The Winthrop Woman

Written by Anya Seton
Review by Susanne Dunlap

A sprawling epic that covers the entire life of a woman whose vicissitudes and adventures formed a characteristic part of the early settlement of the United States, The Winthrop Woman follows the fortunes of Bess, a spirited young girl from Norfolk. Starting with her youth as the restless daughter of an apothecary who gives her heart away to a wild cousin, we follow Bess as she emigrates with her uncle John Winthrop’s family to establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631.

Through family and state politics, Indian relations, and deeply personal stories of loss and suffering, Bess comes to exemplify the indomitable spirit of those who carved New England out of the inhospitable lands of the new world. Through her eyes, we watch the expansion out of Massachusetts west through Connecticut, and come to understand the fragile, combative relationship with the Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam. But the political history is really a backdrop to the deeply engrossing, beautifully written saga of one unconventional woman’s quest for love and redemption. A true page-turner, I could not put this novel down.

The Winthrop Woman is a magnificent book, scrupulously researched, with an unerring instinct for drama and pace. Her characters—even those of the Indians who form an important part of Bess’s life—are all sympathetic and complex, and although her constantly shifting point of view takes some getting used to, the absorbing whole is more than worth the effort.

This edition features a foreword by Philippa Gregory, which furnishes some fascinating background about Seton’s influences, and points out the proto-feminism in this work dating from a time when patriarchy was the dominant social paradigm.