I just read a book that confirmed something I have believed for a long time: nothing is private. This has been true for centuries, and it will continue to be true. The only time when privacy will become a virtue is when the need for privacy becomes greater than the need for gossip. This is seen in the novella The Coquette. Now, this book was written in 1797, but one could say that it was an early attempt at celebrity-gossip exposes. The book, which tells of an affair between a married man and a friendship-seeking woman, was based on the account of a real woman whose story made newspaper headlines. Despite such speculation, there is really very little that is truly known about the woman, Elizabeth Whitman. This is particularly telling, as the novel that this is based on goes quite deeply into the problems of Eliza and her surrounding friends and family, as if the author really knew the woman and her life circumstances. This seems to enhance the theme that gossip gives us the appearance of knowing people, even when (and especially when) this is not the case at all. Though we can know of incidents, knowing a person for who they are happens only through communication, and not through living vicariously in the lives of others. Yet, if others do not believe in this, then there can be no hope for moving forward.
Social progress is also highlighted in the novel. Being in the eighteenth-century, the idea of women’s rights is being revised, but has a long way to go. I found it informative to see how American women in this time period had the “choice” between two tragedies: either they could chose a life that society approved, but risk all of their happiness, or chose a life outside of the societal norm, and thus risk permanent expulsion from that society. It’s really a captivating decision to make and the way that author Hannah Foster writes helps to reveal the greater significance of the choice made and the consequences that come with either.
Pair This With: The 1966 film The Group. No, this is not an adaptation of The Coquette. This film takes place in 1930s America and follows a group of female friends (thus the title) who gradate college and go out into the world, hoping to make something of themselves and their dreams. There are themes of insanity, marriage, gossip, social status, secrets behind social status, and choices. Placing the telephone to good use, the friends live mostly vicariously through each other in a changing world. There are some moments of rather high melodrama, though they come in short enough bursts as to be forgiven. (Also, considering the time that this was released, melodrama was not as foreign of a concept as it is in movies today. Only a decade earlier, one could go to a movie and expect a “movie star” to act just like an over-the-top movie star, rather than the less-heightened way that “average” people on the street behaved). You must also forgive the editing, which is so ragged that it feels a bit like a home video where all segments have been tapped over each other. Yet, in some ways, this overlap is fitting to the story, as if to suggest all of the potential that the girls feel that they have. It is like all of their stories cannot fit into the screen, and so must bump against one another, despite all of the adversity that they are going to face.
Putting these two together should hopefully ask more extensive questions about women’s rights, how far we have come, and how far we have to go until all equals can be treated as equals.
*Image from moviepostershop.com.