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Only Women

The Weaker Vessel

by Antonia Fraser
Knopf, 544 pp., $19.95

Women in English Society, 1500–1800

edited by Mary Prior
Methuen, 281 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Before beginning a discussion of the books under review, I must first set out the ten commandments which should, in my opinion, govern the writing of women’s history at any time and in any place:

  1. Thou shalt not write about women except in relation to men and children. Women are not a distinct caste, and their history is a story of complex interactions;

  2. Thou shalt strive not to distort the evidence and the conclusions to support modern feminist ideology: social change is by no means always the product of an activist minority, and all change is relative not absolute;

  3. Thou shalt not forget that in the past nearly all women paid at least lip service to the idea that they were in all respects inferior to men, as ordained by God. The only area in which they were thought to be clearly stronger was in their sexual voracity, their capacity to have multiple orgasms, but this was more a source of shame and temptation than of pride;

  4. Thou shalt not confuse prescriptive norms with social reality;

  5. Thou shalt exercise subtlety in recognizing diversity, ambivalence, and ambiguity concerning the relative strength of love, sex, money, birth, parental authority, and brute force in determining the choice of a spouse;

  6. Thou shalt not assume the ubiquity in the past of modern emotional patterns—neither premarital love, nor conjugal affection, nor maternal devotion to infants. Circumstances and culture are often stronger than natural instincts;

  7. Thou shalt not exaggerate the importance in the past of gender over that of power, status, and wealth, even if all women experienced the same biological destiny;

  8. Thou shalt not use the biographies of a handful of exceptional (usually upper-class) ladies to describe the experience of the majority of (necessarily lower-class) women;

  9. Thou shalt be clear about what constitutes real change in the experience and treatment of women;

  10. Thou shalt not omit to analyze with care the structural constraints on women created by values, religion, customs, laws, and the nature of the economy.

Antonia Fraser has already carved out for herself a distinguished place as the author of four royal, or quasi-royal (i.e., Cromwell), biographies in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, which have achieved the unusual feat of earning both popular acclaim and the respect of professional historians. Her work has been thorough and carefully researched, using all the available printed documents. It is also very well written and shows good judgment and a subtle appreciation of human psychology. Her high reputation as a biographer is well deserved.

She has now embarked on a social history of the lives of women in seventeenth-century England—“a study of woman’s lot.” This is a subject that demands a different methodology, not biography but close analysis, and a different subject matter, not elite, like queens, but ordinary women. But Antonia Fraser has made no such radical adjustments to her usual methods of work. Noting that her book is not intended as a “dictionary of female biography” and that she has “selected those characters who interested me,” she has produced a long and fascinating series of biographical vignettes of a number of exceptional, or exceptionally well-documented, women, almost all of them upper class and most of them aristocratic. Her subject matter is largely the tiny world of the court and its gossip mongers, and her approach is to tell a lot of potted biographies, ranging from two to ten pages each.1

Her book therefore raises in an acute form questions about the value of, and appropriate methodology for, the newly developing genre of microhistory. The intensive exploration of individual case studies—a practice borrowed by historians from anthropology—has already produced a few works of exceptional power, each of which has thrown a brilliant searchlight on a narrow sector of the generally dark and foggy landscape of the past. When handled by historians who are deeply immersed in the cultural, religious, social, political, and economic background of the time and place, the results can be stunning. Notable examples are Jonathan Spence’s The Death of Woman Wang, set in seventeenth-century China, Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms, set in early sixteenth-century northern Italy, and Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre, set in mid-sixteenth-century France.

But the extraordinary power of these case studies derives only partly from the intrinsic interest of the stories themselves or the rhetorical skill with which they are told, although both are important. The critical ingredient is the accumulated scholarly experience of the authors, which enables them to evaluate their material, set it in context, and tell us what it means. Antonia Fraser lacks this profound immersion in all aspects of seventeenth-century English history, and she attempts little in the way of interpretation. She selects a striking story, tells it extremely well, and then moves quickly on to the next.

The result makes absorbing but disjointed and episodic reading. Of my ten commandments, she has faithfully followed the first six, but almost entirely violated the last four. Antonia Fraser’s technique for examining women’s lot is to offer the reader twenty-two short chapters, each devoted to what some, mostly upper-class, women achieved or suffered in various roles: as rich young girls, the mercenary arranged marriages; as wives, the pains and perils of repeated child-birth; as rich widows, the pursuit by rapacious fortune-hunters; as poor old women, the accusations of witchcraft; as young girls, the denial of the scholarly education given to their brothers; as spinsters, a life almost outside the social system—Antonia Fraser thinks that life as a Catholic nun was probably preferable to that of a Protestant spinster.

The topics, all illuminated by a series of striking anecdotes of unusually fortunate or unfortunate women, take us up to 1640 and the outbreak of the revolution. There follow exciting chapters about heroic aristocratic ladies leading the defense of castles; women serving in the army as nurses or as transvestite male soldiers; rich ladies negotiating with the revolutionary government on behalf of their husbands; London women arranging political protests; and sectarian women preaching. For the period from 1660 to 1700, Antonia Fraser tells us about forced marriage for money; divorce; and education; then about female authors, high-class courtesans, actresses as sex objects, and midwives. The one chapter on women in business tells stories about peculiar upper-class women, like the Countess of Bristol, who received a royal license to import and sell wine; or Mrs. Pley, who supplied the Navy with canvas; or Cromwell’s granddaughter, Bridget Bendish, who operated a profitable saltworks—hardly typical of the lives of working women.

In the epilogue Antonia Fraser tells us sadly that in 1700 a woman’s lot was still very much what it was in 1600—“always the same.” Many of these vignettes are very revealing, especially of the way women took charge of troops and business affairs while their husbands were away at the wars. They performed—as usual—with great efficiency, only to retire once more to the drawing room and the bedroom when the men came home again.

But it has to be said, with regret, that despite her great descriptive talents, and despite her remarkable knowledge of the printed sources, Antonia Fraser has written a lively and very readable but fundamentally unsatisfactory book, distorted and intellectually rather shallow. In the first place, Lady Antonia’s preoccupation with the elite leads her to omit almost entirely the lives of the great majority of women who did not belong to the top I percent. She virtually ignores the lives of the middle class and the poor, and their deep involvement in productive labor for the family economy, although we already know that getting a living was their dominant preoccupation. As Joan Thirsk points out in her foreword to Women in English Society, in the country they were deeply involved in spinning, lace making, and other by-industries, as well as looking after the poultry, milking the cows, making and marketing butter and cheese, in addition to running the household. In towns, they served in the shop while their husbands were collecting their stock in trade, and they helped to supervise the apprentices as an extension of their household duties. They also, like their husbands, spent long hours in the alehouse, where there is no sign of sexual segregation in seventeenth-century England. This social mixing of the sexes shows up in English legal cases, even if for visual evidence we have to look at Dutch genre paintings of the period.

The daily round of hard work and exuberant relaxation of the average woman leaves hardly a trace on the pages of Antonia Fraser’s book. Even more troubling is her lack of interest in the structural constraints upon women. It is only at page 291 that the ignorant reader discovers that full divorce with remarriage was legally forbidden in England, alone among all Protestant countries, and even then he is not told why. What occurred, however, which Lady Antonia does not examine except in passing, was a huge number of desertions or private separations among the poor. These were followed by the formation of new households, either by the adoption of a mistress posing as a wife, or by a bigamous second marriage which was almost certain to pass undetected.

Another feature altogether peculiar to English life was the persistence of the medieval law by which a verbal marriage contract in the present tense before witnesses was legally binding, and enforceable in the courts. This greatly facilitated the abduction of heiresses and also the seduction of women on the basis of promises of marriage which, for lack of hard proof or unambiguous wording, turned out to be unenforceable. Antonia Fraser pays only passing attention to the loss of legal economic independence by most women upon marriage, so that years after separation their earnings and furniture were still the legal property of their husbands. In practice things did not usually work out as badly as this suggests, but if a marriage turned sour, the wife’s economic dependence upon her husband could be catastrophic. These are aspects of middle-class and low life which Antonia Fraser hardly mentions, absorbed as she is in dramatic stories of the abduction of heiresses and the pragmatic negotiations between greedy aristocratic parents over the financial details of a marriage settlement. Even there, she never clearly explains exactly what was a portion and what a jointure, or why the ratio between the two altered over time and with what consequences.

Finally, there is the question whether the book’s dismal conclusion—“always the same”—is really true. The answer is yes and no. Obviously nothing fundamental could change in women’s biological experience before the development of contraceptives, antibiotics, and anesthetics, and nothing in their power relations with men before a radical change in patriarchal values and laws. But to answer this question at a more sophisticated level we first have to break down the female population into at least three socio-economic categories, the elite of the rich and wellborn, the middling sort, and the mass of the poor, who still made up at least two-thirds of the population.

For the first group, things undoubtedly improved in some important ways. By 1700, unlike 1600, the brutality and ruthlessness with which parents disposed of daughters in marriage, in the exclusive interest of kin solidarity and aggrandizement, were no longer the norm. The Court of Wards, which had sold female orphans to the highest bidder, had been abolished. Antonia Fraser tells the story of Sir Edward Coke, who was said to have tied his daughter to a bedpost and whipped her into agreeing to marry an insane brother of the all-powerful Duke of Buckingham. Such episodes, however, had become a shocking rarity by 1700. Most wealthy parents by then had conceded the right of veto to their children, inspired by Protestant ideology about “holy matrimony” and the need for marital affection. The same ideology had penetrated the middling sort at least as early and possibly earlier, and freedom of choice based on affection and married love were being vigorously propounded by influential propagandists like Daniel Defoe in the 1690s. In the lower, propertyless, classes, young women had always been free to choose their own spouses. But the growing sexual freedom following the decline of Puritan morality not only led to a sharp rise in prenuptial pregnancies, but also to a rise of bastardy, with tragic consequences for the many abandoned mothers. Without contraception, sexual liberation was a positive disaster for some women.

Upper-class women were no longer encouraged to study the classics, and the learned lady became a figure of fun. To that extent there was perhaps a loss. But the level of articulate literacy continued to grow among upper-class women, as displayed in their spelling, grammar, and general facility in writing. For the middle classes, private boarding schools proliferated, and middle-class women provided a mass market for the rapidly growing volume of newspapers, novels, plays, and sermons. Even in the lower classes, female literacy grew steadily, from perhaps 10 percent in the 1640s to around 30 percent in 1700, so that here too there was marked improvement. In conditions of work and leisure nothing much changed. But the expansion of the national poor relief system, both in generosity of payments and in scale of operations, must have made all the difference between semistarvation and modest survival for hundreds of thousands of poor widows or destitute wives.

There were also important changes in law and custom that greatly improved the power of well-to-do women to control their own property. By 1700, most rich widows executed a trust to give themselves sole control of their property during a second marriage; the Court of Chancery, through case law, was providing better protection for women’s property in and out of marriage; the new strict settlements were giving young girls of elite families assured portions, enabling them to marry even without parental consent. The fact that a husband was legally responsible for his wife’s debts became much more important in the lives of middle- and lower-class women, as England became an increasingly commercial society, floating on a huge sea of unsecured credit. Finally, the decline of the belief in witches and the end of witch burnings relieved many poor and ugly old women of what before had been an ever-present terror. By and large, therefore, Lady Antonia’s conclusion, “always the same,” is not true. At all levels, most things were a little better for women in 1700 than they had been in 1600.

The book by Antonia Fraser could not be more different from the collection of essays edited by Mary Prior. The one is lively, entertaining, anecdotal, and not very thoughtful. The other is analytical, full of tables and graphs, serious and convincing in its conclusions, but a bit dogged and often dull. Unlike Antonia Fraser’s book, the collection sometimes breaks commandment number one. Each book thus provides an illuminating contrast and counterpoint to the other. Antonia Fraser has an anecdotal chapter on “petticoat-authors.” Patricia Crawford provides instead a checklist of all published writings by female authors in the seventeenth century, accompanied by a graph demonstrating a sudden rise in numbers in 1640 and a rough plateau thereafter, although she fails to provide figures for male and female publications together by which to check the significance of the jump. She also analyzes the obstacles to publishing by women, and their reasons for publishing. Antonia Fraser has another chapter on “the pain and the peril,” vividly describing the horrors of endless yearly childbirth. Dorothy McLaren provides a close statistical analysis demonstrating that the average woman had about six fairly widely spaced births, thanks to the contraceptive effects of prolonged lactation; and that even the rare ten or more childbirths were by no means as dangerous to the mother as we tend to assume. The one is a pleasure to read; the other is more informative.

Antonia Fraser has a chapter describing the ferocious hunt for rich widows, according to her a timeless activity. But Barbara J. Todd shows that in fact there was a dramatic decline in the seventeenth century of widows who married again, and offers some plausible reasons why. Where Fraser gives a fuller sense of what it was like to be an upper-class woman in the seventeenth century, the latter explains the whats, the whys, and the how many, and demonstrates change over time.

Mary Prior’s volume of essays contains an admirably wise and thoughtful foreword by Joan Thirsk about women’s history in general and its historiography in England, stressing the remarkable pioneer work of Alice Clark, first published as long ago as 1919 and reprinted in 1982.2 Alice Clark’s theme was how the lives of working women had been transformed by the shift of the female labor force from domestic industry in the home in the seventeenth century to the impersonal world of the factory in the late nineteenth, and the effects this had upon women’s lives and the structure of the family. Her conclusion, still not entirely overthrown, was that the early modern domestic industrial system increased the family income, enhanced the status and responsibility of women, and inspired them with the solid virtues of thrift and hard work, discipline and good business sense. As Joan Thirsk remarks, women inserted themselves into the interstices of the world of work, exercising remarkable resourcefulness, ingenuity, and adaptability in the process.

It must be said, however, that the essays assembled by Mary Prior do not make a coherent volume, despite the important original discoveries made by several of the contributors. The pieces simply do not hang together, since their only connecting thread is the tenuous one of the topic of women. Even Joan Thirsk’s foreword fails to provide cohesion and a theme. One learns much on a diversity of specific points from Mary Prior’s sober collection of essays, but gets greater aesthetic pleasure from Antonia Fraser’s bombardment of lively episodes. Neither provides the reader with a wholly satisfactory general account of the life of women in seventeenth-century England. Taken together, however, they provide a benchmark by which we, some three hundred years later, can measure our achievements to date in partially remedying an ancient and systematic injustice done to one half of the human race by the other half.


Women’s History May 30, 1985

Women’s History May 30, 1985

  1. 1

    For a detailed analysis of domestic relations in one elite family, based on manuscript sources, see Miriam Slater, Family Life in the Seventeenth Century: The Verneys of Claydon House (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984). I am unfortunately morally disqualified from including this book in this review since Professor Slater was my student.

  2. 2

    Alice Clark, Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (London: 1919, reprinted 1982 by Kelley).

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