Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

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.


  1. Agreed! In a culture that has no understanding, let alone sympathy for the idea of purity, it would be very refreshing to have a story that lifted up purity as something beautiful and enjoyable.