I recently caught up with Noelle Granger, author of the Rhe Brewster Mystery Series. Noelle has some great ideas for her first historical novel, based on the early Plimoth Colony. In the following guest post, Noelle talks about her idea and about the history of Pilgrim marriages.
As an author, I think you are always looking forward to the book you’re going to write next. A plan of mine for the next few years is to write my first historical novel. The subject of the book will be Mary Allerton, who came to the New World on the Mayflower when she was a child of four. She lived a long life, eighty years, and saw the many changes in the Plimoth Colony from the time of its establishment by the Pilgrims in 1620. This will be something new for me – not the research, because I do that for my mystery books – but writing about someone who lived nearly 400 years ago. There is no extant writing about the individual members of the original Plimoth Colony. We don’t know what they looked like or anything about their personalities; in most cases all we have is when and where they were born, when they died and the names of their children. We don’t even know exactly where they are buried, except somewhere on Burial Hill in Plymouth. This gives me great deal freedom and responsibility in terms of what I write, at the same time ensuring that the background is accurate and includes recorded historical events.
I want to make these freedom-seeking people real to my readers, with all their foibles and faults and strengths. They were so much more than just the cardboard cutout figures standing with Native Americans around tables laden with a harvest feast. To give you a taste of this, let me tell you something of what is known of the relationship between a Pilgrim husband and wife.
Male dominance was an accepted principle at the time. Public affairs were not open to women and only males were eligible to become “freemen.” Furthermore, women could be regarded with a kind of suspicion, solely because of their sex. Recall that both Old and New World witches were mainly women, and there were two allegations of witchcraft in records of the colony. Nevertheless, Plimoth’s first pastor, John Robinson, preached that women should not be regarded as necessary evils, but a wife should have the proper attitude toward her husband of “reverend subjugation.” It is interesting there is no evidence of habitual deference of one spouse to another, and I suspect that Pilgrim marriages were much more egalitarian than you might think.
A wife was largely subsumed under the legal personality of her husband, and by British common law could not own property, make contracts or sue for damages on her own. In Plimoth, however, a man was required to provide for his wife in his will, and in some cases, women could make a contract, such as that between a widow and her new husband with regard to the disposition of their respective properties. In some cases, women were allowed to separate from their husbands and they could also be granted liquor licenses! Both spouses were involved in the transfer of land and in the “putting out” of children into foster care, a fairly common occurrence when to the benefit of the child and both the natural and foster parents.
Colony records show instances of domestic disputes. Husbands and wives were expected to live together on a regular basis and in relative peace and harmony. If that were not the case, public condemnation might occur, up to and including a whipping. Sometimes domestic bliss took a village.
A woman might divorce her husband if he was impotent, since it was necessary that a marriage produce children, but marriage was expected to be an exclusive sexual union. Adultery was considered a serious transgression, severe enough to permit divorce and public whipping. Interestingly, adultery only occurred between a married woman and a married man or a married woman and an unmarried man. When a married man engaged in a sexual relationship with an unmarried woman, it was not considered adultery!
I think trying to write about the early Plimoth Colony is going to be both a challenge and great fun, and I plan to post more vignettes from what I learn in the course of my research.
Looking forward to a novel set during this time – thanks Noelle! Be sure to visit Noelle’s blog at SaylingAway to learn more about her books and other projects.