Blurred lines: history versus romance

Blurred lines: history versus romance

Why are some sources on the Pilgrims considered reliable or useful, while others are ignored or even ridiculed? There is a fair amount of speculation and imaginative reconstruction in even the driest of histories, and those are the points I find the most fascinating. What truly separates a historical novel from history?

Jane G Austin made no secret of the fact that she was writing a “romance” of the Plymouth Colony in Standish of Standish (1889). The preface begins, “The history of the Old Colony includes, among some very stern facts, a deal of sweet and tender romance, hitherto hardly known except to those who have learned it at their mother’s knee.”

Standish is a chronological (mostly) retelling of the first 18 months or so of the new colony, although Austin speeds up time in some cases and focuses on certain events while ignoring others. The fact that she follows any type of a plot differentiates her novel from a source like The Women of the Mayflower and Women of Plymouth Colony (1921), by Ethel J.R.C. Noyes, which is listed on quite a few genealogy websites as a viable resource.

Noyes’ text is organized chronologically and at times reads more like a list than any type of cohesive story. She doesn’t promote the work as anything other than a history. But she still takes a fair amount of artistic license and certainly infuses the work with her own ideas about what the Pilgrim women were like and what they endured.

And romance is just as central to Noyes’ text as it is to Austin’s. She focuses on the marriages and relationships of the Pilgrim women, celebrating their domestic prowess and excellence in motherhood, but she does not distinguish any other personal traits or accomplishments. It’s all about the love.

Today, many readers believe that romantic love has always been the basis for marriage. No one doubts that love has always existed between humans, but historically, marriage hasn’t always been about true love. That’s one reason why Jane Austen’s novels were so remarkable. And here of course I’m referring to the English Austen, not the American Austin! The idea of marrying for love was still relatively new when the English Austen published her first novel in 1811.

By 1921, when Noyes’ book was published, romantic love as the basis for marriage was widely accepted and promoted as the ideal. Many of the texts published around the 1920 tercentennial of the Mayflower landing were just as flowery and romantic, suggesting just how Americans of that time wanted to think of the Pilgrims. Yet I also have to wonder if Noyes isn’t reacting in some ways to the fact that American women had just received the right to vote in 1920. The long, difficult path to gaining voting rights was controversial and complicated.

By focusing on the Pilgrim women, rather than only on the Pilgrim fathers, Noyes seems to be making a fairly progressive statement, insisting on their right to have their stories told and to be recognized for their sacrifices and efforts as well. But she does it according to the essentialist ideals of woman as domestic goddess and benevolent mother. She celebrates her Pilgrim women for their strength and ability to persevere, but only within a domestic framework.

Granted, without much primary evidence to use, she has very little to work with, as Caleb Johnson points out in his “Women of Early Plymouth” post. Bradford’s journal, for example, doesn’t even record all the names of the women who lived in Plymouth, much less any details about their personalities. And throughout the text, Noyes seems to be striving more for truth and accuracy than previous writers, in part because she does not make the claim that she is basing her story on family lore, but also because Pilgrim genealogy and history had come a long way in the 30 years since Austin was working. She even references some of the corrections she makes to the historical record.

So the Monday wash day scene, which comes from “historical” sources, is retold, but she completely ignores the Standish love triangle, which clearly came from a fictional source. But the wash day scene is also fiction; she just didn’t recognize it as such because it came from a history. She never even mentions the possibility that Dorothy Bradford commits suicide, which comes entirely from fiction.

She also does not differentiate characteristics of the Pilgrim women, because to do so would definitely be a departure from the scanty print record. So while Austin vilifies Desire Minter as a trouble-making vixen, Noyes portrays her as a paragon of virtue. Austin’s Helena Billington is (quite unfairly, I admit) cast as a coarse “slattern” unworthy of association with the Pilgrims, while Noyes’ Eleanor Billington is only “different in style and manner …yet not lacking desirable qualities” (72). If anything, though, I’d say that Austin’s decision to include some “bad seeds” makes her story slightly more realistic (emphasis on slightly).

Still, I think it would have been just as easy for Noyes to imagine the Pilgrim women as bold adventurers who wanted to see the world and try new things, and who grasped at the opportunity to do so. Instead, she imagines them wanting only to accompany their beloved husbands, from whom they couldn’t bear to be parted. Maybe, in 1921, she really couldn’t imagine women wanting anything else. Or maybe she was trying to promote a certain viewpoint of women.

I admit that I’m just as much a product of my own time as any of the writers I’m studying, though, and of course that’s coloring my own readings here.

Going back to my original question, though: if I’m asking why Noyes’ text is recommended as a resource while Austin’s is not, I’d have to provide several answers. First, she does not attempt to portray it as a romance, but rather as a work of history. And readers buy into that. Second, she takes less artistic license with the people and story line, so it does seem more factual overall. But third, the artistic license she does take fits into a very popular and commonly accepted view point, one that does not raise any eyebrows. And it might just be that the last reason is the most important of all.

About Kari Miller

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