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 …

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Letters

Women’s History May 30, 1985

Women’s History May 30, 1985