Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812

How will historians learn about 'ordinary' life in 2010?  Much of what we know about daily life in earlier eras comes from letters and diaries.  We may write more e-mails than our great-grandparents wrote letters and perhaps there are more current bloggers than historical diarists, but will they be useful to 23rd Century historians?  Will my hotmail account be readable in 2150, and will anyone be able to sift through the spam and bacon and forwarded jokes to draw an accurate picture of my life?

Martha Ballard kept a diary, and from that we learn a lot more about Federalist New England than merely the business of birth.  An 18th Century midwife was part nurse, part doctor, part herbalist, and part mortician, responsible for preparing bodies for burial.  Additionally, during the peak years of Martha's career she and her teen aged daughters and niece wove lengths of fabric, supplementing her husband's income from surveying and their son's income as a miller.  We think of the 18th Century as a time when men earned income and women stayed home, but the hearth was vitally important to a family's economic survival.  The shillings Martha earned from delivering babies and the produce and meat given in exchange for fabric and nursing were vital to the family's economic survival, and when Martha's business declined due to her age and ill-health, her family encountered financial hardships including her husband's imprisonment for debt. 

Martha's diary also pokes a hole in the image of insular, self-sufficient, repressed, peaceful Puritans.  Hallowell, ME was a tight community as a matter of necessity, and young adults often spent a few months or years living in the home of a relative or family friend, and her diary contains several entries mentioning overnight guests.  38% of first children were conceived out of wedlock, and a midwife's job included questioning a laboring mother (under the assumption that the pain would act as a sort of truth serum).  We also learn of ordinary squabbles between neighbors over property and more serious conflicts over religion and politics.  Most shockingly, Martha's diary includes a mass murder - one of her neighbors killed his wife and five of his six children before killing himself.  

Future historians may have to deal with information overload when they try to reconstruct our society; we're lucky that diaries like Martha's somehow survived.  Her daughter Dolly Lambard apparently kept the diary, passing it to her daughters upon her 1861 death.  23 years later, Dolly's great-granddaughter Mary Hobart received the diary from her great-aunts upon her graduation from medical school, later explaining that "as the writer was a practicing physician, it seemed only fitting that the Ballard diary, so crowded with medical interest, should descend to her."  Who knows what would have happened to the roughly-bound volumes if the author's great-great-granddaughter had not become one of the first women licensed as a physician in Massachusetts and donated it to the Maine State Library.

Arabella: England's Lost Queen

I've read several Tudor/Stuart biographies, but I don't think I'd heard of Arabella Stuart until I wandered the aisles at Daedalus and picked up Sarah Gristwood's biography of her.   Arabella was the great-granddaughter of Margaret Tudor and the daughter of Lord Darnley's younger brother, making her Elizabeth I's first cousin twice removed and niece-by-marriage to Mary Queen of Scots.  (Royal family trees tended not to branch...)  Arabella spent most of her life as the centerpiece of various Catholic and Protestant plots to make her Elizabeth's successor and living in the shadow of her formidable grandmother, Bess of Hardwick.  Her one act of independence, an attempted escape from virtual house arrest to marry for love ended with her imprisonment in the Tower of London because her lover was William Seymour, great-grandson of Mary Tudor, grand-nephew of Lady Jane Grey, and an equally strong candidate for the throne.

Arabella's life was rather dull and spent mostly in the seclusion of semi-arrest, but Gristwood's book is not.  Like Alison Weir and Antonia Frasier, her crisp prose clarifies the convoluted political machinations of the era and enlivens passages of dry diplomatic history.  Arabella herself doesn't come across as particularly sparkling character.  It's as if the Tudor brilliance diluted over the generations and left each successive woman with a claim to the throne as a slightly blurrier copy.  Elizabeth I was a brilliant woman with an incredible education, Mary Stuart was bright and educated to be a Queen Consort.  Their younger kinswoman Arabella comes across as bright but nothing special, indifferently educated, and somewhat stunted by her enforced seclusion.  She would have made a mediocre monarch at best, but Gristwood's biography is an enjoyable and enlightening read.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Friar's Bloodfeud

I'm not sure what to do about Michael Jecks.  His last few books have been disappointing, but I've got 7 unread installments in his Sir Baldwin de Funshill and Simon Puttock series sitting on my shelf, most of which I bought from with the exchange rate and international shipping fees you'd expect.  Maybe Jecks needs to slow down a bit (he releases a book every 9 or 10 months, where most authors wait a year or so between books), because the last two books I've read have felt rushed, with poorly integrated subplots.

Yes, it's still the Year of the Subplot in my personal library, and Jecks's editor should have removed the 40 pages or so devoted to Lady Jeanne's maid.  If Emma had been mentioned in earlier books, it was only in passing, and her only role here is to exasperate Baldwin.  

The main plot is a little tighter.  Two years before the novel opens, Simon's servant Hugh had married a young woman who'd been released from her vows as a nun.  Their hut is attacked and burned, apparently killing Hugh and his wife and son.  Baldwin and Simon travel to investigate the crime, and find that a wealthy young widow has been killed as well.  Both crimes turn out to be part of a property dispute which Baldwin and Simon solve while Baldwin's servant Edgar helps insure that justice is served.

I enjoyed A Friar's Bloodfeud more than I enjoyed The Butcher of St. Peter's, because the main plot was clearer and more engrossing and the characters better fleshed out.  Maybe Jecks is pulling out of his slump.  I hope so because I like Baldwin and Simon and wish Jecks would return to giving them stories worthy of their characters.

Monday, November 15, 2010

And Only to Deceive

I've been looking at Tasha Alexander's books for the past few years - she's shelved near Stephanie Barron - and they looked interesting.  They're also published in 'quality paperback' format, and I'm cheap, so I decided to pass until I found a used copy at The Book Corner.  It was a worthwhile investment, and I'll probably pick up the next books in the series the next time I'm in Borders.

Well-born widows had more freedom than most women in late Victorian England, so Emily Ashton almost felt lucky when her husband, Vicount Phillip Ashton, died while on safari a few months after they married.  As long as she followed the strict mourning rules of the era by withdrawing from society and wearing black, she (and not her husband or father) had control over her life and her property.  18 months after Philip's death, his best friend Colin Hargraves visits Emily and begins to tell her about Philip's interest in Greek and Roman antiquities.  Her interest piqued, Emily begins to study ancient art and, eventually Greek - studies which lead her to wonder if her husband was involved in art forgery.

Emily barely knew Philip when he died, but (against the advice of her friend Cecile, a Parisian grand dame) she's fallen in love with him through reading his journals.  This is how Alexander sets up the mystery, because if Emily didn't love Philip, she'd have no motivation to clear his name.  With the help of her Bryn Mawr-educated friend Margaret, Emily discovers the extent of the forgery scheme and aided by Cecile and her society friends, brings the forger to justice.

I feel like I've left a lot out of this review, but I don't want to give away the delicately balanced plot.  Alexander doesn't rely on coincidence, but she ties together the disparate threads of the plot in such a way that revealing almost any detail risks spoilers.  Perhaps the only plot point I can safely reveal is Renoir's presence as part of Cecile's circle of friends.  I'd seen an exhibit on Renoir's later period a few weeks before I read And Only to Deceive and was struck by how clearly Renoir loved women and everything about women.  Alexander must have seen the same thing because she portrays the artist as a man who appreciates the beauty of all women, and passionately loves his wife.  Reading the passages set in his studio felt like stepping into one of the paintings I'd seen at the PMA.