HEN FRIGATES by Joan Druett


Wives of Merchant Captains Under Sail
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An engaging portrait of shipboard (and portside) life for women sailing with their husbands during the 19th century, from maritime historian and novelist Druett (Abigail, 1988). During the age of sail, American captains, and sometimes their first mates, were permitted to take their wives with them as they plied the coastal trade or struck out on trading voyages. The women were clearly a literate bunch, for they left behind a wealth of diaries and letters and journals, often dryly humorous and witty, that Druett gathered to fashion this evocation. Using extensive quotations from her sources, Druett describes what it was like to be the mistress on everything from schooners to downeasters to the tony packet ships; how the women contended with frights, privation, storms, monotony, and seasickness (or, as one woman termed it, “paying homage to Neptune”); their experiences with pirates and cholera and mutiny. Many of the women made this their life, extending decades beyond the traditional honeymoon voyage (which was likely obligatory, as the family capital was the ship and there was no house to wait in), and they had to learn everything from medicine to navigation to raising a brood on a rocking boat to learning how to survive in a foreign port. Throughout, Druett keeps readers’ attention by moving swiftly from episodes of intense excitement—menacing weather, dastardly crews, extreme heroics—to leisurely, droll observations, many of the best coming in the chapter on high-seas sex: One wife declared with spirit to her husband, “I shall not be a fellatrix, Captain, oh my Captain, and if that be mutiny, make the most of it.” Decidedly, these were women “very aware of owning a certain aura of romance, of being widely traveled and worldly wise, something in which they took perceptible pride,” and in Druett’s hands their stories make for highly enjoyable reading. (photos and illustrations)

Pub Date: June 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-684-83968-7
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 1998


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