Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Married and Puritan, Part 1

It seems funny to me now to think that when I started the Anne Bradstreet project, I didn't really want to get into gender issues. I knew that seventeenth-century puritans would have differing opinions than we moderns on the role of women, but I didn't want to focus on that. I just wanted to tell the puritan story through the lens of Anne Bradstreet. But, silly me; I chose Anne Bradstreet of all people, who offered a challenge to the gender roles of her day. Now, it was a muted challenge, but there it is, so I have to get into those pesky gender roles. Oh, well; it will make a better read if this ever becomes a book.

I've made a New Best Friend lately: William Gouge, a seventeenth-century preacher who wrote a long book called, Of Domesticall Duties. It's all about proper roles within the family: husband/wife, children/parents, masters/servants. It addresses issues like, what qualities make a good husband? How should a wife behave toward her husband? And so on. It was a blockbuster of the time; a sort of 1600s "Dr. Spock" book, I believe running through several editions. Mr. Gouge is nothing if not thorough; he goes point by point in laying out these relationships, and then takes on the "but what if" questions: But what if the husband is bad at business and the wife is really good at it -- can she step up and run the family business? He addresses hundreds of these "what if" scenarios.

Gouge is especially helpful in his counter-examples. For every instruction he gives a counter-example of how something should not be done. So for instance, after talking about how husbands should speak gently to their wives, he might say, the contrary example is that of many husbands, who rant and rave at their wives -- etc. And then historians like me can say, aha, the norm ("many husbands", says Gouge) was for husbands to yell at their wives.

So what is his advice in the marriage relationship? What advice would Anne have gotten as a young bride? By what standard was she expected to conduct herself? What messages would have been coming from the pulpit? Well, let's say off the bat that we are in the seventeenth century, and we must be in touch with that and not be shocked by that. Women are expected to obey their husbands, and husbands to rule over them. Oh, yes, I hear you moaning, and I am not listening, because if you want to read about female equality you are in the wrong century. You must leave at once.

For the questions we need to address is not ones like, "How unequal were women to men?" Answer: very unequal. "How much worse was it to be a woman in the seventeenth century than the 21st?" From the viewpoint of legal and political status: much worse. "What kinds of careers could a woman pursue?" None, mostly. But we know all that and we've known it for a long time. If we're going to hang out in the seventeenth century, we have to get to know the people and find out how it all really worked.

Wives must obey husbands: granted. But was there any nuance in that? Any exceptions? Was it all black and white -- "Obey me, ignorant corrupt woman!" or were there shades of grey? As it turns out, there were shades of grey, plenty of them. Oh, women were hindered by a myriad cultural and legal barriers, but they were not slaves or serfs. Domesticall Duties makes it clear that there were cracks in the wall of discrimination because real life demanded it, but also because the Bible would not have it any other way. I will talk about those cracks next time.

Monday, September 19, 2011

5 Groats a Day

I was planning to use this space to announce, triumphantly, that I was almost done with the England side of my research on my Anne Bradstreet project. Then I counted pages and rethought that.

My plan has been to research Anne's life on the other side of the Pond, sinking myself pretty thoroughly in the times and trials of Stuart England, and writing that story (at least in draft) before researching the New England side of things. In that way my process of writing will have some reflection of Anne's actual experience. She was an upper-class Englishwoman before she was ever a frontier housewife, and even though I know how her American story goes, I want to write as much as possible (and maybe it's not so possible) as if I don't.

I think I'm coming to an end of the scholarly books that I've decided to look into. I have four or five more on tap; some go very fast because they turn out to be too abstract for my purposes. Then there's a slew of magazine articles that I need to check out -- that will be a few afternoons at Northwestern University library. I also found a couple of books on everyday life in early modern England that are aimed at writers, including one entertainingly called, Shakespeare's London on 5 Groats a Day. And then there's the primary sources, such as Gouge's Domesticall Duties, all about the proper roles of household members. I also thought it would be good to read some Puritan sermons. So that turns out to be a lot.

I'm plowing through Gouge right now (he's on my iPod; thank you Kindle). The everyday-life books might be the most important at the moment; I think it might be best to stop and write about what I learn as I go along, to cement those details into my brain. Am I drowning myself in my own research? Am I falling into the Historians' Curse of over-researching everything and losing track of the story? Of course I don't think so, but what else whould I think?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Need a Bad Guy? Get a Puritan

I did a brief survey some time ago on historical fiction novels that feature puritans. The results were disappointing for someone who likes puritans: the majority of what's out there, it seems, is about witch trials. Well, it's a sexy topic, and a highly readable one. It hits a nerve in our society. There may have also been some novels featuring Anne Hutchinson, the woman who was put on trial for her non-orthodox beliefs and was thrown out of Massachusetts. But I was surprised that there did not seem to be any novels about early New England that did not trash the puritans.

I did pick up a romance called Wintercombe, set in the English Civil War -- and in England, not in America -- that I believe is on its way to featuring a love interest between a puritan woman and a royalist officer. They were on opposite sides of the fight, and are not getting along so well where I am in the story, so this should be pretty good. But in last night's read I was disappointed; the heroine, we learn, was abused by her horribly loveless puritan father, and has just decided that she is no puritan. This will clear the field for her attachment to the handsome officer . . . but I was hoping for a sympathetic portrayal of puritan life and spirituality, something in the way of how a nun's life was portrayed in the Dame Frevisse murder mysteries. No go.

I have often said to my students (jokingly, I thought) that I like the puritans because somebody has to. I guess I hit closer to the mark than I realized. Believe it or not, folks, they did not spend all of their time hassling heretics and burning witches. The faith they practiced, while often stern, was not barren of pleasure, comfort, or beauty.

The academic community "discovered" the puritans about eighty years ago, and a fair number of them wrote deeply and sensitively about them. That scholarly understanding apparently has made no impact at all on popular literature. It would be refreshing -- don't you think? -- to read a novel featuring puritans that showed them as something other than narrow and full of hate.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Writing Pains, Part I

This post moves away from the puritans and onto the process of writing. After all, the goal is to write about Anne Bradstreet as well as research her life, though (historian that I am) I could spend the rest of my sentient life researching. Research is fun.

Writing is work. I decided this week to give myself a simple task: describe the countryside of 17th-century southern Lincolnshire, where the story opens. I thought I'd start with a sunrise. Simple enough, eh? It's dark -- the sun comes up -- it reveals the countryside that I want to talk about. And since the countryside is marshy and flat, I decided on a nasty rainy day as a background.

So after another delightful hour of research (did you know that the average temperature in Lincolnshire at the height of summer is only 70? Or that polecats live in forests and not marshes?) I set about my task. And that's when I ran into trouble.

How many ways can you say, "It was dark out?"

It was dark out
Darkness covered the land
Black night ruled over all
The darkness was so thick that it . . . something something
Dark night still covered every stone and pool
It's night, d#*@it!
And on and on

OK, so there's a lot of ways to say, "It was dark out." But I want to say it in some way that is actually fun to read, does not sound like every other "It was dark out" that has been written since Gilgamesh was a pup, and doesn't sound like I'm working way too hard ("Velveteen darkness like a hand of death lay suffocatingly" blah blah).

And that's the problem with describing a sunrise. It is so common, and it is so commonly described in literature of all kinds. There are no surprises for the reader when you're on about a sunrise. Now, what the light reveals might be a surprise, but my lucky readers would be getting a swamp with a noisy moorhen, and that's about it. No body in the pool. No shifty-eyed stranger or preternaturally lovely girl.

I suppose that makes it a fairly decent writing exercise. And the purpose was to fix the setting in my own mind, not write the Great American Paragraph. But I found that it is much easier to write something like this blog than it is to write a believable, interesting sunrise.