I found this novel of Elizabeth Winthrop Feake Haskell to be absorbing and educational. I was very surprised to find that my knowledge of American History (that I always prided myself on being ‘up on’), was not as deep as I originally thought!
Several authors of historical fiction like to take the position that women fought against the mores and strictures of their times. Seton is one of them, in sculpting Bess Winthrop’s character. At times I have to confess I found the over-emphasis on Bess’s independent spirit a bit frustrating. (Life in itself can be frustrating; however, I do wonder if women, rather than living in constant regret, merely accepted the traditions of the society they lived in… because, that was all they knew?)
Bess Winthrop’s world changed dramatically with the scenery though, as she migrated to a New World. I wish the author had written more about the challenges the English faced with the changes they had to deal with in their new lives. Just trying to live with so few products available to them in the wilderness must have been a daily frustration in itself! The dangerous voyage across a vast ocean in a vessel of those times, took great courage:
“The poundings and crashings and terrifying lurches resumed. Though protected by horn frames, the candles fluttered wildly and went out. In darkness and silence now their bodies were rolled or pitched about in the saloon. Sea and rain water deluged them through a dozen leaks. Time blurred and stopped. In Elizabeth’s mind ran strange fancies. She thought of her packets of seeds lying patiently in the hold wishful of turning into bright flowers in the new land. She saw them blooming as they would have been, the hollyhocks, the marigolds, the violets and wallflowers. How sad for them that they must lie forever barren at the bottom of the sea.”
Anya DID portray the dangers in the New World well, I felt, and the interactions between the Native Americans and the English and Dutch settlers. She wrote Bess Winthrop’s character as one of empathy with the Indians, and not vengeful or ready to take advantage of their ignorance of English customs, although Seton did not mince words when it came to portraying how the Indians were unfairly treated by other characters in the book.
The first half of the book was a bit slow-moving for me as Seton placed her characters with their setting and individual conflicts and motivations, to further her story….but once into it, I found it hard to put down! Apparently the author did a LOT of research.
Bess Winthrop’s life certainly was not an easy one. Her first husband dies, her second one lives for years haunted by an act he thinks he has committed (and it is never made clear whether or not that was true), and that leads to insanity. Bess eventually ends up with three husbands over the course of time and several children. Elizabeth is knowledgeable with herbs and their medicinal uses and is often called upon to bring solace and her medical skills to the community. She suffers the loss of a loved sister and child, the indignities of her property taken from her and having to flee from charges of witchcraft, the censures and controlling her marital choices from a strict relative (Governor John Winthrop), a husband who lives with insanity, and she suffers the lack of comforting relationships and has very few women friends (Anneke, a Dutch housewife, seems to become her best friend, closest to her except for her Indian maidservant).
There are religious disagreements and superstition within the settlement, and Anne Hutchinson’s character is sympathetically portrayed. “Cotton mounted the pulpit, and spreading wide his arms, looked down with deep sorrow at the congregation which gradually stilled. He prayed then, simply and fervently asking God to heal the breach between them….’
“One party, said Mr Cotton, his beautiful voice ringing to the rafters, “is but seeking to advance the grace of God within us, while the other seeks to advance the grace of God towards us, and so there is no need for conflict.”
So great was Mr. Cotton’s eloquence that they all filed out quietly, half convinced that the extraordinary scenes they had witnessed never happened, and even Elizabeth was under Cotton’s spell until the cold air cleared her wits and she thought with sudden revulsion, But what does all that really mean? And thought too that the grace of God, whatever that was, either inside or outside, had very little to do with the clashing anger of its proponents.”
Bess Winthrop loves to celebrate Christmas, something the strict Puritans of the day frowned upon. She is not afraid to question the religious views of her relatives, and that often gets her into trouble. Her character seems to be more of a contemporary one than one of the 17th century; however, Seton writes sympathetically and compassionately about Bess Winthrop, and I am challenged to now pick up more books about her and see if her portrayal of her character is accurate.