Echoes of heroic sinners and saints

Unbridled Spirits
September 11, 1998

At the outset of her book Stevie Davies describes being "raised on Christopher Hill", and hardly noticing on her first heady reading of his The World Turned Upside Down that it "all but censored, unread" the lives and works of many female political and religious agitators who were often at the forefront of the controversies of the period.

Many historians have acknowledged that the years 1640-60 saw the questioning of the legitimacy of all kinds of relationships. Contemporary accounts testify to the socially traumatising effects of the revolution, which in disrupting the age-old claim to the divine right of kings in favour of a more democratic system of government also had the knock-on effect of questioning the legitimacy of the master's authority over his servant, the parent's over his child, the husband's over his wife.

Davies has set about the task of restoring to their rightful place the many public female voices who took advantage of the temporary fissures in patriarchal authority that appeared during the upheaval of this period (only to close again after the Restoration), and who managed, against considerable odds, to make themselves heard.

Both in style and content Davies has provided a text both immensely useful to the academic and entirely accessible to the absolute beginner. Rendering clear the sense in which religious and political issues were inextricably linked during the English revolution, she brings alive for a secular age the burning issues of the time, in which women involved themselves in an unprecedented fashion. Crucially, she acknowledges that these were rarely "women's issues", and the characters she brings to our attention cover a broad spectrum of religious belief and political opinion. It was the fact of women claiming the right to be heard and read which was the significant aspect of their role in the revolution.

She resists the tendency to enhance the attractiveness of her heroines by glossing over their negative characteristics. She rather dwells on the meanness of one, the pride of another, with a frankness that is refreshing and reassuring. These women remain extraordinary, but real. As a result, what she sees as admirable is more persuasive.

Sarah Burton teaches a course on women in Restoration theatre, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Unbridled Spirits: Women of the English Revolution 1640-60

Author - Stevie Davies
ISBN - 0 7043 5082 3
Publisher - Women's Press
Price - £17.99
Pages - 356

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