Historical Fiction Inspiration: Anne Bradstreet

While researching historical fiction, occassionally I’ll stumble onto a fact, or an event, or a person that helps to bring my story to life in a way even I hadn’t envisaged. This is what happened when I discovered Anne Bradstreet while writing Her Dear & Loving Husband.

As with most things to do with my writing, I discovered Anne Bradstreet by accident. I was thinking that since James and Elizabeth lived in Salem in 1692 during the witch trials, and since James is the bookish type who left his studies in Cambridge to follow his father to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, he would likely spend his free time reading. What would someone read by the light of their hearth in 1692? As I searched for popular literature during the late 17th century, I happened upon the name of Anne Bradstreet. I was surprised that I had never heard of Bradstreet. I have two degrees in English literature, and while I certainly took American literature courses, I don’t recall taking any early American literature courses, and I don’t recall being introduced to Bradstreet’s work, which is a shame since Anne Bradstreet is a poet literature students should know.

Bradstreet was born in 1612 in England to a wealthy Puritan family, and in 1630 she emigrated with her family to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The family lived in several places around Massachusetts, including Salem, and her father and husband were both instrumental in the founding of Harvard College. She was the mother of eight children, a wife, and a poet at a time when the first two were considered all a women need be in this world. Bradstreet wrote honestly about the conflicts she experienced as a result of her various roles. Bradstreet not only wrote poetry, she wrote great poetry, and she became the first English person in North America to be published. It’s rumored that King George III had a book of her poetry in his collection. According to the Poetry Foundation, Bradstreet’s poems express her difficulty in resolving her conflicts between the pleasures of sensory and familial experience and the promises of heaven. Puritans were meant to subdue their attachment to this earthly world, but in her poetry Bradstreet shares her deep, abiding connection to her husband and children.

Bradstreet’s earliest known poem,”Upon a Fit of Sickness, Anno. 1632,” adheres to Puritan values:

O Bubble blast, how long can’st last?

That always art a breaking,

No sooner blown, but dead and gone,

Ev’n as a word that’s speaking.

O whil’st I live, this grace me give,

I doing good may be,

Then death’s arrest I shall count best,

because it’s thy decree.

Her poem “Contemplations” is considered by some to be one of her best:

Then higher on the glistering Sun I gaz’d

Whose beams was shaded by the leavie Tree,

The more I look’d, the more I grew amaz’d

And softly said, what glory’s like to thee?

Soul of this world, this Universes Eye,

No wonder, some made thee a Deity:

Had I not better known, (alas) the same had I

Bradstreet loved life on earth, and her hope was “for heaven was an expression of her desire to live forever rather than a wish to transcend worldly concerns. For her, heaven promised the prolongation of earthly joys, rather than a renunciation of those pleasures she enjoyed in life” (The Poetry Foundation).

Bradstreet wrote many of the poems that appeared in the first edition of The Tenth Muse between the years 1635 and 1645 while she lived in Ipswich, 30 miles from Boston. Bradstreet dedicated her work to her father, Thomas Dudley, who educated her, encouraged her to read, and appreciated his daughter’s intelligence, no small accomplishments in the 17th century when women were not valued for their intelligence.

After I started my research on 17th century literature and discovered Bradstreet, I read her poems and I was impressed with the depth of feeling she shared in her work. Since she was a Puritan, I would have assumed that her work would be all about praising God and dreams of a joyous heaven, and she certainly shared that sentiment in much of her poetry. But then I found the poem that would help me shape the love story I was writing: “To My Dear and Loving Husband”:

If ever two were one, then surely we.

If ever man were loved by wife, then thee.

If ever wife was happy in a man,

Compare with me, ye women, if you can.

I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,

Or all the riches that the East doth hold.

My love is such that rivers cannot quench,

Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.

Thy love is such I can no way repay;

The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.

Then while we live, in love let’s so persever,

That when we live no more, we may live ever.

Bradstreet was concerned with God as dictated by her Puritan values, but she also loved her dear husband, there beside her on earth, and she took great joy in him. As soon as I read the poem I knew it could serve as the missing link I had been searching for. This poem represents what my story is about, right? Two people who are so in love that even death cannot separate them. And it even provided me with the story’s title, Her Dear & Loving Husband.

This is the kind of synchronicity—a meaningful coincidence—that makes writing the greatest thing on earth as far as I’m concerned. There’s a moment where these disconnected pieces of a story come together through some random discovery, and suddenly everything makes sense, the picture comes together, and I can finally see the story I meant to write in the first place. The discovery of Anne Bradstreet and her poem “To My Dear and Loving Husband” provided me with a way to connect the dots between James and Elizabeth in the past and James and Sarah in the present.

Much of the information about Bradstreet shared here was found on the Poetry Foundation website. If you’ve never visited the website, the Poetry Foundation is a great resource for information about poets and their poems. For more information on Anne Bradstreet, or to read her poems, visit the Anne Bradstreet page at the Poetry Foundation.