The Winthrop Woman, Anya Seton, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1958, 586 pp
The #8 top bestseller of 1958 was another door stopper but also an excellent piece of historical fiction. It made my list of Best Books Read in 2010. Elizabeth Fones, the woman of the title, was the niece of John Winthrop who became the first governor of Massachusetts in 1630. Elizabeth married her cousin Henry, one of John Winthrop's many sons, although she was really in love with John Jr. All of these characters actually existed and I saw that the plots of romance novels are truly drawn from real life.
The book follows Elizabeth's life from age seven in 1617 England to her third marriage in 1655. She was a strong willed, beautiful and sturdy woman. Strong willed women were not in demand in those Puritan times but sturdiness was a requirement for the first settlers in New England. Women were expected to exist in complete obedience and servitude to their husbands while having a new baby every year.
Anya Seton brings to life the harsh conditions, the Indian attacks and massacres, as well as the intense quarrels of various Puritan ministers and polticians. Though we now have material comfort, birth control and women's rights, the ridiculous power struggles of life and the slander of persons by rumor are unchanged. Whenever I start feeling too freaked out about the world going to hell, I read history and see that not much has changed in human relations, yet somehow we manage to muddle through.
Another key female character in The Winthrop Woman is Anne Hutchinson, who managed to have fifteen children while she wrote and spoke about true religious freedom. The Puritan ministers and leaders felt threatened by her views about faith and one's personal relation with God, envisioning their control over women slipping away. She was eventually banished to the wilderness and finally slaughtered by Indians.
Besides being a fine adventurous love story, The Winthrop Woman showed me how the Puritan beliefs and values set the tone for early American civilization and how these factors were the roots of many of our current views of life. I highly recommend it, especially for women. Because we may have come a long way, baby, but we are not there yet.
A couple days ago I read The Lace Reader, by Brunonia Barry, which takes place in contemporary Salem, MA, has witches and women who can "see" more than meets the eye, women who are harmed by men and women who save women from harm. I will review it soon, but it made me remember The Winthrop Woman.
(The Winthrop Woman is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)