Cunning Women: A Novel by Elizabeth Lee

Cunning Women: A Novel by Elizabeth Lee

The description states this is a feminist tale, what happens when women are ostracized, “cast out” from their communities. It does not disappoint. The characters and their lives challenge typical narratives of women in this historical era. Despite being several decades past the so-called Women’s History turn in the discipline, popular depictions of European women in the 17th century remain stagnant as powerless, subjects in a patriarchal world, and largely passive. Of course, we have seen and heard of the warrior women (queens), daring women (aristocrats), extraordinary women (those who chose to challenge norms); what we often lack are narratives of truly ordinary women. They remain (largely) relegated to a passive role in society.

Not so in Elizabeth Lee’s Cunning Women.

In this tale women lead the way despite living under a patriarchal yoke. The characters here are not heroines, they do not dismantle patriarchy, they must live within in it (as we all do) but they resist. It is this reality that Lee folds the reader into. Mother and daughters, even the sons of the village are bound within a system not of their own making. What makes Cunning Women feminist is that some characters find ways to resist, even when knowing their reality cannot deliver on desire. They resist anyway. Other characters find ways to resist by scraping by, by working within the system and in these ways — by merely surviving — challenge the patriarchy which binds them. These characters, in their hanging onto life, raise a fist to “the Man” so to speak. Even the characters who bow to the patriarchy find themselves at odds with it when the women in this tale earn their vengeance.

Cunning Women is a complex tale, one which appears deceptively simple in its plot. It is for that reason (I believe) the story moves slowly. Lee allows the reader time to digest and mull over, to reflect as the main character does on the parameters of a woman’s life in an English village in the 17th century. The love story necessarily moves slowly; this is not a rush of lust but an intellectual and emotional growth of love. Note: this is not a romance. No, this is much more realistic than that. Cunning Women is an account of a realistic life with all its banality and uncertainties.

All in all, well worth the read.

The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World by Malcolm Gaskill

The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World
by Malcolm Gaskill

Gaskill’s The Ruin of All Witches straddles the worlds of scholarship and fiction, the latter built on the solid foundations of the former. In doing so, this book takes the best of both literary domains to produce a richly detailed landscape of Puritan culture and society in England’s Old and New World. It centers on a Puritan couple, John and Mary, accused and tried for witchcraft in Thomas Pynchon’s New England. It starts long before their relationship begins and carries the reader through to its agonizing disintegration. Along the way, readers are engaged in the lives of a full cast of village denizens; this is a wonderfully immersive read.

Not merely backdrop to the main events, but integral for the reader’s understanding of the whys, whens, and hows of the witch hunts that followed, are the economic and political developments of Pynchon’s New England in the New World and the maneuverings of Royalists and Cromwellian supporters (rebels) in the Old. Gaskill delivers all the necessary context for the reader, leaving them with an almost palpable texture of English life in the 17th century (really, one can’t call this “American” in any sense of the word, though the New World does eventually become that.)

Readers should be prepared for a long read; detail like this does not come short, but the delivery is concise and succinct, leaving off unnecessary descriptions and fictions that do not add to the narrative. The descriptions that remain convey an authenticity, evidence of Gaskill’s skill of drawing out richness from (what is often, dry,) archival text. We can not only envision John and Mary, young and hopeful at the beginning, withered and waning at the end, but the humanity of their shortcomings are recognizable so as to make them and their community as near to us as our own flesh.

History, that remote and abstract object, comes alive in The Ruin of All Witches.