My Hysterical Novel – A Work in Progress

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First I want to offer a heartfelt thanks each and every one of you who chose to follow my blog in the past several months. I wish I had time to recognize you individually, but time does not permit – especially now that I am seeing the light at the end of the tunnel with regard to the first draft of the book I am currently writing.

Many of you know this is a historical novel (Hubs likes to call the hysterical novel, due to my sometimes frantic research) about the longest-living passenger of the Mayflower, Mary Allerton Cushman. I’m fully immersed in the life of the time and could never have foreseen how much research the book would require. Every day I am off chasing threads and trying to verify events and people’s vital statistics. It’s been Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

Mary Cushman lived to be 83 years old and died in 1699, remarkable for a woman of that era but not for those Separatists who survived the first winter. Many of these Old Comers, as they were called, lived unusually long lives for the time. Governor William Bradford noted this in his book Of Plymouth Plantation and commented that perhaps it was their healthy, active life with good food (after the first years) that gave them long life.

I thought I might provide you with a little clip from Chapter 16, so you could see how the story is coming.  Remember this snippet is but a rough draft.

Background: The year is 1624, so the colony has been in existence for roughly four years. Mary is eight years old and has been living with her older brother, sister, and her widowed father in a one room, rough house on Plymouth’s main street, across the road from William Bradford and his second wife Alice. She has been without a mother since the age of four, and her father decided to ask the Bradfords if they would accept her into their household (something that was often done with young boys) to bring her up in a respectful and godly manner. In this chapter, her father has just left her with Alice Bradford.

*****

I remember the look on Mistress Bradford’s face as I wiped my mouth on my sleeve after finishing the goat’s milk. I couldn’t decide if it was one of humor or horror.

“Well, well,” she said. “I can see we first need to teach you manners. Do you see the cloth on the table in front of you?”

“Yes, mistress.”

 “It’s called a napkin and you are to put it over your left shoulder and use it to wipe your hands and your mouth whilst you are eating and when you have finished.” To emphasize that, she got up, place the napkin on my shoulder, then had me remove it and wipe my mouth. “There, a first lesson.” She sat down again. “Come here, girl, and let me look more closely at you.”

 I did as she asked, standing nervously in front of her, shifting from one foot to the other.

She gave a soft cluck. “Tsk, tsk. Your clothes need some work.”

I was immediately conscious of my dress. It was an old one of Remember’s, in a coarse brown wool and oft mended. It was too short, because I can recall seeing my brown feet clearly sticking out from under it. My bidden was already hanging down my back, and my hair, which was in tangled curls, hung free.

Goodwife Bradford shook her head. “Let me see your hands.”

I stuck out my hands and for the first time noticed how dirty they had become, with soot under the nails, and long scratches from the chickens.

Mistress Bradford rose and taking me by the hand, led me outside to a water bucket, which had a washing cloth hanging on it. There she proceeded to do a more thorough washing of me than had Remember, who had just wiped off my face. While she did that, I took notice of her for the first time.

Although I was to know her for a long time, my first impression of the governor’s wife was one of substance. She had a pleasant, round face with dark hair tucked neatly under her linen coif. Her dark eyes regarded everything around her seriously, but she smiled as she cleaned me, even to my feet. She was dressed better than most of the women in the village – in a fairly clean linen smock, which showed beneath her waistcoat of blue wool, and a skirt of brown, with a soiled linen apron that hung to the bottom of her skirt. A linen collar was around her neck. There were none of the mending marks most of our clothing bore, nor the wear at the cuffs and hem.

“There,” she said when she finished. “We need to do something with your hair and you are more than ready for a proper coif.” She led me back inside and to the corner of the room where there was a bed, two chests, a bedside chair and some candlesticks that shone with polish. I thought at the time the Bradfords must be rich.

Mistress Bradford had a brush and sitting the chair, placed me in front of her facing away and tackled my tangles with energy. It proved to be a laborious task and eventually she took scissors to some of the most formidable mats. Then she used a fine comb to comb the lice from my hair. “Finally. You look quite presentable, Mary.”

I felt my head and indeed my hair felt smooth and tangle free. I hoped the constant itching from the lice would go away.

 “Now let’s see if we can find you some proper clothes. I have but two sons, so I will see if something of mine can be reduced to fit, or we can make new.” Lifting the lid on one chest, she pulled out clothes and laid them on the bed. Among them was a skirt in a dark green wool, and a bodice in brown. “There. This will do, but it will require much alteration.”

I was awed by the thought of a new dress, especially one of this color.

“Have you a smock beneath your dress, Mary?”

I shook my head no.

“That will never do. You cannot go without an undergarment.” She shook her head again in amazement at my lightly-clothed self and brought forth from the chest a length of linen, which I am sure she had brought to make articles of clothing for herself and her husband. I suspected I would soon have a smock. Remember had one that was our mother’s and had hemmed up a great length of it and wore it with the sleeves hanging long.

Over the next several weeks, Mistress Bradford measured, cut and sewed until I was appropriately clothed. I sat with her outside the house while she sewed, and she showed me how to make different stiches on a small piece of cloth. My stiches were at first ungainly and crooked, but her patience never faltered as she had me take them out and do them again. By the time my shift, bodice and skirt were finished, she had me hem my apron and pronounced my work acceptable. She introduced me to the stays I would have to wear over my shift. This was an article of clothing I had seen on my mother but had never worn.

“Why do I have to wear this?” I asked Mistress Bradford. “They look binding and uncomfortable.”

“They are, child, and to say truth, I oft do not wear mine.”

I examined what she laid before me and I saw the piece was stiff with rows of stitching, no sleeves and fitting over the shoulders. “What does this do?”

“It supports and shapes your body, to help you fit your clothes. Sometimes there are reeds sown into the cloth stiffness and some have a flat piece of wood we call a busk in the center front. Most uncomfortable. We will make you one, and I will tell you how to wear it.”

I hated the stays, and as oft as not, did not wear them. There were still petticoats to add to my clothing, but for the first time in two years I had stockings and soft leather shoes that fit. Governor Bradford got me the shoes.

There was much to learn in the Bradford house and my days were filled with so many chores I scarce had time to play. Alice Bradford seemed to enjoy teaching me how to do my chores properly, saying she had never had a daughter. She did not spare the rod when I transgressed, but she laughed more oft than naught at my missteps.

*****

I hope you liked this and perhaps be interested in reading the book when I am done!

Garfield is working away on another post, which he hopes to have done soon, so stay tuned.

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21 thoughts on “My Hysterical Novel – A Work in Progress

  1. Wonderful excerpt! I love historical fiction and look forward to a great read. All aside, my husband’s great grandfather many times removed was Simon Bradstreet, last colonial governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony. It will be fascinating to read a novel set in that time and place. I can only imagine the work you’ve put into research for this novel.

  2. Good luck with your historical WIP. There’s such a lot of research to be done and then how to put it all to the reader, while not swarming tedious… a challenge, but it sounds enticing!

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