make up for inevitable disruptions and malaise.)

Here is the bonus assignment:   

A ten-point bonus:

Read The Boarding School.

The first part of the book is a series of lessons where Mrs. Williams, the preceptress, instructs her pupils on various aspects of good conduct—the sections on reading, dress, and so forth. Your mission, if you choose to accept it: 

Write a lesson in the style of Mrs. Williams engaging a challenge that exists for young women now, but did not then. Social media, dating apps, or other challenges that you are much more aware of than I am.


Update one of Mrs. Williams’ lectures for a contemporary sensibility. What advice like this would you give now?

In either case, you should follow Mrs. Williams’ format of a brief lecture stating values, and then two anecdotes indicating the fates of women who do or do not follow Mrs. Williams’ sage advice. 

To my surprise, the assignment produced some of the best writing I saw all semester. Two students, Lauren Didelot and Emily Lay, were kind enough to let me share their work, and you can enjoy their lessons for yourself. Our class was in the fall of 2021, face-to-face but masked. On one level, I enjoyed reading these pieces because they helped me know who my students were. For reasons I am still trying to sort out, masked face-to-face felt much less intimate than the 20-21 academic year of Zoom classes. I am grateful that we did have a mask mandate in the fall (no longer, sadly), but it does make it hard to read the room.

On a broader pedagogical level, I loved reading these papers because the students entered into the spirit of Foster’s novels more energetically than usually happens with a more traditional assignment. (I have had to help revise the thesis that “The Coquette shows there is a double standard for women” more times than I can count.) Ms. Lay’s paper includes a note that she is satirizing the advice women like her get, and based on knowing Ms. Didelot, it’s safe to say that her paper is also tongue in cheek. At the same time, this not-really a novel from the Adams administration allowed both of them to engage with the vagaries of being alive and online in 2021.

Unfortunately, I don’t get to teach The Coquette this semester. I am trying to recapture some of the same energy with bonus assignments for my writing for electronic media class and my senior seminar organized around the idea of contested spaces. What I think made the Foster bonus fun for students to write and fun for me to read was that it allowed students to imagine themselves in a position of authority—in becoming Mrs. Williams, students get to be someone who gets to boss someone like them around. Among other things, the pandemic has made students feel even more powerless than usual, and playing preceptress is a nice change. This semester, for electronic media, I am asking students to write their own pitch guide, with a reflection; for contested spaces, I am asking students to design their ideal street using emoji, with a reflection. I am not sure how they will turn out, but I am looking forward to seeing them, which is not always the case with papers that need grading. I’m grateful that it was the Broadview Foster twofer that opened up this new approach to teaching during a pandemic.

Posted on April 26, 2022