Reviewed by L.D.Y.
Hardcover, 337 pages, 2005
Reason for Reading: I have a weakness for biographies about authors.
Synopsis: Mistress Bradstreet is a biography of Anne Bradstreet, a Puritan
that moved to America with her family at the age of eighteen, just a decade after the
Pilgrims first arrived in the early 17th century. Her experiences in the New World – marriage, starting a family, and trying to establish a Puritan community without
the corruptions that ran rampant in England – were the topics she focused on in her poetry. Through her bravery (women
were often punished for overstepping their boundaries and not showing the submission that
was expected of proper religious women – including venturing it’s the ‘man’s world’ of
writing) and her talent, Anne Bradstreet strove through a number of obstacles to become America’s first established poet.
Why you should read this book: Gordon did a marvelous job marrying her
well-researched facts with a more creative writing style that will leave you feeling like
you know Anne. Anne Bradstreet seems to be the perfect historical figure for a biography:
while Gordon keeps her true to her times, there’s also a streak of modernness about Anne as
she grows into her own skin over the years and develops a sense of independence. Sometimes
referred to as ‘the first feminist’ as well as the first American poet, Anne is an impressive
example of the woman that wanted it all and got it. A tough feat even today, it seems all
the more incredible that Anne lived in a time where a woman’s duty was strictly to her
family and religion, and certainly not to the ‘man’s world’ of writing and education,
regardless of the any leeway the high status of her family within the Puritan community might have granted her. Scared off by the mere mention of poetry? Anne’s writings are merely sprinkled throughout the book, and act more as
indications of what was going on in her life than as an opportunity for literary analysis. Gordon has gathered
up all of her research and spun it into a highly readable narrative that seems all the more
satisfying because the story is true. Highly recommended if you’re a history buff or a
poetry fan, regardless of whether or not you’re familiar with Bradstreet.
Why you should avoid this book: If you’re expecting concrete fact after concrete
fact, Mistress Bradstreet may leave you a bit chagrined, because some details have
simply been lost with the passage of time. It also seems likely that some of what Anne did
record might have been watered down to prevent anger from people that were apt to see her
writing as a sinful show of pride, or possibly even accuse her of being a witch. As a
result, there is some educated guessing going on, but Gordon always lets the reader know
when her writing is speculation.
After seventy-seven days at sea, one Captain Milbourne steered his ship, the
Arbella – packed with more than three hundred hungry, exhausted souls – into Salem
Harbor, shooting off the ship’s cannon in elation. It was early in the morning of June 12,
1630, a date that would prove to be more fateful to America than the more-famous 1492, but
if either the captain or his hapless passengers had expected any kind of fanfare from the
New World itself, they were disappointed. Far from offering herself up for casual and easy
delectation, America hunched like a dark animal, sleeping and black, offering no clues about
her contours, let alone the miracles reported by the rumor mill of the 1620s: inland seas,
dragons, Indians adorned in golden necklaces, fields sown with diamonds, and bears as tall
The world was watching them to see if they would take a misstep; in his most
frequently quoted words, Winthrop declared that they were as visible ‘as a city upon a
hill.’ Although the lack of interest most English people had evinced over their departure
suggested otherwise, Winthrop told his listeners that their collapse would be a notorious
and famous event, one that would shame the international effort of all Reformers to change
the church into a holier institution.
Anne had no difficulty understanding Winthrop’s
message. The pressure was on. If she fell, others would fall. If their mission failed, they
would let the entire world down. Dudley and Winthrop were like Aaron and Moses – the two
captains of the Jewish exodus from Egypt – and as Dudley’s daughter, she would have to
elevate her actions immediately to live up to this kind of biblical heroism.
And so if Simon was kept away from Ipswich by snow, ice, and treacherous roads,
Anne’s loneliness seemed less oppressive now. She had found herself a companion far more
literary than her husband and more attuned to her work. This was a heady new experience,
though Dudley had prized her acumen, he had never rid himself of his authoritarian stance as
Not that Anne ever lost sight of her other duties. That Dudley and the rest
of Ipswich did not criticize Anne for spending so much time alone with the crusty old
minister and lavishing her energy on scholarship was a testimony to how well she played her
Also recommended: The Master by Colm Tóibín; Virginia Wolf
by Nigel Nicolson; Edward S. Curtis: The Women by Christopher Cardozo; You Drive
Me Crazy edited by Mary D. Esselman and Elizabeth Ash Velez.
Also by this author: When the Grateful Dead Came to St. Louis; Two Girls on a
Author’s website: charlottegordonhome.com
Fun tidbit: Click here for Book Brothel’s interview with Charlotte
Would I read more by this author? Yes – I was surprised by how Mistress
Bradstreet pulled me in considering I’d never heard of Anne Bradstreet.
© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2005