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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.
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on 8 March 2017
Had expected the sort of narrative usual for Lady Antonia Fraser.. This book has many fascinating details, but seemed to me to be a collection of her thorough research into this era of history. All interesting, and it would be useful for students of this era, but it is not an easy book to read.
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on 10 September 2017
It is an excellent analysis of the position of women in 17th century England, which is historically sound and enjoyable as text to be read by both historians and lay readers.
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Like Fraser's other historical books this is written with integrity and panache. Rather than focusing on a single figure or narrative, however, she surveys women throughout the seventeenth century, organised by category such as marriage, widows, motherhood etc. There is nothing in here that is strictly new, but Fraser re-packages her information and delivers it in readable and accessible fashion.

My niggle is that her organising principle jumps around chronologically and so to some extent takes women out of their social and political context: the concept of the educated woman, for example, is quite different at the start of the seventeenth century when Elizabeth is still on the throne from what it becomes under the Restoration, say. It also assumes gender as a stable analytical category so that the fact of their biological sex is used to draw comparisons across social class, education, religion, politics etc. even though an elite, educated woman from a Protestant, monarchist family would have probably had more in common with an elite, educated, Protestant, monarchist man than a lower class, uneducated, Catholic, republican (for example) woman.

But this is a small flaw and certainly doesn't spoil the reader's pleasure. Fraser's writes history with a novelist's eye and pen - and if this is less self-consciously critical than a more scholarly work would be, it makes up for that in readability.
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on 31 January 2001
This is one of the most readable and enlightening books that I have read about life in 17th Century England. Although this is a very comprehensive work it is very readable and, once begun, very difficult to put down. Although it primarily deals with the role of women in the 17th century, it balances this by putting that role in context with events taking place at the time. What I found particularly facinating is that the book managed to give an in-depth look at life at all levels of society. This is a book that, having read it from start to finish, I still dip into from time to time because it is just so interesting.
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on 11 April 2002
You don't have to be a keen historian or a reader of "dry" books. This book is extremely well written and kept me really interested right to the end. It covers all aspects of women's role in society in the 17th century, from midwives, mistresses, whores, witches, middle-class wives and poor fishwives and deals with each backing up points of view with short written quotations. In fact it encouraged me to buy Samuel Pepys diary (you have to read it to believe it)!
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on 26 October 2008
This book is fascinating. It is a really easy and highly informative read. I love the fact that it covers all levels of 17th century society and not just the upper classes. It focuses on the role of women in society at the time and provides a fantastic insight into the everyday life of women from all walks of life. The research behind the book is very impressive. A very interesting read for any history and/or feminist enthusiast.
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on 11 June 2006
I started reading Antonia Fraser's books after having read Gunpowder Plot. The Weaker Vessel is just as readble, and portrays the lives and characters of women from all walks of life, before, during and after the civil war. I think Ms Fraser is an amazing researcher, her books contain the most interesting facts all put together in pleasant prose which flows beautifully - so really it is like reading a novel rather than a work of pure fact (even though so many historical facts actually are included). Ms Fraser makes the female heroines of this novel come to life, for each lady discussed you feel genuine compassion, admiration, and sometimes disbelief at their feats of courage in the face of civil war. Included are excerpts from letters, diaries , etc which makes the account even more enjoyable. I'd recommend this to anyone interested in 17th century history or the history of women. One star less because I feel that the reader is not given an overall view of women in the 17th century - Antonia Fraser focuses on a handful of women, most of them extraordinarily courageous, but I do not think that the women in question were representative of the majority of women in Britain at the time.
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on 17 July 2000
A really good book. Authoritative, exhaustive historical and also entertaining. From the upper classes to dairy maids, scolds and "witches"; from the pain and perils of pregnancy to domestic violence; the ignorant and the (few) learned women: every 17th Cetury female has her place in this wonderful book.
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The seventeenth-century was a fascinating and tumultuous period in English history, an era bookended by the reigns of Queens Elizabeth and Anne, with a Civil War and a brief period as a republic in-between. As is often the case in times of war gender roles and patterns of behaviour tend to get upset, affording opportunities to women otherwise denied in times of peace. Antonia Fraser explores the lives of these women in this engaging book, from the queens and queen consorts themselves, all the way down to the prostitutes and aged beggars on the streets.

Fraser explores almost every aspect of women's lives, from their roles as daughters and sisters, wives and mothers, and ultimately widows. She looks at the expectations forced upon women by the men in their lives, their attitudes towards marriage and motherhood, the twin props of female life through so much of history. She covers female education, female literacy, the rarity of female authors and the way society viewed them. When coming to the Civil War, she documents how this traumatic upheaval of society threw up notable examples of female heroism - not just female soldiers but also women left to garrison castles and fortresses in their husbands' absence, and coping 'manfully', pun intended. She looks at the lives of independent women, women of business, women of the stage, religious devotees, midwives, and inevitably, prostitutes. All of female life can be found here, to a greater or lesser extent.

The biggest problem when dealing with women's history, as Fraser herself admits at the beginning of this book, is find the voice of the voiceless. Much of history and the historical documents research relies upon were written by, for and about men. The vast majority of women were illiterate (as indeed was the majority of the population, but women even more so, not just denied the option of learning to read and write but the opportunity to do so even when they did know how). As a result women's history has to be teased out from the small references and asides in male-dominated literature; and very often women were only talked or written about if they were royal, noble, wealthy, beautiful or notorious. Some were a combination of all of these! As a result, the women featuring in these pages generally fall into two categories - rich and/or noble brides, or criminals, prostitutes, witches, heretics and any other category that might have drawn the attention of the legal authorities.

But that caveat notwithstanding, it's a comprehensive as any book on this topic can be, and it's to Fraser's credit that she didn't chose to simply explore the higher echelons of society, as so many history books have a tendency to do. Life continues on the lower levels often entirely oblivious to the political manoeuvrings of the titled classes, and so much of human interest is found as this level - and yet so many books concern themselves with the history of England as the history of kings and dukes and knights and soldiers. All of them male. Books like this are the rare and therefore all the more necessary exception.
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