Friday, February 28, 2003

The Weaker Vessel by Antonia Fraser

This is the third book by Fraser which I've read. There was The Warrior Queens, a survey of female martial leaders throughout world history, and there was Mary, Queen of Scots, an account of the doomed queen's life and world. The former had the virtue of being, at bottom, a collection of adventure stories, and the latter was about one of the most interesting women in history. The Weaker Vessel doesn't have those things going for it, which doesn't mean it's a bad book. It's a very good book, for anyone who wants to know more about the lives of women in 17th-century England. But it's not as readable as the aforementioned volumes, as it has more of the flavor of a textbook. There are many fascinating stories here, but since it is a survey of the typical Englishwoman in the 1600's, there are also some which are more mundane. The subjects range from high-class to low, or as the subtitle of the book says, "heiresses and dairymaids, holy women and prostitutes, criminals and educators, widows and witches, midwives and mothers, heroines, courtesans, prophetesses, businesswoman, ladies of the court, and that new breed, the actress."

Through the breadth of Fraser's research, it becomes very clear that being a woman at this time and place was not particularly pleasant. An independent woman was an extremely rare thing, as well as being suspect by society at large. An aged woman living alone was even more suspect, and if she was ill-tempered, superstitious or losing her faculties she was likely to be taken for a witch. In Protestand England a well-born woman who wished to avoid marriage did not even have the option of entering a convent, where she might receive, at least, the education which was denied to the vast majority of her sex. And even a woman whose only desire was to marry and bear children was not assured of happiness, childbirth being perilous for child and mother both. Still, Fraser finds heroic women in all sectors of society, from wives who defended their husband's properties during the Civil War to reformists who were imprisoned for their political and religious ideals. And there is humor here as well, in the ridiculous pursuits of wealthy young widows by indigent nobles, or the pursuit of actresses and courtesans by wealthy nobles.

Overall, a well-researched and interesting book, if not a page-turner. Recommended for Fraser fans or anyone interested in English or feminist history.


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