Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Hester Lynch Piozzi, More Than "Dr. Johnson's Mrs. Thrale"

Hester Salusbury Thrale Piozzi (m. Gabriel Mario Piozzi on 25 July 1784)

"Mrs. Thrale" has long been known to history primarily for her recollections of her friend, the famous poet, essayist, and lexicographer Samuel. Johnson, whom she met in 1765. More recently, however, she has been recognized as a writer in her own right.

Born on 27 July 1741, Hester Salusbury was the daughter of the Welsh landowner John Salusbury and his wife, also named Hester. 

Hester Thrale and her eldest daughter, Hester Maria,
painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Her marriage to the London brewer Henry Thrale in 1763 was desirable from both her father and husband's perspectives; her father was bankrupt, and Thrale was wealthy, and Thrale, while rich, was seeking to improve his social status by marriage. 

Like many eighteenth-century marriages, the linked partners were not particularly compatible. She loved "conversation and adventure," and "thrived on attention." For his part, Henry Thrale, was "remote, socially insecure and periodically unfaithful."

Still, Thrale wanted a woman who would not only improve his social standing but produce children, and Hester certainly fulfilled her role. She was pregnant at least thirteen times in the first fifteen years of their marriage. She gave birth to twelve children--though only four daughters survived into adulthood. Still, her eldest daughter, Hester Maria, married the wealthy Admiral Lord Keith, becoming, in the process, Viscountess Keith 

Through her marriage to Thrale, Hester certainly managed to enter fully into London society, hosting parties at the couple's house in Streatham. Her intimate acquaintances included writers like Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, and Fanny Burney, politiians like Edmund Burke, actors and theatrical people like David Garrick, and painters, like Sir Joshua Reyolds.

Johnson and Hester Thrale became particularly intimate friends--Johnson came to be like a member of her family and spent much of his year living with the Thrales.

After Henry Thrale;s death in 1781, many expected the wealthy widow to marry Dr. Johnson--instead, she married Gabriel Mario Piozzi, her eldest daughter's music teacher. Shock and horror ensued--Johnson himself said she had "ignominiously married" and condemned her "wickedness." 

Fanny Burney, whom Hester Thrale Piozzi had encouraged and supported, was also offended by the match (though, ironically, she too would enter into a shocking marriage, to an impoverished French artillery officer and immigrant who was, horrors, a Catholic!) 

Nevertheless, Hester Piozzi seems to have been happy in this second marriage, and she enjoyed a long and productive life.

In 1786, she published Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson, LL.D., during the last Twenty Years of his Life and two years later, a two-volume edition of Letters to and from the late Samuel Johnson, LL.D. While less well known than Boswell's Life of Johnson, even the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica, frequently unkind to women's achievements, is notably kind to Piozzi's work: "Although less accurate in some details than Boswell’s, her accounts show other aspects of Johnson’s character, especially the more human and affectionate side of his nature."

Perhaps most notable of her achievements is her diary, Thraliana, which was not published until 1949. It provides insight not only to Johnson's life but, more importantly, the life, thoughts, and observations of a distinct and engaging eighteenth-century woman.

Hester Salusbury Thrale Piozzi died on 2 May 1821 at the age of eighty. Lucky for her, she celebrated her eightieth birthday when she was seventy-nine--at a lavish party in Bath attended by some 600 guests!

Ian McIntyre's 2008 Hester: The Remarkable Life of Dr. Johnson's 'Dear Mistress', is not only an excellent read but a compelling reassessment of Thrale's life and accomplishment aside from (or in addition to) her friendship with Johnson. 

For an introduction, Henry Hitchings essay, a review of McIntyre's book, is a good place to start; to access it, click here.

Piozzi's works are available at sites like Project Gurenberg or the Internet Archive. And many, of course, are in print!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Simone Veil Is in the Panthéon

Simone Jacob Veil (b. 13 July 1927)

The French politician Simone Veil died on 30 June 2017, just days before her ninetieth birthday. 

Simone Jacob Veil
Born in Nice, the young Simone Jacob and her family were arrested by the Nazis in 1944.

After her arrest, she was sent, first, to Auschwitz, then later transported to Bergen-Belsen. She survived her ordeal in the concentration camp.

Simone Jacob met and married Antoine Veil after the war, while studying law and political science. Throughout her subsequent career, she worked in the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Health, her work on behalf of women culminating in a 1975 landmark act legalizing abortion, a law now referred to as "Veil's Law.."

When faced by the opposition of male colleagues, many of whom compared abortion to Nazi concentration camps, she responded,
I will share a conviction of women, and I apologize for doing it in front of this assembly comprised almost exclusively of men: No woman resorts to abortion lightheartedly.
In 1979, Veil was elected to the European Parliament, where she served as its first president. She was also the president of the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah, an organization devoted to Holocaust remembrance and research. 

After 1994, Veil returned to service in the French government--as Minister of State, Minister of Health, Minister of Social Affairs, and, then, in 1996, was appointed to the Constitutional Council of France.
President Emmanuel Macron paying homage
to Simone Veil at her funeral.

After Veil's death, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that she would be honored by interment in the Panthéon mausoleum.

Of the 80 French citizens recognized there for their distinguished service to the French Republic, she is only the fifth woman to be so honored. (The first was Marie Curie. The two other women are Genevieve de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillion, both members of the French resistance.)

Monday, July 10, 2017

Caterina Cornaro, the Last Queen of Cyprus

Caterina Cornaro, queen of Cyprus (d. 10 July 1510)

When Giovanni III, king of Cyprus, died in 1458, he was succeeded on the throne by his daughter Carlotta of Lusignan. Carlotta did not rule Cyprus for long, however.* 

By 1460 she had been deposed by her half-brother, Giacomo, who had himself crowned in her place. In an effort to gain support for his rule, the new king of Cyprus sought a political alliance through marriage and, turning to the republic of Venice, requested a bride. 

Titian's 1542 painting of
Caterina Cornaro
In response, the signory selected Caterina Cornaro, the daughter of Fiorenza Crispo and Marco Cornaro, who, interestingly, "happened to hold most of the island of Cyprus in mortgage." On 30 July 1468 the betrothal of the fourteen-year-old Caterina to Giacomo was celebrated by proxy in Venice. 

But Caterina did not travel immediately to Cyprus to meet her new husband; instead, she remained in Venice for four years more years. In the mean time, Giacomo seems to have considered carefully other possible marital alliances, most notably the suggestion of Ferdinand of Naples that the king of Cyprus marry his daughter, but Giacomo hesitated and was eventually persuaded to accept the marriage he had already negotiated. In 1472 Caterina finally left for Cyprus, where her marriage to Giacomo was formalized. Within the year he died, leaving his wife, then pregnant, to succeed him. 

Immediately after her husband's death, Caterina acted to preserve Cyprus for her unborn child. A regency council was established, and Caterina, recognizing that "her throne was on a volcano" (stava apicato a un chavelo), sent word of Giacomo's death to Venice, which responded by sending troops to Cyprus to protect the young queen. 

Meanwhile, on learning of the situation in Cyprus, Carlotta of Lusignan, who had taken refuge in Rome after Giacomo's usurpation, prepared to reassert her claim to the throne. Her supporters forced their way into the Lusignan palace, killing several members of Caterina's household, including her uncle and cousin, but the queen herself escaped. 

When Venetian troops arrived, the conspirators were hunted down and order was restored. On 28 August 1473, the queen of Cyprus gave birth to a son, who was baptized Giacomo III on 26 September 1473. 

But the son for whom Caterina struggled to preserve the crown of Cyprus died in 1474, just a year old, and once again Carlotta of Lusignan conspired to effect her rival's overthrow, this time with the aid of Ferdinand of Naples. 

In response, the republic of Venice sent Caterina's father and mother to Cyprus and ordered that Giacomo's mother, sister, and illegitimate son be sent to Venice. Denied motherhood, Caterina seems to have turned her energies to sovereignty, supported by her subjects: she "recalled to [them] those memories of independence which flattered their pride," a contemporary commented.

The counselors and commissioners sent from Venice inexorably assumed more and more power in Cyprus. Caterina protested to the doge, complaining, for example, that one of the Venetian envoys "without respect or reverence would enter her chamber when he would." 

Even her brother was won over by those who sought to relieve Caterina of her crown; pressure was exerted to convince her that the best course of action for her was to abdicate. Finally, in 1489, "the unhappy lady yielded . . . to persuasion and threats." Her decision to abdicate her throne was described by a Venetian ambassador as having been made as a result of "full and free determination." 

She returned to Venice and was "freed" from the rule of Cyprus in a formal ceremony; in return, she was awarded the castle and town of Asolo. She took possession of her new "kingdom" on 11 October 1489. 

"We cannot tell whether the exiled Queen of Cyprus was really satisfied with her mimic Court, her empty title," muses historian Marian Andrews, "or whether, like a wise woman, she made the best of that which was within her reach, and ceased to sigh for the unattainable." 

What we do know is that she governed Asolo efficiently for nearly twenty years. Though her "kingdom" was limited, Caterina Cornaro dispensed justice, founded charitable institutions, patronized artists, welcomed intellectuals, and was loved by her "subjects." At last, when the combined forces of the Holy Roman Empire, France, and Spain invaded Italy and threatened Asolo, she was forced to return to Venice. 

She died there on 10 July 1510 and was buried the next day in the Cornaro chapel.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Marie de' Medici and Politics in the French Court

Marie de' Medici, queen and regent of France (d. 3 July 1642)

When she became queen of France, Maria de' Medici was ridiculed as the descendant of rich merchants, but as with her Medici foremother, Catherine de' Medici, such was not entirely the case.*

Maria de' Medici
Maria's father, Francesco II de' Medici, was undoubtedly the descendant of wealthy merchants, but he was also related to powerful cardinals and popes and succeeded his brother as grand duke of Tuscany. 

Maria de' Medici's mother was Joanna of Austria, the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand and Anna Jagellion, queen of Hungary; through her mother, then, the young woman who would become queen of France was related to Habsburg royalty throughout Europe.

The young Maria was sixteen years old when she attended the burial of Catherine de' Medici in 1589, and legend has it that on this occasion her lifelong friend and companion Leonora Dori, later Leonora Galigai and later still Leonora Concini, said that there was no reason Marie should not occupy the French throne herself one day. As improbable as the prediction may have seemed, Marie did succeed her Medici cousin on the throne of France. 

The childless Henry III was assassinated soon after Catherine de' Medici's death, and Henry of Navarre became Henry IV of France. The new king already had a wife, Marguerite of Valois, from whom he was estranged, and a mistress, Gabrielle d'Estrées, to whom he was devoted. Nevertheless Maria's uncle Ferdinand, grand duke of Tuscany, offered the new king his political support against the Catholic League that opposed his accession--if Henry would accept his niece as a bride. 

Henry IV could not afford to reject the duke's offer, but neither did he accept it. He wanted to marry his mistress; his wife, however, refused to cooperate with the annulment of their marriage unless he accepted the offered Medici alliance. In 1594 Henry IV converted to Catholicism and entered Paris; by 1599, somewhat more secure on his throne, he announced his intention of marrying Gabrielle. Within a month, however, she died in childbirth, and Marguerite agreed to release him from their marriage; by the spring of 1600 the king was negotiating with Ferdinand of Tuscany for a match with Maria. They were married by proxy on 5 October. 

The forty-eight-year-old king had many illegitimate children, but Marguerite had "failed" to provide him a son, so Henry had no legitimate heir to follow him on the throne. His new bride arrived in France in November and quickly produced the requisite son. Louis, later King Louis XIII, was born on 27 September 1601. Five more children followed: Elizabeth, born in 1603; Christine, in 1606; Henry, in 1607; Gaston, in 1608; and Henrietta Maria, in 1609.
A portrait of Marie de' Medici
as queen of France

While fruitful, the marriage of Henry IV and Maria, now Marie, was not easy, but despite their frequent and public quarrels, it was not the disaster that so many historians claim. But successful or not, it did not last forever. On 14 May 1610 Henry IV was assassinated. 

Just the day before the king's death, Marie de' Medici had been crowned queen of France in a splendid ceremony. Despite his original "command" that his queen "not meddle in affairs of state," the coronation ceremony had taken place so that Marie's position as regent of France could be strengthened while the king undertook a military campaign in the Netherlands. 

Within two hours of her husband's assassination, Marie placed her children under guard to safeguard their security, secured the streets around the Louvre palace, and appeared before the Parlement of Paris to have her regency acknowledged.

In conducting herself as queen regent, Marie decided to model herself on her predecessor and cousin Catherine de' Medici; she aimed for conciliation and appeasement. "Her task," as A. Lloyd Moote defines it, was "avoiding internal turmoil and external danger." Her "success in achieving those twin aims must, in the immediate setting, be considered a major achievement." 

After the rivalries and tensions that had culminated in her husband's assassination, the queen's regency was at first welcomed by opposing factions and began peacefully. Marie herself approached her new role as regent with a measure of confidence and optimism; "I can call myself very fortunate and quite consoled because of the good order and great tranquility that begin to be seen in the affairs of this realm" she wrote to her sister three months after her husband's death. But her optimism proved to be ill-founded. 

Unlike her model, Marie was not a success as regent. Religious unrest continued to be a problem, and relationships with foreign powers were uneasy. To complicate matters further, her relationship with her son the king was tense. Resentful of the humiliations she had endured during her husband's life, she abandoned his counselors and friends, turning for support to her Italian courtiers, to Rome, and to her Habsburg relatives  

For her principal advisor she looked to her friend Leonora's husband Concino Concini, whom she arranged to have appointed maréchal of France, an appointment that "conferred [on him] the second-highest military honor in France."Unlike Henry IV, Louis XIII had been raised a Catholic, like Marie herself; to defuse religious tensions, Marie acted to "curb inflammatory rhetoric" on both sides of the relgious debate and "republished the agreement of Nantes in 1612, 1614, and twice in 1615." 

Marie as queen of France, 1606,
painting by Frans Pourbus the Younger
Among the most serious problems Marie faced was the external danger posed by Habsburg aggression. Accordingly, she "placed all her hopes" on the Franco-Spanish pact negotiated in 1612. To appease the increasingly rebellious nobility, Marie offered a number of concessions, but, as Louis' biographer Elizabeth Marvick notes, this "policy of appeasement" was "costly," and in spite of her efforts, "public tranquility continued to be disturbed by dissatisfied lords." 

In 1614 Louis XIII was fourteen years old, the age at which he could be proclaimed an adult, capable of ruling without a regent. Marie, under increasing pressure, was forced to summon a meeting of the Estates General. 

On 2 October Louis' majority was declared; during the ceremony marking the occasion, he announced his intention to assume his role as king: "Gentlemen, having arrived at the age of majority . . . I intend to govern my realm by good counsel, with piety and justice. I expect from all my subjects the obedience and respect that are due the sovereign power and royal authority which God has placed in my hands." 

But "he" did not intend to rule alone. He noted with gratitude the role his mother had played as regent in the preceding years and concluded with a request to her that she "continue" to "govern and command" as she had "heretofore." 

Gaining some recognition during the 1614-1615 meetings of the Estates was Armand de Richelieu, then bishop of Luçon. By the summer of 1615 Marie's pro-Spanish policy came to fruition with a double marriage: Her thirteen-year-old daughter Elizabeth was married to the ten-year-old Philip, son and heir of Philip III of Spain, while Louis XIII was married to the thirteen-year-old Anne of Austria, Philip's older sister. 

Although these alliances represented a personal success for the regent, they only increased the disaffection of the nobility, and despite a truce agreement reached in 1616, the resulting conflict culminated in the assassination of Concini on 24 April 1617. The next day, the fifteen-year-old Louis turned on his mother. He exiled her to the chateau of Blois: "Madame," he is quoted as saying to her, "I wish to relieve you now of the fatigue of state business." 

He continued: "It is time for me to take this burden from you for I do not intend to allow anyone else to do so. But I shall always treat you with the respect due to a mother. You will hear from me at Blois. Adieu, madame. Do not cease to love me and you will find me a good son." 

Marie responded: "Sire, I regret not having acted, as regent, in accordance with your wishes. But I did my best, and I beg you to consider me in future your humble and obedient mother and servant." 

Interestingly, Louis' harsh treatment of his mother and her friend Leonora Concini, who was tried for witchcraft and executed, encouraged support for the queen. After she was denied permission to attend the marriage of her daughter Christine to Victor Amadeus, heir to the duke of Savoy, in February 1619, her "rescue"--or escape--was arranged. 

With the aid of Richelieu, she traveled to Provence and raised a rebellion against her son. The king gathered an army to proceed against his mother, preparing for the first of the so-called Wars of the Mother and Son. Mother and son were reconciled, and by the terms of the treaty of Angoulême, signed on 30 April, he assigned her the governorship of Anjou. 

By 1620, mother and son were once more at odds, and the second "War of the Mother and Son" commenced. This time the king was determined not to surrender to his mother. Accordingly, he went to war against his mother's army, which he defeated. With a "face-saving acknowledgment" that "she had taken up arms only out of fear of being oppressed by the royal government," Marie signed the treaty of Angers in August. Within six weeks "the king's mother" had been restored to her son's good graces and rejoined his privy council.
Maarie de' Medici, 1616,
Frans Pourbus the Younger

In thanks to Richelieu, she arranged for his appointment as cardinal, and in 1624 Cardinal Richeliu also joined the king's council. Marie's restoration was so complete that in 1621 and 1622, while her son was engaged in a fight against the Huguenots, she often traveled with him. The king, for his part, turned increasingly to his mother for advice. "There was only one person who seemed cautious and sensible" to him, according to Tapié: 
The queen mother had lost none of her ambition of desire for power, but now she strove to avoid any upheaval. She confined herself to telling Louix XIII that his realm was badly governed, that his ministers were no longer achieving anything notable, that they were especially negligent in their conduct of foreign policy, and that in consequence French prestige was on the wane all over Europe.
But such "insight" was not her own, Tapié asserts; she was, in "reality," simply "obediently reciting something that she had been taught," in this case the advice of Richelieu.

Whatever the ultimate source of Marie's advice to her son, Louis nevertheless relied on her, appointing her as regent of France in 1627-28, when he joined his forces at the siege of La Rochelle, and again in 1629, when he was in Savoy. But when Richelieu advised the king to pursue a course of conciliation with the Huguenots and with Protestant Europe to balance Habsburg influence, 

Marie turned against her former adviser. On 10 November 1630, she demanded that her son dismiss Richelieu. She believed Louis would honor her demand, but she was wrong. Instead, her supporters were eliminated; by February 1631 she was exiled again, "escorted" to Compiègne. Louis seems to have considered sending her back to Florence; instead he allowed her to "escape" to Brussels. Her son "declared her a rebel against his authority, outlawed her person, and sequestrated her property."

Although her nephew Ferdinand II of Tuscany offered her asylum in Florence, Marie de' Medici refused. In June 1633 she was in Ghent and ill; Richelieu sent her a note of sympathy, which she rejected, but by February of 1634 she wrote him to ask him to ask for a reconciliation. When he answered, he advised her to go to Tuscany. 

Her younger son Gaston, whom she seems to have encouraged to think of gaining the throne of France for himself, had followed her to the Netherlands, but by 1635 he had reconciled to his brother and returned to France. Marie repeatedly asked Louis to allow her to return to Paris as well. 

When French troops threatened to invade the Netherlands in 1638, the exiled Marie de' Medici fled to England, where her daughter Henrietta Maria was queen, married to Charles I, and where the former queen consort and queen regent of France was decidedly unwelcome. Again Marie wrote to Richelieu: "I have forgotten the past. I only want to be friends with you. I should be so happy if you would deign to grant me the great favour of my return to France." Marie seems also to have been considering yet another regency, rumors of which reached Richelieu, but her efforts at reconciliation came to nothing. 

Meanwhile, England had been plunged into its own internal difficulties, and the increasingly unpopular king found that the presence of his Catholic mother-in-law only added to his problems. Attacked in parliament, she was finally forced to leave England in 1641, but where she would go was problematic. 

Her predicament is described by Cleugh: "England had rejected her. France declined to receive her. Even King Philip IV of Spain [her son-in-law] now refused to allow her to settle in . . . the Netherlands. Her pride would not allow her to return to Tuscany as a rejected Queen and mother." She was eventually allowed to travel to Cologne, where she died on 3 July 1642. 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Anne Royall, Pioneering Professional Journalist

Anne Newport Royall, Writer and Publisher (b. 11 June 1769)

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, the daughter of William and Mary Newport, Anne Newport Royall was a writer and editor, frequently credited as the "first American newspaperwoman." 

As her early biographer writes in The Life and Times of Anne Royall (1908), the Newport family, like many of their contemporaries, moved "west," first to Virginia and then into "the frontier Pennsylvania" in 1772: "the men and women who moved into this so-called 'western' wilderness sought neither gold, nor adventure, nor the establishment of any one form of religious faith. Their sole object was to secure that blessing most highly prized in all ages by the Anglo-Saxon heart—a private home."

The family of four was not wealthy. Anne herself later enumerated their meager possessions:
Our cabin, or camp, rather, was very small—not more than eight or ten feet. This contained one  bed, four wooden stools with legs stuck in them through augur holes, half a dozen tin cups and the like number of pewter plates, knives, forks and spoons, though my sister (very mischievous) broke one of the spoons and seriously damaged one of the plates, for which I was chastised. Besides these we had a tray and a frying-pan, a camp kettle and a pot; and our cabin was considered the best furnished on the frontier.
Like many of their neighbors, the Newport family found themselves under threat by displaced Native Americans. The familyy was forced to take refuge in a "fort," not so much a military stockade as a small settlement where several families lived--"if it could be called living," Anne would tartly write about life in such "pioneer forts."

After the early death of William Newport, Mary Newport remarried, her second husband a man named Butler, but he died in 1782 in an Indian raid. By 1785, in a terribly impoverished state, the widowed Mary Newport Butler moved her small family to Staunton, a small town in western Virginia, where she had relatives. She eventually took up a position as housekeeper for William Royall, a wealthy farmer in Sweet Springs, Virginia, who had been a major during the American Revolution.

William Royall seems to have recognized potential in the sixteen-year-old Anne--he undertook to have her educated, opened his library to her, and, in 1797, married the now twenty-eight-year-old woman. 

The couple lived together happily until William Royall's death in 1812; he left her the use of his estate in his will, but his family contested it, claiming the two were never legally married. Years of litigation followed, and although the will was upheld in 1817, that ruling was appealed, and in 1819 a a jury annulled it.

Dispossessed of her husband's provision for her, Anne Newport Royall spent the next years traveling (primarily in Alabama) and writing, a collection of her observations about the state, later published by subscription as Letters from Alabama (1817-22).

In 1824, she traveled to Washington, D.C., hoping to be granted a pension as a widow of a Revolutionary War soldier. (Her husband's family would, in 1848, claim her pension money.) There she met President John Quincy Adams, conducting what is sometimes claimed to be the first presidential interview by a woman. 

Adams also bought a subscription to support her publication of a new work, one that would recount her travel through New England. Leaving Washington, she traveled in New England. Her Sketches of History, Life, and Manners in the United States was published in Hartford, Connecticut, under the pseudonym "A Traveller" in 1826. 

Her forthright critiques--she did not shy away from describing honestly what she saw and experienced--caused problems for her, with one critic deriding her as a "literary wildcat from the backwoods." Back in Washington, she suffered further indignities after she raised objections to a group of Presbyterians being allowed to meet in a publicly funded firehouse. A member of the congregation claimed Royall had cursed her and, once again, she found herself in court, where she was convicted of being a public nuisance, a "public brawler," and a "common scold"; she was fined ten dollars, her fine being paid by two local newspapermen.

Royall turned once again to traveling, publishing a novel, The Tennessean, in 1827, and then further selections of her travel writing: The Black Book, or, A Continuation of Travels in the United States, in 1828, and Mrs. Royall’s Pennsylvania, or, Travels Continued in the United States, in 1829. Her Letters from Alabama was finally published in 1830), and Mrs. Royall’s Southern Tour, or, Second Series of Black Books appeared in 1831.

Back in Washington in 1831, she also began publishing a weekly newspaper, Paul Pry, the first issue appearing on 3 December of that year. The newspaper included her own editorials, "excerpts from other papers, advertisements, letters to the editor–-and her lengthy replies." She was intent on exposing government corruption--and when postmasters refused to deliver her papers, she published their names, along with the names of subscribers who were late with their payments.

The title of her newspaper was later changed; under its new name, The Huntress, publication continued until 2 July 1854, just two months before her death, at age eighty-five, on 1 October. During those years, Royall continued to pursue cases of governmental corruption, fraud, incompetence, nepotism, and graft. She exposed corrupt practices that defrauded Native Americans, and while she opposed slavery, she also opposed the tactics of abolitionists. For good measure, although she disliked both alcohol and drunkenness, she also opposed temperance activists.

In assessing Anne Royall's longevity and her acquaintance, J. D. Thomas notes, 
 Her personal knowledge of the public men of her time is most remarkable. She met and talked with every person who filled the presidential chair, beginning with Washington and ending with Lincoln. It was probably on the occasion of his visit to Sweet Springs in 1797 that she saw General Washington. She chatted with John Adams in his own home when he was eighty-nine years of age. Lincoln she must have seen during his one term in Congress. She even met Lafayette on his visit to Boston in 1825. The great Frenchman gave her a letter in support of her pension claim.
(The persistent Royall finally got her pension when she was eighty years old, but it was--successfully--claimed by her deceased husband's relentless family.)

While I am always bitching about the Encyclopedia Britannica for its failure to include women, there is a brief article there on Anne Royall. So, yay?

For an excellent essay by Cynthia Earman, "Uncommon Scold," click here.

Sarah Harvey Porter's 1908 biography of Anne Royall is available in full by clicking here. Elizabeth J. Clapp's recent A Notorious Woman: Anne Royall in Jacksonian America is also available.

Many of her works are available online--the Internet Archive offers full texts for most of her works, while Letters from Alabama, for example, is at Google Books

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Finding Michaelina Wautier

Michaelina Wautier (c. 1617-1689)

One year from today, on 1 June 2018, the Rubens House museum (Antwerp) will open the first survey exhibition of the Baroque painter Michaelina Wautier. 

Michaelina Wautier, 1649
Of course Wautier hasn't been entirely lost, though recognition of the painter has been very long in coming. In her comprehensive survey of "the fortunes of women painters and their work," Germain Greer includes Wautier even while noting that only four works by Wautier were known to exist, one surviving only in an engraving (The Obstacle Race, 1979).

The situation today is somewhat improved. Almost nothing is known about Michaela Wautier's life, aside from her dates of birth and death. She was probably born in Mons, capital city of Hainault, in 1617, lived and worked in Brussels, had an elder brother who was also a painter, and died in Brussels in 1689. Unique for seventeenth-century women painters, Wautier painted in all contemporary genres, including portrait, history, still life, and genre painting.

Four paintings by Wautier were commission by Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, governor of the Spanish Netherlands from 1647 to 1656; a 1659 inventory of his collection includes one work with a mythological theme, The Triumph of Bacchus (1650), and three saints' portraits, St. Joachim Reading, St. Joachim with a Book, and Saint Joseph. (Today, the Triumph of Bacchus and two portraits, one of Joachim and the St. Joseph, are in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, while the portrait of Saint Joachim with a book, also in the Kunsthistorisches, survives only in an etching.)

But after her lifetime, her name, if not her work, disappeared. As Julia Baumgartner notes, Wautier's surviving work was mostly misattributed, to her brother Christopher, for example, or to Artemisia Gentileschi.

Aside from the seventeenth-century inventory of Duke Leopold's collection, information about her work is still scarce. A cycle of five paintings representing the five senses is known from two nineteenth-century sales: "The five individual works on canvas date from 1650 and all (or most) of them are believed to be signed and dated. They share the same dimensions (68 x 58 cm or 70 x 61 cm) and were twice auctioned as a series in Valenciennes (France) in the nineteenth century. The series belonged in 1883 to the collection of a ‘M. de Malherbe’, from which they were sold in 1898 to a certain Jean-Baptiste Foucart." In 1899 this cycle of paintings was mentioned in a magazine for visual art (Zeithschrift für Bildende Kunst), but the paintings have since disappeared.

In 1905, Walter Shaw Sparrow includes a self-portrait by Wautier in his three-volume Women Painters of the World, but he identifies it as a "portrait (executed by herself) of Artemisia Gentileschi, who lived for a time in England and worked for Charles the First." (Today this 1649 self-portrait is held in a private collection.)

By the time that Greer included a paragraph about Wautier in her history of women artists--and the obstacles they faced in their pursuit of their art--the situation had not much changed. Greer included a small black-and-white reproduction of Wautier's 1646 Portrait of a Man and referred to an engraving of her painting of Don Andrea Cantelmo, from 1643. She also mentions the inventory of Duke Leopold, but noted that it included only "two religious half figures."

The Triumph of Bacchus,
Michaelina Wautier, 1650
Even today, even on the eve of the Wautier exhibition, the exact number of surviving works isn't clear. Estimates vary from 26 to 29 to 30. But things are looking up for this "long-lost" artist. 

Her Portrait of Martino Martini (1654) was recently sold at auction for £318,000. Baumgartner reports having seen Wautier's Portrait of a Young Man with a Pipe (1656) at a booth at the European Fine Art Fair, where the gallery owner Sander Bijl "is selling (or sold, and quite hush about either way) the 'Smoking Youth.'"

The 2018 exhibition will not only display Wautier's work but will provide the occasion for a catalogue raisonné, prepared by Katlijne Van der Stighelen of the University of Leuven, who is also curating the Rubens House exhibition.

In view of the coming exhibition, there is currently a worldwide search for six of Wautier's "lost" paintings: the five paintings depicting the five senses, and a floral scene, Garland with Butterfly, last displayed in 1960. According to the notice posted by CODART, the international group of curators of Dutch and Flemish Art, "In 1985, according to the catalogue of floral still lifes by Hairs, the painting was part of the collection of Parisian gallery owner Benito Pardo. After 1985, however, the panel disappeared from view."

It will be intereting to follow the story of of the search for Wautier's works, in preparation for the 2018 exhibit.

A Swag of Flowers,
Michaelina Wautier, 1652

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Ona Judge: "A thirst for compleat freedom"

Ona Judge Staines (escaped from slavery, 21 May 1796)

On 24 May 1796, a runaway slave notice appeared in The Pennsylvania Gazette--according to the notice, a "light mulatto girl, much freckled," had "absconded" from her owners.

On the one hand, there is nothing very unusual about this "advertisement"--which described the escaped slave as having "very black eyes" and "bushy hair," as being "delicately formed" and "about 20 years of age," and of taking with her "many changes of good clothes, "of all sorts."

Advertisement noting the "absconded" slave,
Oney Judge, dated 23 May 1796 and published
224 May 1796, The Pennsylvania Gazette
It's easy enough to find thousands of similar runaway slave "advertisements" online. The North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisement database, for example, provides access to more than 2300 such notices, "published in North Carolina newspapers from 1751 to 1840." 

Similarly, the Geography of Slavery database provides access to "more than 4000 advertisements for runaway slaves and indentured servants, drawn from newspapers in Virginia and Maryland, covering the years from 1736 through 1803."

So, the advertisement for this "absconded" slave is just one of tens of thousands such published notices. According to the notice, she "had no provocation" for running away, and a reward is offered to anyone "who will bring her home."

What makes the ad notable is not its content, then, but its source: As the advertisement specifies, the young woman has escaped from the household of "the President of the United States."

Yes, the woman who escaped, Ona Judge, was one of the enslaved people in the household of George Washington, who was then serving as the President of the United States. 

Ona Judge was a personal slave of Martha Washington  Ona had been one of the slaves who belonged to Martha's first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, and when Martha married George Washington, she brought these slaves, including Ona, with her to Mount Vernon.

(George Washington himself inherited and purchased slaves; at the time of his death in 1799, he owned 123 enslaved people. Also at the time of his death, 153 enslaved persons belonged to Martha, forming part of the Custis estate. Washington also "rented" slaves from their owners. More than 300 enslaved people were working for Washington at the time of his death.)

In 1789, George Washington took a number of his slaves with him to New York; when the new federal capital was moved to Philadelphia, he took his slaves, including Ona, with him. But according to the Pennsylvania Gradual Abolition Act of 1780, all slaves residing in the state for more than six months could free themselves. 

Slaveholders had found away around this act, however, by rotating their slaves in and out of the state. A 1788 amendment to the Gradual Abolition Act closed this loophole--but Washington (and other members of the government) found a way around the act and its amendment, claiming that the legislation applied, in strict interpretation, only to members of the legislative branch of the new federal government. Members of the judicial branch and the executive branch--including Washington, as president--were exempt.

And so, as Mary V. Thompson writes, "George Washington showed that he, a man whose reputation was built on honesty, would lie to protect property rights." 

Washington acted to prevent his slaves' emancipation: “it behoves me to prevent the emancipation of them," he wrote. The Washingtons decided to rotate their slaves in and out of Pennsylvania, George Washington made sure his slaves did not spend the six-month residency period in the state--and he made sure he disrupted his own residency, so that the law could not be interpreted to refer to him. The "solution," he said, was done “under pretext that may deceive both them and the Public,”

But this solution, however clever, did not fool Ona. Once again about to be shipped off to Virginia, where she was to be given as a wedding present to Martha Washington's granddaughter, Ona Judge fled on 21 May 1796. The Washingtons made a great deal of effort to recover their "property," but they were not successful.

Ona Judge, born about the year 1773, escaped to New Hampshire, where she married, had children, and learned to read and write. She died on 25 February 1848.

Ona Judge Staines was interviewed in the mid-1840s, her published interviews detailing her life, her experiences as a slave owned by the Washingtons, her escape, and her subsequent life as a fugitive slave--she was never freed by the Washingtons and thus she--and her children--always lived with the possibility of being returned to the Washingtons' heirs under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act.

When asked whether she regretted her escape and the difficulties of her later life, she replied, "No. I am free."

For an excellent article by Mary V. Thompson, "William Lee and Oney Judge: A Look at George Washington and Slavery," Journal of the American Revolution, click here

You may also want to look at Erica Armstrong Dunbar's new analysis of the life of Ona Judge Staines, Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge." For a link to an interview about her book, click here.

(I'd always heard Ona Judge referred to as "Oney," the name used in the runaway slave notice--Dunbar is careful to restore her full name, not the diminutive used by those who held her as a slave.)

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Nicholaa de la Haye, Defender of Lincoln Castle

Nicholaa de la Haye, castellan of Lincoln (second battle of Lincoln, 20 May 1217)

Nicholaa de la Haye (c. 1150-1230) was the eldest daughter of Richard de la Haye, a Lincolnshire lord, and Matilda de Vernon, the daughter of William de Vernon. Unusual for thirteenth-century women, she played a notable role during the tumultuous reign of the English king John. 

Tomb effigy identified as Nicholaa de la Haye
 St. Michael Church, Swagon,

The year of her birth is not at all clear, but is generally estimated to have been between 1150 and 1156.

At the time of her father's death in 1169, she is one of his three co-heirs; her two younger sisters inherit her father's Norman holdings, Nicholaa her father's English estates, including those in Lincolnshire.

She also inherited a claim to the title of castellan of Lincoln Castle, a position previously held by her father and grandfather, received by royal grants

Nicholaa de la Haye is known to have been married, first, to William fitz Erneis, who died by 1178, and with whom she seems to have had one child, a daughter. She later married Gerard de Camville, probably before 1185, giving birth to two sons and a daughter or maybe two daughters--there is some uncertainty here. (Gerard's father, Richard de Cambille, was the admiral for Richard I's fleet of ships during the Third Crusade.)

By right of marriage to Nicholaa, both her first and second husbands controlled Lincoln Castle and the claim to the wardship of Lincoln Castle--in 1189, Gerard's claim on the title was affirmed by a charter granted by Richard I. (Nicholaa de la Haye may also have had a claim to the title of sheriff of Lincoln--it's a title her husband claimed in her right, but it was not mentioned in the royal charter.) But Nicholaa does not seem to have ceded all interest and control in this role.

In 1191, during Richard's absence from England during the Third Crusade, his brother John rebelled, and Gerard joined his forces at Nottingham Castle. During his absence, he left Nicholaa at Lincoln, her role to defend the castle, which she did, holding out for forty days against the siege undertaken by William Longchamp, Richard's lord chancellor.

As reported by the chronicler Richard of Devizes, "Nicholaa, not thinking about anything womanly, defended … [Lincoln] castle manfully." She did not yield her castle--the siege was broken when John's castles at Nottingham and Tickham fell. Hmmmm--it would seem that her castle was not quite  defended manfully . . . The men surrendered!

After the rebellion, Gerard was excommunicated, and in 1194, when Richard finally returned to England, Nicholaa's estates were forfeit, as was the claim to wardship of the castle. The two had to buy back their holdings with the payment of a considerable fine

When John came to the throne in 1199, after Richard's death, the position of castellan was returned to Gerard, in his wife's right. But after her husband's death in 1215, Nicholaa de la Haye assumes a more prominent role in politics. 

In the summer of 1216, during yet another period of tumult, this time barons rebelling against John, England was invaded by the French,  under the command of Louis of France, "the Lion" (later Louis VIII), who was claiming title to the English throne. Nicholaa de la Haye secured the safety of Lincoln by purchasing a truce from the invaders.

A thirteenth-century manuscript illustration
of the battle of Lincoln;
from Matthew Paris's history, Chronica majora
The embattled king made a visit to Lincoln in September 1216. His meeting with Nicholaa, then a woman of about fifty or sixty, is described in a chronicle later preserving the testimony of witnesses:
And once it happened that after the war King John came to Lincoln and the said Lady Nicholaa went out of the eastern gate of the castle carrying the keys of the castle in her hand and met the king and offered the keys to him as her lord and said she was a woman of great age and was unable to bear such fatigue any longer and he besought her saying, "My beloved Nicholaa, I will that you keep the castle as hitherto until I shall order otherwise."
On 18 October of that year, just hours before his death, King John appointed Nicholaa de la Haye to the position of sheriff of Lincoln, About this unusual appointment, Louise Wilkinson notes, "The appointment of a woman as a sheriff was highly unusual in an age when women, as members of ‘the weaker sex,’ were usually barred from public life. Lady Nicholaa’s appointment as sheriff in Lincolnshire in 1216 owed a great deal both to her inherited lands and connections, and to her strong track record of loyal service to King John."

John's trust in Nicholaa's strength, courage, and loyalty proved to be well-placed. When John died on the night of 18/19 October, his nine-year-old son became king, but the country was still engulfed in rebellion. 

Once again, Nicholaa de la Haye defended Lincoln Castle for the king--this time, she held the castle for the new English king, Henry III, for several months against the besieging forces of the rebellious English barons and the French prince. 

The great English knight, the seventy-year-old William Marshall, arrived to relieve the castle--the second battle of Lincoln, fought on 20 May 1217, defeated the opposition forces. Nicholaa's defense of the castle and her aid to the royalist army were crucial in William Marshall's victory.

Of course, Nicholaa de la Haye's reward for her courage and fidelity was great. NAAAAH!!! Who are we kidding here???? Four days after the battle, she was removed as sheriff of Lincoln, the position given to the king's uncle, the earl of Salisbury, who not only took control of the city and of the castle, but attempted to control Nicholaa herself--he promptly married off Nicholaa's granddaughter and heiress, Idonea, to his son.

Even then, Nicholaa de la Haye did not surrender. In Wilkinsons' words, "Time and time again, Nicholaa was called upon to defend her home as the earl tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to wrest control of Lincoln castle from Nicholaa, first by force and later by offering hostages. Nicholaa relinquished control of Lincoln castle for the last time in June 1226 and died peacefully at her Lincolnshire manor of Swaton in 1230." 

It may not count for much, but, in the end, she survived Salisbury by four years. 

She is buried there in St. Michael's Church. 

There is no biography of Nicholaa de la Haye, but you can access Wilkinson's excellent essay, from "Women of Magna Carta," by clicking here

A more extended account of Nicholaa de la Haye is in Wilkinson's Women in Thirteenth-Century Lincoln.

If you are interested, the In Out Time podcast commemorating the Battle of Lincoln includes an account of Nichcolaa de la Haye's role; to listen, click here.

A plaque commemorating Nicholaa de la Haye,
Linoln Castle

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

"Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again"

Margaret Atwood's Brave New World (series premiere of The Handmaid's Tale, 26 April 2016)

I first read Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, shortly after it was published, but I never put it on a syllabus, and although a fair number of my students chose to work with Atwood’s novel for group projects over the years, I must be honest and admit that I never reread the book myself. It was just too disturbing. (And I taught Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus every year!) It wasn’t until I started work on a project about "women's worlds" that I forced myself to read The Handmaid’s Tale for a second time.*

Photo taken at the Women's March by
Sarah Pinsker

And now, more than thirty years after its publication,  Atwood's novel is is not only only the source of a critically acclaimed and much-anticipated new TV series, it's at the top of the Amazon best-seller list (#5, as of today, 26 April 2017).

References to The Handmaid's Tale are everywhere--this post is illustrated with placards and posters from the 21-22 January 2017 Women's March that drew some half a million people to Washington, D. C., that took place in 408 cities in the United States, and that saw 168 "sister" marches take place in 81 countries around the world. 

Atwood has recently written that she, the author of The Handmaid's Tale, found watching one scene in the new television version "terribly upsetting': "It was way too much like way too much history," she says.

Just what are so many people now finding not only so relevant but, like Atwood, so upsetting?

In The Handmaid’s Tale, the narrator’s first-person account of her life covers a few months, from spring to late summer. The narrator who is recounting the story that we are reading is no longer an individual with her own hopes and dreams. She offers us only one brief physical description of herself, halfway through the novel, and even then she is utterly nondescript: “I am thirty-three years old. I have brown hair. I stand five seven without shoes.” We cannot picture her in our mind—she can hardly picture herself. “I have trouble remembering what I used to look like,” she says. 

And our narrator has no name. She is called “Offred,” a patronymic. She belongs to Fred, she is “of” Fred, she is Fred’s. Although she remembers the name she bore before she became Fred’s property, she suppresses it: “I must forget about my secret name and all ways back.” “I too am a missing person,” she writes. Although Offred claims she will someday reclaim her name, she never does. Offred remains Offred.

Stripped of her names and identity, Offred has been reduced to her body, which is no longer her own. During a time when most women are sterile, our narrator has a viable uterus. She is a “two-legged womb,” and her body has been claimed as a critical national resource—she is a Handmaid, a woman whose sole purpose is to produce a child for a childless Wife. 

At her current “posting,” Offred is imprisoned in a room at the top of the stairs, a room where she sits night after night and waits to be called downstairs for the highly ritualized monthly Ceremony, when the man to whom she now belongs will try to impregnate her. Although she is the only occupant of the upstairs room, she refuses to call it a room of her own. It is “not my room,” she insists, “I refuse to say my.” 
Ben Cartwright,
for the Women's March

The totalitarian theocracy of Gilead justifies its subjection of fertile women, forcing them to conceive and bear children for the ruling Commanders and Wives, on the authority of the Old Testament, in particular Sarah’s command to Abraham that he give her a child, conceived with her slave, Hagar (“You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go into my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her,” Genesis 16:2) and Rachel’s command to Jacob that he give her a child, conceived with her “maid,” Bilhah (“Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, that she may bear upon my knees and that I too may have children through her,” Genesis 30:3).

Although The Handmaid’s Tale is set against a background of war, we hear few of the specifics. The United States has become the Republic of Gilead—Offred alludes briefly to the “catastrophe” of the mid 1980s when the president was assassinated and the Congress was eliminated.

This was a violent military coup, a terrorist attack perpetrated by a shadowy Christian fundamentalist group calling itself the “Sons of Jacob,” although, as Offred notes, these homegrown rebels “blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.” The army declared a state of emergency and suspended the constitution. Newspapers were censored, and freedom of movement was restricted—roadblocks were set up and passes were required to travel. 

But no one objected: “Everyone approved . . . since it was obvious you couldn’t be too careful.” Although new elections were promised, they never materialized. The transition from democratic republic to militant fundamentalist theocracy was quickly and ruthlessly effected—Offred asks herself how it happened, but the answer is clear enough. Although she says everyone was “stunned” at the turn of events, there were no protests and no riots: “People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction.” 

Offred’s own inaction reflected the larger apathy; for the next few years after the President’s Day Massacre, she and her husband followed their usual routine, getting up in the morning, going to work, coming home. They had a child together, a daughter.

 Although there were news stories reporting on the terrible changes underway—women “bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with, as they used to say”—these were stories “about other women.” “We lived, as usual by ignoring. . . . We lived in the gaps between the stories,” Offred says. 

She sees the final “catastrophe,” the sudden reordering of society along Old Testament principles, only in personal terms—she lost her job and her bank account, her marriage was dissolved, she was arrested, and her five-year-old child was “confiscated” by the state and reassigned to a new, “morally fit” couple.

Three years have passed since the traumatic day she became a prisoner of war, but that war continues. The threats to Gilead are both everywhere and nowhere. “This is the heart of Gilead,” Offred tells us, “where the war cannot intrude except on television. Where the edges are we aren’t sure, they vary, according to the attacks and counterattacks; but this is the center, where nothing moves.” 

About this never-ending war Offred observes, “First, the front lines. They are not lines, really: the war seems to be going on in many places at once.” At one point she hears from another Handmaid that the war “is going well.” Later she catches a few brief moments of a television newscast and hears that army has captured “a pocket” of Baptist guerilla fighters in the Appalachian Mountains.

Rebels also include Catholics and “the heretical sect of Quakers.” Offred craves these glimpses of the world outside her room, but she is skeptical about what she hears—“who knows if any of it is true? It could be old clips, it could be faked. But I watch it anyway, hoping to be able to read beneath it.”

Photo by Greg Zimmerman
The book is divided into sections, too, which also seem to impose a recognizable chronology on the story: there are fifteen numbered parts, in which “Night” alternates with daytime activities like “Shopping” and daytime locations that seem familiar, like “Household.” In each of the “Night” sections, Offred is alone in her empty room at the top of the stairs (this pattern is broken just once when, instead of “Night,” the section is entitled “Nap”).

But if we examine the titles of the alternating sections, Offred’s experiences seem less and less familiar as the novel progresses. What kind of activity is “Salvaging”? And where is “Jezebel’s”? We move from the familiar to the unfamiliar as the novel unfolds and we travel more deeply into the brave new world of Gilead.

If we hold fast to the organization suggested by this table of contents, The Handmaid’s Tale seems  to focus on the events of seven days and nights over the course of the few months spanned by the novel. But once we begin reading, we can see that the simple chronology is not so simple after all. The story jumps back and forth in time, as Offred remembers her past—these memories are of her mother, of her childhood, of her college life and friends, of her marriage, and of her daughter (whose name we never learn). 

There are also memories of the more recent past—of her “retraining” as a Handmaid, of events she has experienced in the three years since, of her previous “posting” in another household. As we read, we experience a kind of vertigo, a dizzy slipping between the present and the past, before and after. It’s not so much where we are that is confusing, it’s when we are, as we experience Offred’s stream-of-conscious narration, her mind moving constantly backward and forward as something she is experiencing triggers a memory of the past. 

Because Offred’s story is related in the first person and in the present tense, we seem to experience the events she relates along with her. We are there, with her, in her empty room during the long nights when she can’t sleep. We are with her in bed during the monthly Ceremony as she lies between the legs of the Commander’s Wife with the Commander on top of her. But as we read, we slowly become aware of the constructed nature of Offred’s story. 

We are not, after all, experiencing these events as they happen to her. What we have, instead, is an approximation, an account that may—or may not—correspond to what really happened. “I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling,” Offred says. “I need to believe it. I must believe it.” Why is it so important to her? Because if it is a story, then she is its author—“If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it.” As she quickly notes, however, this “isn’t a story.” Then, just as quickly, it is: “It’s a story I’m telling, in my head, as I go along.” “But,” she adds, “if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else.” 

And another twist: “Even when there is no one.” At this point, reeling from the narrator’s contradictions, we encounter something new. The narrator suggests that she is writing a letter, addressed to us: “Dear You, I’ll say. Just you, without a name.” Yet the letter she addresses to us is not a letter she expects will ever be delivered: “I’ll pretend you can hear me. But it’s no good, because I know you can’t.” But I can hear you, we want to shout, breaking through the words on the page to the author of those words. We can hear her—it Offred who cannot hear us.

Later Offred stops midway through one story and offers us another, saying, “I am too tired to go on with this story. I’m too tired to think about where I am. Here is a different story, a better one.” A few pages on, she reveals that the story she is telling us “is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction. It’s a reconstruction now, in my head . . . rehearsing what I should or shouldn’t have said, what I should or shouldn’t have done, how I should have played it. If I ever get out of here—.” 

 At this very moment, offering us a reason to hope that she has, after all, escaped, she reminds us of her narrative as fabrication: “When I get out of here, if I’m ever able to set this down, in any form, even in the form of one voice to another, it will be a reconstruction then too, at yet another remove.” 

A few pages later, she tells us she imagines killing the man whose Handmaid she is, imagines “the blood coming out of him, hot as soup, sexual, over my hands.” Then she stops. “In fact I don’t think about anything of the kind,” she says. “I put it in only afterwards. Maybe I should have thought about that, at the time, but I didn’t. As I said, this is a reconstruction.” She rewrites—or retells—the scene, then tells us that this revision “is a reconstruction, too.” 

In fact, the entire narrative of The Handmaid’s Tale takes on a totally unexpected aspect just when we think it’s over. Against all odds, Offred may be liberated—on the last few pages her story abruptly ends when she is escorted to a waiting vehicle. Is she being arrested or escaping? Even she does not know: “Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing,” she says. She remains curiously, frustratingly apathetic: “I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can’t be helped.” 

Photo by David Fitzgerald

We are ultimately left with uncertainty: “And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.” Unsettled—and maybe a bit frustrated—by this inconclusive conclusion, we turn to the “Historical Notes” that follow. We expect these notes will include Atwood’s comments about her novel or that they are reflections appended by an editor—but the “historical” notes at the end of Atwood’s novel are something altogether different.

What follows Offred’s unfinished story is a “partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies,” dated to June 2195. The transcript records the speech of a keynote address by Professor James Darcy Pieixoto—in which we discover that we have not read an unmediated account of Offred’s experiences as a Handmaid. Rather, the account we have just read, which we thought was the work of Offred, is another reconstruction. 

“Her” story has not just been transmitted through male hands, it is the recreation of two male scholars—it has been transcribed, edited, annotated, and published by Pieixoto and his Cambridge colleague, Professor Knotly Wade, who is responsible for the naming of Offred’s story. He has titled it The Handmaid’s Tale, “in homage,” we learn, “to the great Geoffrey Chaucer.” 

What is the effect of this narrative frame on Offred’s account of the horrors of life in Gilead? It not only distances us from her story, it undermines our faith in it—if it is just like one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, it is fiction and the “person” who created it is also a fiction, a female character created by a male author. And somehow we are, today, reading a transcript of a speech to be delivered more than two hundred years in the future.

The character of Offred and the truthfulness of her story are further reduced in this narrative frame by the overt misogyny of Pieixoto, who jokes about the pun in Wade’s title (“I am sure all puns were intentional, particularly that having to do with the archaic vulgar signification of the word tail; that being, to some extent, the bone, as it were, of contention in that phrase of Gileadean society of which our saga treats. [Laughter, applause.]),” who undercuts the credibility of the tale’s supposed author (“This latter appears to have been a somewhat malicious invention by our author”), who refers patronizingly to the story itself (“This item—I hesitate to use the word document. . . .”), and who discounts the extent of her suffering with “humor” (“our author refers to . . . ‘The Underground Femaleroad,’ since dubbed by some of our historical wags ‘The Underground Frailroad.’ [Laughter, groans.])” Pieixioto ends his address on The Handmaid’s Tale by asking members of the audience, “Are there any questions?” We have questions, lots of them, but we have no opportunity to ask them. Like Offred, we find ourselves silenced. And because we cannot ask questions, we receive no answers.

While Offred has been liberated from her imprisonment as a Handmaid, she is still held captive. In The Handmaid’s Tale, her story is controlled by men—transcribed, edited, disseminated, and interpreted by male scholars. We don’t know what her fate was when she was taken away from the Commander’s home—but two hundred years later, in 2195, we know she has not escaped from male control. She is as much a prisoner of male power and “authority” as she was when she was in her small, empty room at the top of the stairs. 

In her recent op-ed on "What The Handmaid's Tale Means in the Age of Trump," Atwood writes that she is frequently asked whether The Handmaid's Tale  was written as "a prediction."  "That is . . . [a] question I’m asked — increasingly," she says, "as forces within American society seize power and enact decrees that embody what they were saying they wanted to do, even back in 1984, when I was writing the novel. No, it isn’t a prediction, because predicting the future isn’t really possible: There are too many variables and unforeseen possibilities. Let’s say it’s an antiprediction: If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen. But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either."

Let's hope Atwood is right:
In the wake of the recent American election, fears and anxieties proliferate. Basic civil liberties are seen as endangered, along with many of the rights for women won over the past decades, and indeed the past centuries. In this divisive climate, in which hate for many groups seems on the rise and scorn for democratic institutions is being expressed by extremists of all stripes, it is a certainty that someone, somewhere — many, I would guess — are writing down what is happening as they themselves are experiencing it. Or they will remember, and record later, if they can.
Will their messages be suppressed and hidden? Will they be found, centuries later, in an old house, behind a wall?
Let us hope it doesn’t come to that. I trust it will not.