Hannah Foster: Brighton's
- Few local residents realize that number 10 Academy
Hill Road, just outside of Brighton Center, is a
major American literary landmark. Time has not been
kind to this ancient edifice, which once served as
the parsonage of Brighton's First Parish Church. Its
facade was long ago converted into a store front.
- What makes this building so important? Here, in
1797, Hannah Webster Foster, the wife of Brighton's
only minister, the Reverend John Foster, wrote a
pioneer American novel entitled, The Coquette, or
the History of Eliza Wharton.
- Not only was The Coquette the first novel ever
written by a native-born American woman, but its
publication caused a literary sensation.
- The Coquette was a thinly-veiled account
(employing fictitious names) of the seduction,
betrayal, and eventual death in childbirth of
Elizabeth Whitman, daughter of Reverend Elnathon
Whitman of Hartford, Connecticut (a distant relative
of Reverend John Foster). Her seducer, it was
generally believed, was Pierpont Edwards, son of the
great evangelical minister Jonathan Edwards, the
preacher who spearheaded the religious movement
known as the Great Awakening. The high reputation of
Pierpont's father, of course, added spice to the
Whitman scandal. Then, as now, scandal exerted a
powerful attraction upon the reading public.
- The Coquette was said to have been, next to the
Bible, the most popular reading material of early
19th century New England. A recent commentator tells
us that it was "one of the two best-selling American
novels of the 18th century." By 1840, it had
appeared in some thirty editions!
- But The Coquette was much more than a potboiler.
The work also had genuine literary merit. The editor
of its 1970 edition, William Osborne, noted that
"Mrs. Foster [gave] early American fiction an
interest it did not have before: a candid discussion
of a social problem and a sensible depiction of
character." Cathy N. Davidson, Professor of English
at Michigan State College, in her introduction to
the most recent (1986) edition of The Coquette,
added that it realistically examined the "perameters
of female powerlessness and female constraint" in
late 18th century American society.
- Recognizing the importance of the old Brighton
Parsonage to the literary history of Boston and the
nation, I recently petitioned the Bostonian
Society's Historical Markers Program asking that an
appropriate plaque be placed on the site. I am
pleased to report that the request has been
approved, and that the Bostonian Society will
shortly contact the owner for permission to install
an historical marker on 10 Academy hill Road.
- Hannah Webster Foster was born in Salisbury,
Massachusetts in 1758, the daughter of Grant
Webster, a well-to-do Boston merchant and
moneylender, and of Hannah Wainwright Webster. After
her mother's death in 1762, Hannah was sent to a
boarding school for several years, an experience
that formed the basis of her second novel, also
written at 10 Academy Hill Road, The Boarding
School, or, Lessons of a Preceptress to Her
Students, published in 1799.
- The great wealth of the Webster family is
evidenced by an advertisement her father ran in "The
Massachusetts Sun" in 1771, offering a wide
assortment of goods and property for sale, including
produce, ship supplies, several Boston tenements, a
country estate ten miles outside of the city, and a
Suffolk County lead mine. Hannah's brother, Redford
Webster, who made his own fortune in the drug
business, resided in the Clarke-Frankland mansion in
Boston's fashionable North Square. Only in the next
generation did the Webster family fall upon hard
times, when Redford's son, Dr. John Webster, was
judged guilty of the bludgeoning death of Dr. John
Parknam, and was sentenced to be hanged in the most
famous Boston murder trial of the 19th century.
- Hannah Webster married Reverend John Foster of
Brighton in 1785, a year after that recent Dartmouth
College graduate assumed the pulpit of Brighton's
First Parish Church.
- Reverend and Mrs. Foster occupied three Brighton
residences during their forty-four year marriage.
Their first home was the old Ebenezer Smith House at
15-17 Peaceable Street, a structure that still
stands, and is the oldest building in the Brighton
Center area. Originally the home of major Brighton
landowner Ebenezer Smith, it had also belonged to
the Winships from 1775 to 1780, at the time of their
founding of the Brighton Cattle Market.
- About 1790 the Foster's moved to the newly
constructed and much larger First Church Parsonage
at 10 Academy Hill Road, where Hannah was to write
her two novels in the 1797 to 1799 period. With the
publication of her second novel, Hannah's career as
a writer came to an abrupt end. Her time thereafter
was devoted to raising a large family and attending
to the myriad responsibilities of a minister's wife.
- Then, about 1810, John and Hannah built an
elaborate mansion on Foster Street (then called
Seaver Lane), probably with money inherited from her
father. This building stood on the site of the
Franciscan Sister's of Africa Convent, a location a
contemporary described as "overlooking scenery as
charming as in any part of Brighton."
- The Foster Mansion has been described as "a very
large square house which faced to the south, to the
front porch of which was added an ell used as a
library and a reception room. The hilly land east of
the house was terraced and the daughters became very
industrious in keeping the grounds well stocked with
flowering shrubs and plants." Another source noted
that it was "just the place for a minister to write
a sermon and romantic enough for a wife to write a
novel." While the bulk of the Foster Mansion was
taken down in 1848 to make way for another
structure, a portion of the old house still stands
across the road at 181 Foster Street.
- Hannah and John Foster had six children, three
sons and three daughters. Two of the daughters,
Hannah Foster Cheney and Elizabeth Foster Cushing,
followed in their mother's footsteps and became
- Prior to 1827, Reverend Foster presided over the
only church in Brighton. As wife of the town's sole
minister, and the daughter of an important Boston
merchant, Hannah became the acknowledged social
leader of the community. In her reminiscences of the
town in the 1820s, Mary Ann Kingsley Merwin
recounted the anxiety her parents felt at the
prospect of a visit by Reverend and Mrs. Foster to
their home on Washington Street in Brighton Center.
The Kingsleys were a week in preparing for this
signal event. Some sources contend that the
aristocratic Foster's had an exclusive attitude that
served to offend many of the town' residents.
- Whatever the case, it seems clear that Hannah
Foster took her social responsibilities quite
seriously. A history of the Massachusetts Federation
of Women's Clubs credits her with having founded in
the early 1800s, among the female member's of her
husband's Brighton Church, the first women's club in
- In 1827, a schism occurred in Brighton's First
Parish Church, when a breakaway group established
the Brighton Evangelical Congregational Society. A
short time later Reverend Foster, who was in his
sixties and in failing health, relinquished his
pulpit. After his death in 1829, Hannah moved to
Montreal to live with her daughter, Elizabeth Foster
Cushing, the wife of Dr. Frederick Cushing, who was
the physician at the Emigrant Hospital there. Hannah
Webster Foster, Brighton's pioneer novelist, died in
Montreal in 1840, at age 81.