Good Reading : May 2011
MAY 2011 ı goodreading 11 cover story 21st century, in 17th-century America a woman's intelligence was deeply suspect and something to be suppressed. Bethia's father warns her that she risks 'addling her brain' if she thinks on scholarly matters and tells her that it is 'not seemly' for a wife to know more than her husband. In the afterword of the book Geraldine makes it clear that much of the story was drawn from accounts of real people and real events. But the character of Bethia, she writes, was a complete invention. I then start to wonder how likely it is that even an intelligent woman of that time -- despite all the injustices and inequities that were imposed upon her -- would have chafed at the restrictions she had to endure. A hundred years later Mary Wollstonecraft and her feminist heirs would rail against injustices suffered by women, but would intelligent women in the American colonies of the late 1600s really have felt as frustrated and thwarted as the fictional Bethia? Wouldn't we have heard more about it if they had felt this way? 'In the case of women in 17th-century colonial America, the paper trail is negligible,' explains Geraldine. 'There are no jour nals; there are very few letters. And partly it's because women were just too overwhelmed with work to have time to write and reflect. And partly it was because the Puritan ethos was that it would be great if girls lear ned to read because then they could read their Bible. But why would they need to write? They didn't have to communicate in the world. That's what their husbands did. So women in general didn't have a great deal of fluency in writing. 'But it always strikes me as almost arrogant to think that nobody before us ever had the wit to see that women had a raw deal. If you read a lot in early women's writings there are always people who could see through it and who had the guts to try to posit a different way. 'You also find a tremendous amount in court transcripts, because women were always being hauled into court for being scolds. Being a scold [an archaic term for a woman who used abusive language, especially when she was constantly reminding a man to do something] was a crime. And what were they scolding about? They were scolding about the fact that their husbands weren't pulling their weight. And they weren't being given equal -- not even equal -- just enough rights. Plenty of women saw that, tried to do something about it and suffered for it. It's kind of naive to think that "Oh, the light bulb went on in 1965 and women finally figured it out."Well, hello, the suffragettes were there, and before them there was a long, long line of women going back through history who stood up and said, "I can do more in the world. You have to let me do more." 'Ministers' ser mons of the time are also very revealing about how women felt about their lot, because ministers were always banging on about uppity women -- and they wouldn't have been banging on if they didn't see a problem there.' My doubts about Bethia are dispelled. It's obvious that Geraldine has car ried out exhaustive research to enhance the authenticity of the novel. Another astonishing -- and obviously challenging -- feature of the book is how Geraldine captured the first-person voice of a 17th-century woman. The book uses a lot of archaic words, but usually the context makes it clear what is being refer red to without having to reach for the dictionary. But I asked Geraldine how she ensured that she didn't use a word or expression that was coined after the 17th century. 'I use the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary. It's a great, big, fat two-volume thing,' she laughs. 'It's indispensable for me. If I think of a word and I think, "Well, I'm sure they didn't use that word then," I can go and find out exactly what word they did use. So you can dig down through the history of a word and see what word people used for that in the 17th century. 'But it is a challenge because when I'm trying to hear a voice from the past I usually read heaps of jour nals and letters and things like that until the way people express themselves gets ingrained in my head.' Caleb's Crossing is the fourth novel in which Geraldine has employed the technique of telling her story from the viewpoint of a narrator living in the historical period in which the book is set. I ask her what attracts her to writing about the past, despite the challenges. 'I like the fact that you've got a set of constraints.You've got your boundary markers and then you've got the licence within them where imagination can work.' Geraldine explains that it's where the historical record starts to tail off that she really enjoys creatively speculating. In the case of Caleb's Crossing, this means filling in the details of how Caleb led the life of a Harvard scholar in an utterly alien culture -- given that so little is known about him apart from the fact of his graduation. Or describing exactly how the disaffection of women with their restricted lives manifests through someone like Bethia. Tantalising gaps abound in historical records. So it looks as if Geraldine Brooks should have no shortage of material on which to deploy her Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary when she next researches a cor ner of history that won't readily give up its mysteries. Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks is published by Fourth Estate, r rp $32.99.