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.
“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.
In honor of Independence Day, I thought I’d pull a list of vintage bestsellers about the War for Independence. I was surprised at how few novels were written about the American Revolution and even more surprised by how unmemorable those few are. In nearly every case, the historical information is more interesting than the invented plot and characters.
Here’s a short list of some long novels about the American War for Independence with links to reviews on this site.
Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts (1940) is a story of the Revolution told from the perspective of an English loyalist, and the best of the five novels.
The Tree of Liberty by Elizabeth Page (1939) is a slow-moving story of the political in-fighting among the colonists attempting to free themselves from the rule of the Crown.
Drums Along the Mohawk by Walter D. Edmonds (1937) is a tale of pioneers in upstate New York who spent most of the Revolution fighting off Indian raids and waiting for Congress to pay them the money it owed them.
Stars on the Sea by F. Van Wyck Mason (1940) is a fictional account of how America got her Navy.
Alice of Old Vincennes by Maurice Thompson (1901) is the story of a pro-colonist pioneer lass at Fort Vincennes, which changed hands several times during the Revolution.
High Towers is a bodice-ripping historical novel about a lovely lass who becomes one of the early settlers of New Orleans.
Felicite’s father dies on the voyage to Montreal in 1697. Her mother returns to France, leaving the child to be brought up in the new world.
Felicite is adopted by Montreal’s leader, Charles le Moyne. Le Moyne arranges a marriage for Felicite with a rich Frenchman and ships her to New Orleans to marry him.
Felicite is already in love with a poor carpenter who has preceded her to New Orleans, but she’s willing to sacrifice herself for the good of the French colonies. Her new husband turns out to be too much of a brute even for Felicite’s patriotism.
Thomas B. Costain takes his plot and characters straight from the shelf with nary a variation on the standard pot-boiler romance.
The only novelty here is the historical setting. The le Moynes were a real family of 10 French-Canadian brothers who played a major role in keeping America from falling under Spanish domination.
Costain tries to weave all 10 brothers into this novel. The result is a forgettable novel about an almost forgotten period in American history.
By Thomas B. Costain
1949 Bestseller #7
My Grade: C+
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
1958 Bestseller #8
My grade: A