Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Thursday, August 4, 2011

I take it all back

I take it all back.

Awhile ago, I posted something to the tune of, a historical novelist's job is so cool because, where a regular historian has to just shrug and say, "we don't know the details about this or that," a novelist can gleefully fill in the blanks about events or people in the past. And so -- here I am. Pen in hand, I prepare to fill in the blanks on Anne Bradstreet -- her marriage, perhaps, or her opinion about the other women around her. But then my inner historian starts screaming.


Historians record history -- sort of. We assemble whatever is left over from a life or a place or an era, and try to make a coherent whole out of it. We don't like to consider the possibility that much, too much, has been lost -- hidden, destroyed, or deemed not worth saving, Instead we build with what we have, hoping (but never sure) that it gives us a true picture. We make leaps to connect the dots, connect the spaces between firm evidence, but we try to leap cautiously. We back our extrapolations as well as we can -- with material evidence, logic, science, the cultural background -- so there is reason to suspect that This Is How It Was.

But we would never invent a girl's birthday. We'd never say her smallpox scars were on her cheeks and chin but not her forehead unless we knew. But if I'm going to write a novel about Anne, I have to do that, and it really bothers me -- or at least, it bothers my Inner Historian. And I have to go further. I have to (for instance) invent out of whole cloth her mother's personality, because we know almost nothing about her, except that she was a model wife and mother (yawn).

And I have to decide what her relationship with her father was. Likely he was one of her mentors in her craft as a poet, but Thomas Dudley was an irascible, difficult man as well. Was his relationship with his daughter a great exception in his life -- here he was nurturing? Or was their relationship more tumultuous? It's my call.

Folks, this is going to be hard for me. It's going to take grit to override my Inner Historian and fill in these blanks in ways that simply please, or that tell a better story. I feel like I'm not being true to History, or to Anne. But if I want to tell a story, instead of write a biography -- this is the task.


My work on Anne Bradstreet has slowed recently. I have been trying to get very familiar with Stuart England (or Early Modern England, as it is so poetically called), so I understand Anne's context. I've plowed through a couple of tomes, but wonder if I've learned anything useful to my purposes. My kids are home for the summer, and I'm teaching a couple of courses at a local university, which limits my time. My students don't realize that if they post a comment to this blog, I'll give them a few extra credit points.


  1. small rant: "model wife and mother (yawn)" Tut tut, Joyce, for shame! There are so many ways to do this, don't buy in to the cultural override of how boring it is to be a good wife & mother!!

    You are trying to do something very difficult. You may end up trying different personalities on Anne's mother, for example, and seeing which one feels most authentic. Most historical fiction for adults will have some disclaimer about stuff being made up, or a statement that all things in quotes are from original sources. Would that help your IH to maintain a higher sense of integrity?

    Do you give your friends extra points for posting?

  2. "except that she was a model wife and mother (yawn)" that right there could be a wonderful source of literary conflict between the precocious child who has such 'manly' inclinations and the female perfection that her mother represents. Not to mention a father who plays the daughter against the mother by teaching her the art of poetry and then maneuvers her into marrying his business partner to possibly solidify his economic interests? And how does this plucky girl manage to make the best of life? Sounds like a riveting story to me.

    You can wait to exercise your creative license and fill in the inventive details later when you are more confident in your story. Maybe your Inner Historian won't notice when you add a few embellishments onto a story that firmly rooted in historical fact.

  3. Susie: You're right, and "model wife and mother" is no small feat, and is not at all boring in real life. -- What I'm reacting to is that our greatest source of info about Anne's mom is the elegy Anne wrote about her at her death, which said what elegies almost always said in this era: she was industrious, kind, helpful to the poor and never missed church. So THAT kind of model wife and mother, the one that makes you say, "But who was she, really?" The other end of the spectrum would be Jo March from "Little Women," who ends up as a model wife and mother but is so wonderfully human that we really sympathize with her.

    And yes, friends who comment definitely get extra credit points!

  4. Maria: Really great idea. Thanks much!