by Louis Auchincloss
Women have so often been treated as historical oversights that the mere existence of these books improves our vision. Fraser’s work (Knopf, $19.95) is a panoramic view of English women in the 17th century; Auchincloss’ volume (Double-day, $ 14.95) focuses on women in and around Europe’s royal families during the same period. Fraser got the idea for The Weaker Vessel while researching her celebrated biographies of Oliver Cromwell and King Charles II, and she mines a surprisingly extensive supply of source material. The book, in fact, tries to pack in too much information about too many women. It’s a relief when enough space is devoted to someone that she becomes a real personality. Rachel Lady Russell, for instance, was an independent woman of means as well as the resourceful, devoted wife of Whig leader William Russell, executed for conspiring to kill Charles II. Brilliana Lady Harley was a mother of seven who, in the absence of her anti-Royalist husband, Sir Robert, personally led the defense of the family castle against King Charles I’s troops during the Civil War in 1643. “Modesty, meekness, patience and humility” were the virtues most often prized among women, Fraser writes. The legal, psychological, social ana medical burdens on women of the day were overwhelming—childbirth alone was an often fatal ordeal. So there is inspiration in the success stories in this book. There also is probably some encouragement to be drawn from the fact that even the occasional 17th-century man recognized the folly of gender discrimination. In 1645 poet James Strong, having witnessed the valor of women during the Civil War, wrote: “To most ’tis known/The weaker vessels are the stronger grown/The vine which on the pole still lean’d his arms/Must now bear up and save the pole from harms.”
Since the prolific Auchincloss focuses on women of influence and power, his book seems more like traditional court history. Fraser’s ability to amass information about women of the lower classes gives a hollow ring to his contention that “had these women not been born high in the social scale they would never have been heard of.” His slender (175-page) book nevertheless contains such fascinating tales as that of the strange power triangle involving England’s Queen Anne, Anne’s ambitious bedchamber maid and lover, Abigail Hill, and Sarah Jennings, the Duchess of Marlborough. There’s a miniseries in here somewhere. Auchincloss overreaches himself at times: He even compares England’s participation in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713) with U.S. involvement in Vietnam. There may be a moral, though, in history’s lesson that when women gained access to power, they seemed to behave no worse—nor better—than men.