Quick Facts about Standish of Standish:
Date of publication: 1889
Author: Jane Goodwin Austin (NOT the English Jane Austen!)
Setting: Plymouth, Massachusetts, in the early years of the settlement
Plot Synopsis: The novel opens with the Mayflower anchored in the harbor and the women demanding to be taken ashore to do their laundry after months onboard. The Pilgrims eventually find and then settle in Plymouth where they deal with the difficulties of the first winter, including numerous deaths. The first summer is more successful, as is the first fall, and Pilgrims invite the Wampanoag to a feast by way of saying thank you. Another year passes as the little settlement struggles for establishment, and the novel ends just after the arrival of the Anne in 1623, with a new group of passengers.
Best Version: Because this novel went into so many printings, copies are easy to find. Early editions can be purchased on sites like www.abebooks.com for under $10 (just don’t buy the dramatized version modified by Annie Russell Marble; it’s not the same). The two-volume set is more expensive but includes charming illustrations by Frank T. Merrill, one of the most prolific illustrators of the period. He illustrated Little Women in addition to works by Twain and Hawthorne. Online editions of the illustrated and non-illustrated texts can also be found at Project Gutenberg.
I haven’t read Dr. McKenzie’s book, The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History, but he has several posts about the book on his blog here.
Pilgrim Hall Museum also has some biographical information about Austin and information about the book here.
My notes and commentary:
This book is one of the more accessible texts and is a must-read for anyone interested in Pilgrim history because of its influence on the Pilgrim story. I’d even argue that this is the book that really cements the Pilgrim story in American tradition. Austin followed the earlier histories fairly closely, and unlike previous novels, this one stays much closer to the historical record in terms of events and characters. All the major characters are here. But she focuses more on Myles Standish, which I find interesting. I’m not yet sure if she was trying to revive his reputation after Longfellow’s Courtship of Miles Standish, especially because he was her ancestor, or if she was simply trying to explore a different angle of the story. The Myles Standish monument had been completed a year before, in 1898.
She does not spend much time on matters of religion. And she takes plenty of liberties in order to develop tension and drama. The Billingtons are demonized, Desire Minter is a minx, and the Wampanoag are dehumanized. Some of her creative license can be excused; she weaves a dramatic tale about Standish’s sword being used in the Crusades and carrying magical powers, but most of that was believed to be true in her lifetime. The other liberties she took earned her a lot of criticism from scholars later on, which is one reason the book has fallen into obscurity.
There is also a lot of romance woven throughout the plot. Priscilla Mullins plays a key role as a sassy and independent-minded girl who delivers the famous “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?” line. There are other marriages, and there are broken hearts, all of which contribute to the story development.
Pilgrims and Puritans:
Because this novel focuses on the Plymouth settlement between 1620-1623, the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans don’t factor in at all.
But the word “Puritan” does not even appear in the novel. By 1889, the distinction between the two groups, a process begun earlier in the century, seems to be pretty complete. The word “Pilgrim” appears 89 times, and she uses the word “Separatist” four times. In each usage, she’s describing some aspect of theology. So this novel is also remarkable because it seems to be a turning point for the terminology.
Austin had access to plenty of histories by the time she wrote this novel, including her brother John Goodwin’s The Pilgrim Republic, published the year before. But she also conducted a lot of “field” research. She was a regular summer visitor to Plymouth at that point and I’ve found letters in which she’s exploring genealogy. She also used the landscape of Plymouth and artifacts from Pilgrim Hall and private collections to inspire her. While she was excoriated later on for all of her inaccuracies, I don’t think that’s a fair characterization. She wasn’t claiming to be writing a history like her brother, and she did try to be as authentic as she could while still telling a story.