Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Winthrop Woman by Anya Seton

This bestselling novel - Anya Seton's follow-up to Katherine - concerns Elizabeth Winthrop (nee Fones), a real historical figure who married into the family of Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and moved to the wild New World in 1631. This perceptive, authoritative, and thoroughly documented account portrays the fortitude, humiliation, and ultimate triumph of a Puritan woman who dared to live and love as her heart commanded.

I know I am not the only one who buys books and doesn't read them. I also know that I am not the only person who then reads one of those books, and then wonders why on earth I hadn't read it before. I initially bought this book back in 2007 when it was chosen as book of them month at the forerunner to Historical Fiction Online, and now here I am nearly 3 years later finally reading it for Anya Seton season here at Historical Tapestry.

If I was going to be brutally honest with you all, I didn't have particularly high hopes for this book. I thought I would read it, and move on. I am not sure why I thought that because I loved Katherine when I read it years ago, and I really liked Dragonwyck too. Maybe it was the pretty uninspiring synopsis? Whatever it was, it was a really pleasant discovery for me to find that when I opened the book I actually was very interested!

Another reason why I didn't really anticipate this read all that much is that I have a kind of overview understanding of American history. I know that about the Mayflower, and there were Puritans, and then there were witch trials, and about the American Revolution and the Civil War. That is probably an oversimplification, but key to this book is the fact that I didn't realise how there came to be different Puritan colonies, and certainly don't recall hearing about John Winthrop before.

So if the synopsis above is a little dry then what is The Winthrop Woman about? The main female character is Elizabeth Fones, member of the prominent Puritan Winthrop family.  From a very young age, Elizabeth displays tendencies towards rebellion against the strict religious rules imposed by her family, and particularly find her relationship with her uncle John very difficult.

With the family's fortune waining due to religious persecution, John Winthrop is looking towards America for a new start, freedom in a new land. Elizabeth's impulsiveness has led her into marriage with one of her cousin, despite the fact that her heart belongs to another. In a very short period of time she is widowed and a young mother on her way to the Massachusetts Bay Colony along with her Winthrop relations.

Through the eyes of Elizabeth we get to see the difficulties enveloping the young colony including political turmoil, religious divisions between different Puritan sections, relationships with the Siwanot . Elizabeth herself is an engaging main character who we get to see for all her faults and her strengths. She is a woman who could be seen to have been dealt a difficult hand in life - a settler working hard, some times pariah of her community, unlucky in love and marriage for most of her life, but whose inner core of strength ensures that she does what it takes to survive and to rise above the challenges facing her.

This was a fascinating character study of a very interesting woman. I will also endeavour to read more Seton without expecting to be unengaged.

Rating 4.5/5


  1. I LOVED Winthrop Woman when I read it last summer. I'm enjoying reading about her other books this month--I really need to read another of hers.

  2. The Winthrop Woman is one of my favourites. I had the same misgivings as I began New York by Edward Rutherfurd that I wasn't that interested in American history but it proved me wrong.

  3. The weird thing is Cat that I know I enjoy reading about American history. I haven't read Rutherford yet, but I will one day. I know I am interested in American history.

    Katy, will be interested to hear which book you choose to read if you do get to another Seton this month.

  4. I guess I'll have to move this one in the TBR pile then ;-)

  5. I loved this one, couldn't put it down. Makes you wonder who many great books you have languishing in the pile waiting for their *time in the sun*, isn't it? I did that with the Lymond Chronicles, they sat for two years unread.

  6. Marg, I always liked this book, too, and it's one of my favorites by Anya Seton. I'm glad to see it's been reissued for new readers to discover.

    You're right about this being a neglected period in American history. For that matter, most of American history is neglected as a setting for historical fiction. New York publishers claim that no one wants to read about it, and they must have the sales figures (or the lack of them!) to back this up. It's too bad. There are so many great stories waiting out there.

    As for your grasp of American history: sad to say, that's probably more than most Americans know these days. Columbus, Pilgrims, Revolution, Wild West, Civil War, and that's pretty much wonder readers think it's boring. :)

  7. I remember loving this book when I first read it in High School. American history was one of my favorite subjects. I've just written a chapter about Anne Hutchinson who was a contemporary of Elizabeth. I just find the early years of the colonies fascinating.

  8. This is one of my favourite all-time reads. I love the new cover too.

  9. I love reading about the early years of the Australian colonies as well Elizabeth. There's not a lot published by big publishers here either.

    Susan, I never understand why publishers don't think that American History would sell. There are so many interesting stories to be told. Maybe one day there will be breakout book that will make it fashionable again. That was a very big simplification, because I do love to read American history novels, and so do know more specifics, but I guess my point is around knowing specifics.

    Misfit, I am sure that I have some great books that I will adore when I do get to read them that have been there for years. Dunnett is one of those authors I have heard such good things about, andn have been meaning to read for years but haven't yet got to.

    Ana, I think you will like it.

  10. I'm really curious about this one, Marg! Katherine was also gathering dust in my shelves for years... Great review!