A guest post today, from my friend M.E. Kemp. It’s okay, just call her Marilyn. Her new historical mystery, Death of a Dancing Master, was released this month, and I asked her to expand a little on the purity—or lack of same—of the Puritans…
Cracking the Stereotype
by M.E. Cook
I write an historical mystery series featuring two nosy Puritans as detectives. I chose Boston Puritans partly as a reaction to all the medieval mysteries that popped up after Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael series. American history is just as bloody and colorful as medieval Britain’s, I believe. I also knew that Puritans were supposed to keep an eye on their neighbors to keep them on the straight and narrow path, and nosy is a primary quality for a good detective. Another reason I wanted to write about Puritans was to set the record straight. Few peoples have been so stereotyped, even today. They may have tried to keep each other on the straight and narrow path, but they certainly didn’t always succeed.
If you want to see a painting of elegant clothing dripping with exquisite laces in shades of primrose, apple green or violet, look at a portrait of a Colonial—often Puritan—man. (Women weren’t far behind —early on they decided they would wear the latest fashions from London and Paris based on fashion dolls their sea-captain husbands brought them.) We forget that the first Puritans of Boston were actually Elizabethans, born and raised in that robust era. Eat, drink and be lusty —that was their motto, and our Colonial ancestors enjoyed themselves. It was the Victorian era that took all the fun out of life.
Tavern bills show the enormous appetites for food and drink that even a gathering of ministers enjoyed. Your average Puritan cleric could drink our most accomplished modern lushes under the table. No dainty appletinis for them. One special drink was made of rum, beer, molasses and breadcrumbs! Hearts of oak and stomachs of lead. Water wasn’t safe to drink —even tots drank hard cider on a daily basis. As for sex, they were probably more upfront about sex than we are. We’ve all heard about the bundling board. One man bragged that he “had” the miller’s wife four times a day—a “lusty big man,” he was called, and fined for adultery. On the other hand, the letters between Governor John Winthrop and his wife Margaret, who was left behind in England because she was far advanced in pregnancy, are touching and romantic.
Men and women remarried almost as soon as the coffin was lowered into the ground. Diarist Samuel Sewall was in his sixties and vigorously courting a wealthy widow, but she rejected him because he wouldn’t keep a carriage. Famous cleric Cotton Mather got himself into a romantic jam when he, a recent widower, was pursued by a much younger woman. Ministers were the rock stars of the day.
Puritans ate, drank, loved—and danced. My latest book, Death of a Dancing Master, is based upon the travails of a real dancing master in Boston. He wasn’t found with a sword in his gut but he was hounded and harassed by magistrates and ministers until he was driven from Boston. I thought to myself, think of all the suspects if the dancing master were found murdered! Think of all the angry husbands! I couldn’t resist knocking the poor fellow off.
I grew up in New England —my roots are deep, beginning in Salem in 1636. Boston is my favorite city, with much of the same seventeenth-century feel to parts of it. And there are no lack of resources —Puritans were great writers, chroniclers and diarists, with many of the great nineteenth-century historians fascinated by them. I present them as the real people they were, with the foibles and fancies of people today, except they dressed better than we do. If I crack a few stereotypes about them, I’ve done my job.
Win a free copy of Death of a Dancing Master! Just leave a comment on this blog post, and this time I’ll have Boo pick the winner. Contest ends Friday, December 10, 2010, and the winner will be announced next Saturday.
Death of a Dancing Master is also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or through your local independent book store.