Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting with a lovely group of people at the Doraville Public Library’s American Short Stories discussion group. They read Austin’s short story, “William Bradford’s Love Life,” which Austin had first published in 1869, and which I’ve previously written about here. I really wasn’t sure what to expect from our discussion, but I was so excited to hear their responses!
Reviews were mixed, and I don’t think anyone really loved the story. Nobody was happy with the female characters. It’s hard to feel sympathy for Dorothy, mooning about and putting up with her husband whispering another woman’s name in his sleep. Rather than kill herself over it, most seemed to feel she should have taken a different course action and enacted revenge on William.
They didn’t like Alice much more, especially saying no when she really meant yes and the suggestion that she wasn’t capable of knowing her own mind. I have zero defense for this and agree with them completely. Austin’s female characters are trite, weak, stereotypes, but what’s worse is that Alice’s behavior is rewarded with Austin’s approval at the end.
But I think we all agreed that the story itself made the characters more interesting than some of the factual histories. It’s easy to forget that the Pilgrims were people who weren’t all that different from any other human beings. Highlighting their loves and losses underscores their humanity by “filling them out” and making them relatable. To some extent, it also emphasizes their tenacity, sacrifice, and success in ways that the factual histories do not!
And if anyone who reads the fiction is intrigued enough to go learn more about William Bradford, Dorothy May, Alice Southworth Carpenter, or any of the other Pilgrims, then I think the fiction has more than accomplished a worthy goal.