Top positive review
The Role of Women in the most turbulent of Centuries
on 8 March 2017
Antonia Fraser is an engaging writer of popular history, and in this volume she turns to a century about which she knows much, having also written biographies of Oliver Cromwell and Charles II, as well as a history of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
This book’s strength is simultaneously its weakness, insofar as there is much detailed material relating to the lives of seventeenth-century women who happened to be both literate and members of the governing classes, but not so much about women who occupied other stations in society. Such an inherent bias is understandable, and indeed, forgivable, for by definition the direct voices and experiences of the illiterate – who were generally of the poor or middling sort – are lost to us forever, and this was a century in which literacy was not the norm for men, let alone for women. It was usual for men to view formal education for girls – beyond that strictly necessary for running a household – as being likely to detract from their femininity, with book learning being viewed in a particularly negative light; attitudes akin to those possessed by misogynist fanatics of a certain religious bent in our own times.
One of the chapters that I found to be of particular interest dealt with women’s involvement in preaching and prophecy – particularly during the Civil War and the Interregnum – and how this enabled them to find a voice on the public stage from which they were generally excluded during this period. Parallels could be drawn, if one were being uncharitable, with some of the shriller self-righteous female political loudmouths (I would like to add the disclaimer that there are plenty of male ones too) of our own day.
The seventeenth century, for all of its fascinating social and political turbulence, is one through which I am glad that I did not live. That said, it closed on a more optimistic note than it opened, for women, as much as for men. In England it heralded the dawning of a truly modern society, insofar as it began with deeply ingrained popular beliefs in witchcraft and magic, religious zealotry and a system of absolutist monarchy, but ended with the rise of a modern scientific outlook stimulated by the activities of the Royal Society, Newton, Hooke and Boyle, religious toleration, and a constitutional monarchy limited by Parliament. For women specifically, the century led to the growing recognition of their worth, but their literal entry onto the stage in the 1660s would not be paralleled by their full entry onto the stage of public life until the latter part of the twentieth century.