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The Weaker Vessel
ISBN 0394513517 / 9780394513515 / 0-394-51351-7
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Drawing from a wondrously deep well of diaries, letters, and papers from 17th-century England, the gifted historian Antonia Fraser gives the image of the "softer sex" a drubbing, plunging readers into the lives of "heiresses and dairy maids, holy women and prostitutes, criminals and educators, widows and witches, midwives and mothers, heroines, courtesans, prophetesses, businesswomen, ladies of the court, and that new breed, the actress." Prophetess Jane Hawkins, called "a witty crafty baggage" by one angry bishop, got around the ironclad law forbidding women to preach by claiming inspiration from God, while Catholic Mary Ward risked her neck repeatedly to found a string of convents and schools for girls on the European continent. Although several good wives of London beat the Lord Mayor in 1649 for his part in trying to arrest five members of Parliament, it's certainly true that most Englishwomen of the time were hemmed in by the whims and fears of men. Wealthy girls were routinely used as chips to bolster family fortunes through marriage, and any old, poor woman unfortunate enough to have "a furred brow, a hairy lip, a squint eye, a squeaking voice or a scolding tongue" lived under suspicion of witchcraft, wrote one contemporary observer. In Fraser's sure hands and supple prose, memorable and execrable historic moments spring to life. --Francesca Coltrera [via]