*Tell us something surprising about women in 17th century England, where
your novel THE VANISHING POINT begins.
Our view of women’s history tends to be sadly distorted. Too often we rely on lazy stereotypes that women in the past were always completely helpless and disempowered, or we base our view of women in previous centuries on the Victorian model.
Women in the 17th century, in fact, were freer in many ways than their Victorian counterparts. Far from being dismissed as idle “angels of the home,” 17th century women played a crucial role in their family’s economy. Upper class women managed estates and supervised servants, while tradesmen’s wives often acted as business partners, even taking on the role of “deputy husband,” independently managing business affairs if their husbands were traveling or otherwise indisposed. Women were brewers, tavern-keepers, even itinerant preachers, not just wives, mothers, and homemakers.
Also, unlike the Victorians, people in Restoration era England were quite frank about sexuality—they would have held little regard for a frigid, sexless Victorian lady. On the contrary, men of science believed that female orgasm was essential for the conception of children.
*Your novel also takes places in America. How were women's lives different
in America than in England at that time?
The Thirteen Colonies were quite heterogeneous. Thus, women’s lives in Maryland and Virginia during this era were very different from those of their sisters in both Old and New England. The slave trade brought both malaria and yellow fever to the Chesapeake region, and the resulting mortality rate was so high that, until the end of the 17th century, immigration contributed more to the white population than live births. There was also a skewed gender balance—three white men for every white woman—and most of these women were indentured servants. Female mortality in childbirth was very high, families were fractured, and orphans were commonplace. Female servants were subject to sexual predation by their masters, who could use the servant’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy as an excuse to prolong her indenture. A harsh double-standard was in place. Whereas New England Puritan society at least attempted to enforce the same moral code on men and women, men of wealth in the Chesapeake region could do largely as they pleased, while adulteresses and unmarried women who bore bastards were punished by whippings and public humiliations. The scene in my novel where an adulteress is dragged behind a boat until she is nearly drowned is based on a documented event.
All the above problems were exacerbated by the fact that most people lived on far flung plantations; the social support networks that might have helped women back in England did not exist here.
*Often, historical fiction writers will choose to tell the story of an
extraordinary woman who defied the conventions of her time, like Hannah
Powers. In 17th century England, what was the *average* woman’s life like?
Married women spent most of their fertile years bearing and raising children, while, at the same time, contributing to their family economy by working on the farm or in the family business. The work-life balance is nothing new. Upper class women supervised, trained, and often disciplined their servants. The average woman took care of the medicine for her household as far as minor ailments were concerned. Most kitchen gardens contained medicinal herbs. The average woman was expected to help care for the sick and aged in her community and to attend childbirths even if she had borne no children herself. The average woman could expect to spend her few “leisure” hours spinning wool and flax to keep her family clothed. Thanks to the Protestant emphasis on Bible reading, most women of the middling and upper classes were literate and would teach their daughters to read and write, as well. Pamphlets were circulated, spreading new ideas. The 17th century was a period of profound social change and the average woman would have played some part in that rapidly changing society.
*In what ways are May and Hannah Powers not distinctive of their time (17th
century) and country (England)?
With May’s character I wanted to explore what would happen to a late 17th century woman who was determined to carve out her own destiny and who demanded the same liberties, both social and sexual, as a man. Her uncompromising will to live out her desires makes her a rebel, not only for her sexual passions but also for her lust for life. She is a woman who refuses to be ruled by anyone. She is definitely transgressive in the choices she makes.
Hannah, her younger sister, is very different. Her physician father has given her a secret and forbidden education in medicine and surgery, something she is not legally allowed to practice. Only by crossing the ocean to the frontier of an unknown world, can she hope to make use of her talents and live out her dreams.
I think it’s important to point out that, although Hannah and May are fictional characters, they are not anachronistic. The late 17th century certainly had its share of unconventional and adventurous women. A shining example is Nell Gywn, an illiterate orange girl who rose to become Charles II’s celebrated mistress. Every inch the commander of her own destiny, she was one of the first women to act on the stage in England. Aphra Behn is another huge idol of mine. She earned an independent living by writing plays and novels, and reputedly traveled to Surinam and later to Antwerp, where she worked as a spy for Charles II. Although she was briefly married, her husband remains an obscure footnote in her very colorful life.
*Are you working on another historical fiction novel, and if so, who will
be your protagonist?
The Art of Memory, my recently completed fourth novel, is a ghost story set in and around Manchester, England during the Industrial Revolution and the present day. The theme is that the past never dies—the souls lost in the tumult of historical progress continue to haunt and exert their influence on contemporary lives.
The heroine of the historical part of the novel is Annie, a girl whose father, an impoverished handloom weaver, dies in prison after taking part in the East Lancashire machine breaking riots of 1826. Though still a child, Annie has promised her father that she will do everything in her power to keep the surviving members of her family together. Working fourteen hours a day in a cotton mill, Annie must go to terrible lengths to fulfill her vow to her dead father.
Thank you Mary! And feel free to visit Mary Sharratt online for more information about her novel The Vanishing Point.