Earlier in the year I reviewed Dr. Sara Read’s new book Maids, Wives, Widows: Exploring Early Modern Women’s Lives 1540-1740, and was engrossed by its scholarly and fascinating account of the realities of life in the period. Recently I asked her to share a bit more about the book, the process of writing it, and what she hoped readers would find in it.
Where did the impulse to write Maids, Wives, Widows come from?
In my academic research, I read the diaries, journals, letters, and medical casenotes of women throughout the early modern era. These are fascinating to me but only a very limited amount of the material is relevant to my projects. This means I’ve accrued lots of anecdotes, and interesting stories about early modern women’s lives that I wanted tell.
I had had a couple of magazine articles accepted for publication in history magazines and by this process got to know Jen Newby who is the author of Women’s Lives: Researching Women’s Social History 1800-1939 as well as being a commissioning editor for Pen and Sword Press at the time, and we discussed the possibility of me writing something similar about the women in my time period. We decided to change the emphasis from genealogy and social history to simply social history and Jen commissioned the book for Pen and Sword.
How does the book relate to your academic work and your other interests?
My PhD was an investigation of attitudes towards menstruation and female reproductive bleeding in early modern England. I have found that people are genuinely interested in this topic and want to know how women related to, and dealt with, their periods in the past. At conferences and talks people would regularly stay behind to talk about periods! So, while my PhD was revised and became an academic monograph called Menstruation and the Female Body in Early Modern England with Palgrave in 2013, the price and the academic style mean it isn’t as accessible to people outside academia as a book like Maids, Wives, Widows. It seemed obvious to me, then, that the new book should have a chapter on this topic – and other aspects of reproduction, such as childbirth itself and breastfeeding- as it is a subject which gets passed over in a line or two in most other accounts of early modern women’s lives. My hunch has been right too as it is the chapter I have received the most comments about.
More broadly the chapter on politics was enjoyable to write. While feminism wasn’t a concept which had any meaning at this time, there are plenty of examples of women standing up for themselves and claiming a right to be heard. One of my favourite tweets recently was from an undergraduate student who gave the book a shout out as being of a book for anyone who had an interest in feminism. She said she had no idea women could be so political then and showing this was one of my aims in writing the book.
Were you conscious of having to correct any mistaken ideas people have about the lives of women in this period?
I think this was one of the aims of the book really, although not so much as to correct mistaken ideas as much as to show the full range of lives women led then. Many people are surprised to learn that most women worked in paid employment then for example.
How did you choose which historical figures to write about?
My key interest is in everyday folk. I am less interested in kings and queens – although of course they are part of the story of the period and so do come up. For me the book was about exploring the lives of women I can most relate to: working mothers juggling home and family and other responsibilities. I wanted to know mundane but fascinating things such as what they liked to eat best, for example. One of the problems of researching from the distance of at least three centuries is that it does tend to be elite women who have left a written legacy. So naturally we have more access to the lives of people of this rank than others. These diaries, commonplace books, and collections of letters are very revealing though and describe attitudes to things such as child care. For instance, Brilliana, Lady Harley frets about what her son Ned is up to in Oxford where he is studying at university. She sends him parcels of homemade food because she wasn’t convinced the food in Oxford would be as good as that at home.
What was the most surprising character or incident you came across?
I think the women’s revolt of 1643 was a major one. Women were unimpressed by their government and the new civil war and so protested on the streets of London. This was not something I knew about before writing the book. I first read about it in the letters of Thomas Knyvett who was in London and wrote to his wife telling her all about it. The Knyvett letters are a joy, as although we only have his side of the exchange, they paint a vivid portrait of a seventeenth-century marriage. Thomas was sent on errands to find the latest fabrics and other items for his wife who was running their home in the country. He sometimes fell short and his wife’s frustration comes across, but on other times, she, like Brilliana Harley, sent up baskets of homemade food to her husband in London. Of course behind this is the reality that her life was in Norfolk and she very probably wished she could browse for material and new clothes for herself, but despite the evident frustrations with their separate lives the couple seemed to have a happy and companionate marriage.
What do you hope people will take away from the book?
That life in the seventeenth century was anything but dreary! This was a time of enormous social change and tensions, and women were at the heart of this too. But in amongst the more serious aspects of life in the past are stories of people being just as interested in ‘celebrity’ gossip from Court, of caring about the latest fashions in clothes, of wanting to get their hands on the latest novel, for example.
That while women had not got the same legal rights as men, on the whole, with notable exceptions, husbands and wives pulled together and worked as a team. Whether that was running a cottage business from home, or with the wife running the family home while the husband had to live apart for financial or perhaps crown or parliamentary business.
Maids, Wives, Widows: Exploring Early Modern Women’s Lives 1540-1740 is published by Pen and Sword Books.