Reread: The Winthrop Woman

Since Thanksgiving is just days away and kindergarten kids are drawing pictures of Pilgrims in funny hats, today seemed like a good time to recommend rereading The Winthrop Woman, Anya Seyton’s  historical novel about one of America’s more famous — some would say more infamous — Puritans.

Book cover shows Winthrop Woman alone, wearing red cape.
I read this version of The Winthrop Woman as a teen.

“The Winthrop Woman” was Elizabeth Fones Winthrop Feake Hallett, born 1610 to Thomas and Anne Winthrop Fones. Anne was sister to John Winthrop, who was to become an early settler of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and later its Governor.

Elizabeth married one of her first cousins, a son of John Winthrop, which is how she got the moniker “the Winthrop Woman.”

Elizabeth led a fascinating life. (At least it’s fascinating for readers; living it must have been an entirely different matter.)  She had bad luck with husbands in an era when having a husband was practically a requirement for survival.

But she survived, as Seyton’s novel shows.  Today “the Winthrop woman” is considered one of the founders of Greenwich, Connecticut.

She’s also an ancestor of Howard Dean, Vermont governor and 2004 presidential candidate; aviator Amelia Earhart; former Secretary of State John Kerry; and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

The portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop shown below was done by English painter George Richmond who lived about 200 years after Winthrop.  He’s made her appear far more genteel than did the book jacket artist.

Portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop
Portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop by George Richmond.

The Winthrop Woman Makes History Live

Historical fiction doesn’t get any better than The Winthrop Woman, Anya Seton’s fascinating tale of Puritan America.

Elizabeth, the novel’s heroine, is niece and daughter-in-law to John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Widowed before she reaches America, Elizabeth marries Robert Feake, a strange, weak young man. The Feakes flee Massachusetts when Elizabeth is accused of witchcraft. They settle in Greenwich, buy land, and seek the protection of Dutch citizenship.

Unhinged by an Indian attack, Robert returns to England. In order to get a divorce so she can marry again, Elizabeth says she committed adultery. That lie almost does her in. Elizabeth and her third husband, William Hallet, barely escape being tried for both adultery and bigamy.

Beneath all the exciting stuff—passion, witchcraft, massacres, madness—is a fascinating picture of Puritans. Far from being united by faith, they bickered constantly among themselves over doctrinal points and united only in contempt for Catholics, Baptists, and other heathen.

Readers would never guess this story wasn’t invented, but the facts, dates, and circumstances are all true. Sexton said the story didn’t need any additions to make it exciting. (She’s right.) She even incorporated characters’ written words into the novel’s dialog.

Don’t miss The Winthrop Woman. It’s a great read.

The Winthrop Woman
by Anya Seton
Houghton, Mifflin 1958
586 pages
1958 Bestseller #8
My grade: A
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni