THE WEAKER VESSEL by Antonia Fraser
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A panorama of 17th-century English womanhood, presented with Fraser's usual taste for passion and pageantry, and a degree of balance between the higher and lower orders. Centrally, she succeeds in showing how the ideology of woman as the weaker vessel was belied by women rising to the personal challenges created by the English Civil War, the Great Plague, and the fire of London, quite apart from the risks of repeated pregnancies, then believed to be women's normal state. While Elizabeth I reigned, it was not good form to emphasize woman's weakness; but once she was dead (1603), women were valued chiefly for the wealth they could bring to a marriage. ""In an age before the English had properly discovered the rumbustious sport of fox-hunting, heiresses were hunted as though they were animals of prey."" Affection was suspect, though even the well-born sometimes succumbed. The lower classes may have been freer to choose, Fraser suggests, if simply because less was at stake. During the Civil War, however, women became defenders of castles, disguised comrades-in-arms (""she-soldiers""), and solicitors on behalf of husband and family. They made demands, subsequently, on Cromwell's Commonwealth; but only the small sect of Diggers proposed such radical changes as giving women equal right to choose whom to marry (""for we are all of one blood, mankind, and for portion, the Common Storehouses are every man and maid portion, as free to one as to another""). With the Restoration, many of women's opportunities for independent action vanished; life became ""a continual labor""; and it was harder to find a husband. From displays of bravery, women were reduced to displays of accomplishment. ""So the girls tripped in dainty slippers down the ornamental paths of their education; so very different from the demanding courses of classics and grammar set for their brothers."" Some became gentlewomen, some ""petticoat authors,"" and some courtesans--""wanton and free."" In sum, Fraser believes that women's status rose during the middle decades of upheaval, only to fall as the Restoration took hold. ""Women in the seventeenth century were as they had always been, strong vessels where they had the opportunity. . . where a particular combination of character and circumstance enabled them to be so."" Vivid personalities, powerful circumstances, told with drama and bite.

Pub Date: Sept. 18th, 1984
Publisher: Knopf