I read this book at the suggestion of Jennifer from LiterateHousewife.com, who set up a readalong so she’d have people to talk about it with. So glad I joined in. I agree, it warrants discussion. Without the readalong, I might never have gotten around to reading it.
This is a debut novel from Stacia Brown, but you’d never know it. Her incorporation of historical detail, including legal case histories, is blended seamlessly with the imaginings from her own fertile mind. I found the prose to be a bit intellectual and distant at first, but I think now that that has to do with her main characters and their states of mind at the beginning of the book. And while the world of 17th century England may seem far away from us 21st century Americans, the power plays between women and men on the stages of the law, politics and religion have changed far too little. In fact, I was able to see connections to some of the dystopian fiction I’ve read in the past year, especially WHEN SHE WOKE by Hilary Jordan, where the birth of a bastard child with an unacknowledged father leads to a young woman’s extreme punishment. We can’t seem to get away from laws that threaten to control the rights women have over their bodies, and the fears that men have of the mysterious power a woman has the creation of a child within her body.
This book starts out with the curmudgeonly character Thomas Bartwain, 17th century detective, as he sorts through the facts of Rebecca Lockyer’s case. She has been accused of murdering and secretly burying her bastard infant, a crime punishable by hanging. At first I was very impatient with both of these characters. Bartwain so rigid; Rachel so vague. But both go on a journey in the book. Even after his duty is done with Rachel’s case, Bartwain continues to be drawn to it, and finds himself questioning his belief that “the law is beautiful; the law is order” (94). Rachel suffers a great deal through her imprisonment and trial, but in the process finds clarity in her own beliefs and her own strength.
When we meet Rachel, she’s in the throes of a horrible post-partum depression as well as the shock of losing her child. But as she begins to claw herself back to the world, and relives the events that have led her to this trial, an uneducated but probing mind is laid bare. At moments I wondered if she was perhaps too intellectual to believe. But then, something has allowed her to survive in this world alone, a single woman. A train of Rachel’s thought that really made me ponder concluded with:
Conceiving is creation, but before it is creation it is mischief. And before it is mischief, it is faith. (79)
She argues politics with her lover (a character based on the real life Leveler William Walwyn) and I think demonstrates her practical wisdom:
Once she asked him why the Levelers advocated the abolition of distinctions between classes of men. “You would have us all stand together, all on the same rung of the ladder,” she marveled.
“That’s right,” he replied. “That’s the only way it is fair.”
“But there is not enough room,” she argued. (163)
I’m not even going to get into my reactions to Walwyn, as some of them are likely personal. The women in the story were the most fascinating to me, anyway. From Bartwain’s practical and calmly prodding wife Mathilda, to Rachel’s employer, to her friend Elizabeth Lilburne, to Walwyn’s wife Anne, mother of so many children that she calls them by number instead of name, each faces the challenges and constraints of womanhood in the mid 1600s in a completely different way. Elizabeth lays into Rachel when she acknowledges her pregnancy:
What is there to say? What could I possibly say to someone who has lost her mind? You have become the worst thing a woman can be. You have become…impractical! (123)
But Rachel also remembers tales her great-aunt had told her of “women driven to restore their monthlies before it was too late” (100). When Rachel asks if these women sinned,
Her great-aunt had waved this question off, her wooden spoon in her hand. She said women had neither the time nor the luxury to quibble oer what was and was not a sin. “We are not casuists,” she said. (100)
I find the title to be interestingly oxymoronic. According to Merriam-Webster, “providence” means a) divine guidance or care and b) God conceived as the power sustaining and guiding human destiny. The idea of providence is deeply woven into Cromwell’s England. Rachel in particular struggles between the conflicting faiths of her parents. But it seems to me that an omnipotent God would make no accidents, no?
Rachel’s imprisonment, trial and punishment are full of interesting (and horrifying) details, and this part of the book holds the greatest drama. But I think the real strength of the book lies in Brown’s ability to draw us in to this quite foreign world, to experience its logic and illogic, and at the same time to hold that mirror up to our own world. As they say, the more things change the more they stay the same.