ANYA SETON’S WINTHROP WOMEN, A TREASURE FROM THE 1950s

The republishing of the prodigious historical novels of Anya Seton in the first decade of this century brings to light the treasure trove encompassed in her work.

Winthrop Women, first published in 1958 and later released in 2006 is a particular gift for those whose interests lie in the history of the Puritans, the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the early settlement of the environs of Greenwich, Connecticut.  Above all, it is a great love story and the saga of a strong and independent woman richly entwined in the region’s history.

Winthrop Women  embraces a broad  historical web, set in the 1600s (1617-1655)  centered around the family of  John Winthrop, a fanatical practitioner of the Puritan faith  who became the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and his rebellious niece and daughter-in-law Elizabeth Fons. Their descendents  remain in Connecticut and  throughout New England.  Seton tells the Winthrop family and  Elizabeth Fons’  story in three parts: The early years in England living a near aristocratic lifestyle; the great Puritan migration to the New World with the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony;  Elizabeth’s  banishment from Massachusetts and her emergence in Greenwich, Connecticut with husbands (correct) , lovers and children joining in the journey!

Anya Seton’s story of Elizabeth is written in ” high-definition.”  From childhood, “Bess”  is of independent thought and passionate in her views. She was born on a collision course with the beliefs of her Puritan elders, especially John  Winthrop.  Long before boarding the ship Lyon for the journey to  the New World, this child of luxury and  high social status had established herself as the Fons’ and Winthrop family non-conformist.

Proudly leading his flock beneath the banner of religious freedom to the colonies in New England,  far away from the dictates of King Charles, Cromwell and the ruling British establishment, John Winthrop becomes a  zealot and religious tyrant, ruling over his domain, with a wrathful “God” as his enforcer.

Elizabeth’s ever complicated life, saturated with her passion for men and her non-conformist beliefs, provides the framework for an abundant tableau of what life and love was like in 1630s New England. The drudgery of daily survival, the absence of  luxuries, disease and Indians both friend and foe. Foremost, the woman’s role of being, above all, a necessary  “good breeder,” upon which the future of the faith and the colony itself depended!

Elizabeth, having fallen in love with John Winthrop’s son, her cousin Henry, became pregnant and was hastily married before leaving England!  Henry, a kindred free spirit was not traveling with Elizabeth on the ship Lyon but was under his father’s supervision on the Arabella. Elizabeth learned  upon her arrival in Massachusetts that Henry had drowned in a boating accident upon landing. There would be two more husbands and many children, living and still-born before her story concludes thirty years later.

During a brief period when Winthrop had been ousted as Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor, the community rose up against Elizabeth’s behavior with rumors and  speculation that she and her Indian servant Telaka  were possessed by the devil. The outcry became witchcraft! Banishment from the colony, the final solution in those days short of hanging, saw Elizabeth, her family and Telaka ( whom Elizabeth had rescued from a slave auction) on their way to Greenwich where under Dutch law there was greater respect for individual freedom and religious beliefs. This novel is so wonderfully written and researched  that of course, Telaka, had ended up in Boston only after being kidnapped from her tribe, the Siwanoy Indians who populated the area in and around Greenwich! A homecoming for Telaka and a new most welcoming home for Elizabeth, her husband and brood?  Not quite that simple!

In the Greenwich chapters you will walk with Elizabeth on the white beaches of  Monakewago ( Tods Point), follow the Mianus River, witness the massacre of over 1000 Siwanoy Indians ( Telaka’s family) in what is today Cos Cob. There will be yet another husband and more “breeding, ”  and another banishment with the loss of thousands of acres of land that today encompass the entire Town of Greenwich.

History is taught in many ways and Seton is deserving of  high praise both as a novelist and historian for Winthrop Women.  Seton wrote Winthrop Women while living in Old Greenwich, Connecticut where she died in 1990 at age 86. She is buried there in Putnam cemetery.

Other highly acclaimed novels by Anya Seton  include, Foxfire ( 1950),  Katherine (1954),  The Mistletoe and the Sword (1956).

THE FIRST ” CITY UPON A HILL ” EDEN ON THE CHARLES THE MAKING OF BOSTON

The contemporary reference to  City Upon A Hill  is Ronald Reagan’s famous quote, Shining City Upon A Hill.  His comment was sourced all the way back to Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritan founder John Winthrop. When  Winthrop spoke these memorable words ( minus the word shining) , he was poised to disembark on the American shore on land that is now Boston. The man who eventually became governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony accurately predicted that the new community would be a City Upon a Hill to be watched by the world. I think Winthrop would have liked Reagan’s addition of shining!

Winthrop’s inspiration came from Matthew 5:14. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his listeners: You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. From this scripture comes the ethos of Michael Rawson’s Eden On The Charles THE MAKING OF BOSTON, a work of non-fiction that was a finalist in the 2010 Pulitzer competition.

Eden on The Charles is very different from a typical historical perspective of the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  It is the story of how over two and one half centuries a community with an enormously varied socio-economic strata came together to build America’s first great city in harmony with the natural environment.  It is a study of how within a political structure of fierce independence and private enterprise a community used the forces of government to act in behalf of the well-being of the citizenry and the natural environment.  Boston was indeed the very first American city to recognize that the  new world’s resources were not unlimited. From the mid-seventeenth century establishment of Boston Common as public land for everyone’s benefit there came a cascade of new ideas and concepts that established development patterns for cities throughout America.  These far-sighted yet fiercely independent citizens of varied rank established a pattern over two centuries wherby Boston Common went from cow pasture to the nation’s first public park,  Boston Harbor was saved from encroachment and destruction, greenways were established to prevent urban sprawl,  huge public parks were created on the outskirts of the city, and perhaps most important of all as early as the 19th century Boston built a public water supply providing free water for the city’s burgeoning population. It also built a public sewer system. There is some irony in the fact that the wealthy industrialists who became the Boston Brahmins were many of the most ardent environmentalists of the time. One of Boston’s early reformers and leaders of the public water supply movement, Walter Channing said,  Whatever a society judged to be essential to the health and happiness of its people must never be the responsibility of a profit-driven entity. It must ,instead, be made the responsibility of government.  Channing’s 175 year-old concept still rings loudly in contemporary political discourse.

Eden On The Charles  falls within a text-book reference and yet it reads so easily that concepts which are now fundamental  to the nation’s conversation regarding the preservation of the natural environment are easily understood and eye-opening. My being a New Englander and having spent a considerable amount of time in Boston made the book even more vivid.

In the closing paragraph of Eden On The Charles Rawson issues a wonderful challenge.  We should aim our sights high, as nineteenth century Bostonians did, and work to new environmental relationships that are worthy of a City Upon A Hill.