Ann Little’s The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale University Press, 2016; paper, 2018) traces the remarkable story of a woman from her New England childhood to Wabanaki captivity and adoption to adulthood as an Ursuline nun in eighteenth-century Quebec. The book’s innovative use of sources and narrative provokes conversation about what a biography could be. Borealia’s Keith Grant interviews the author about the book’s approach and themes.
Borealia: Who was Esther Wheelwright?
Ann Little: Esther Wheelwright (1696-1780) was born in colonial British America in what’s now part of the U.S. state of Maine. At age seven, she was abducted in an attack on her village by the Wabanaki and likely adopted by a family. At age 12, she is enrolled at the Ursuline convent school in Quebec City, where she remains for the rest of her life as a novice and then a choir nun.
The fact that she lived as an intimate in three different North American cultures makes her notable enough, but then she was elected mother superior in 1760, just a year after the conquest. She steered her order ably through the perilous years before the Quebec Act guaranteed religious liberty to French Canadian Catholics in 1774, making key alliances with British officials and ensuring the financial stability of the Ursulines through a shrewd expansion of their boarding school and other measures.
Borealia: Why “Many Captivities”? What is the argument or story you are telling in this book?
Little: Captivity is a metaphor I use to explore her experiences in these three different cultures–as a child captive of her natal family and culture, then as a literal war captive and adopted daughter of the Wabanaki, and finally in the captivity she chose behind stone walls and the iron grille of the Ursulines. I think it’s a useful way of thinking about people in the eighteenth century in general, because most people were born into a situation and station in life and they didn’t have all that many choices to make about how they made a living or how they prayed. But I also think it’s an especially useful metaphor for understanding girls’ and women’s lives in all of these cultures–among Protestant British subjects, among the Wabanaki people, and among Catholic French Canadians, women at every level of these communities had fewer choices and options than their male peers.
Borealia: Reading The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright is a rich sensory experience: from the ubiquitous smell of woodsmoke, to the taste of wood sorrel, to the glitter of gilt work in candlelight in the Ursuline chapel, to the shock of a freezing cold stone floor, to the muffled sounds from within a nun’s habit. Your evocative descriptions of these smells, textures, and sights certainly engage the imagination, but it’s obvious that there’s painstaking historical research behind these descriptions. How did you go about researching with the senses in mind, and how would you say that research and imagination can productively interact?
Little: Thanks! I had so much fun writing this book, but my method is largely a product of my misfortune in choosing a subject who never wrote about her own life or any of the dramatic experiences of her youth. I was also powerfully influenced by Laura Ingalls Wilder’sLittle House in the Big Woods, which I was re-reading to my four year-old daughter at the time I began writing this book. Wilder builds her book about the Ingalls family, and especially the little girls Laura and Mary, around the experiences that are the most immediate and important for young children: what can we eat? What did we wear? What did things smell, look, feel, and taste like?
Perhaps I am making a virtue of necessity, but because Esther never wrote about these experiences herself, I was free to write her story in part by building around the immediate circumstances of her body in different places and circumstances, and at different stages of her life. Yes, I used my imagination, but I did a ton of research on the specifics of her embodiment and the different circumstances I needed to invoke: were there any Indigenous known cures for scurvy? How did women deal with menstruation in three different cultures? What clothing did people wear, and why? What was there to eat in different seasons in early Acadia? All of these rabbit holes were enormously fun to research and then share with readers.
I was encouraged along these lines because at Colorado State University I work with with a number of environmental historians who have written about human bodies as important parts of natural environments and even as environments in and of themselves: Mark Fiege (The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States, University of Washington Press, 2012), Jared Orsi (Citizen Explorer: The Life of Zebulon Pike, Oxford University Press, 2014) and Sarah Payne, the author of Screwing with Nature: An Environmental History of Birth Control in the United States(forthcoming, University of Washington Press). I am indebted to them in showing me how thinking about bodies interacting with their environments can be an effective historical method.
Borealia: Your book emphasizes the continuities of women’s experiences across national and ethnic borders. This is despite the historical polemics that encourage us to see the differences between the peoples of New England, New France, and Wabanahkik, or the national borders that still shape much of our historical work. Can you talk about some of the the specific continuities that you discovered, but also how historians might change our default settings to think about continuities instead of differences?
Little: Historians should be more like foxes than hedgehogs (in the familiar formulation as I understand it), and strive to know many things rather than just one thing in tremendous depth. For one reason, foxes can tell better stories than hedgehogs because they move around and see more of the world! But also, hedgehog-historians–the majority of us–can become captive to the narcissism of small differences.
Being a women’s and gender historian made me very alert to the male supremacist continuities of the early modern period that linked every culture that interacted in or through the Atlantic basin after 1492. The fact of male supremacy in all of these cultures–African, North & South American, and European–is a powerful fact that all too few historians of this age of global expansion and contact grapple with.
Borealia: In your introduction you write, “I’ve learned that [Esther] is especially unknowable if we try to see her as a modern biographical subjective, as an individual extracted from the communities of girls and women who surrounded her throughout her life” (15). Near the end of the book you reflect on why Esther sent the portrait, the book’s cover image, to her New England family, wondering if in so doing she was making “an almost modern assertion of subjectivity,” that she was the “author of her own life” (225-26). These two statements seem to me like the two poles of the biographical world: at one pole, emphasizing the captivities, constraints, and communities, while at the other, stressing freedom, agency, and self-fashioning. How do you understand these apparently opposite themes in the biography of this early modern woman, and how we might re-think what a biography (or a “self”) could be?
Little: Very observant! I was trying to have it both ways. I still agree with my intro comments about the unknowability of Esther, mostly because I wanted to warn people that this book won’t read like a selection from the “Dear America” kids’ book series, which are all written in the first person. I have almost no documents from Esther Wheelwright’s hand, and those are just some convent business letters for the most part. For all the imaginative work I did trying to recreate her embodied experience of the eighteenth century, I was extremely reluctant to speculate on her personal feelings or thoughts. I decided it was more responsible to judge her on the choices she made–and she did make a few big decisions!–and on the life she lived.
I still think it’s remarkable that she packs up that painting and sends it to her family. The walls of the convent in Quebec are lined with the oil portraits of all the other superiors–but she rolls her portrait up and ships it back to Massachusetts. That seemed worthy of some speculation as to its significance. There are stories that report she was in touch with her family members otherwise–although no one ever took her up on her offer to educate their daughters, there were girls named Esther after her through the nineteenth century. Julie Wheelwright, in her book on Esther Wheelwright (HarperCollins Canada, 2011) writes about the memory of Esther in the Wheelwright family.
Borealia: You’ve become adept at doing cross-border archival research. Can you talk a bit about your recent research experiences in Quebec? Do you have any tips for other historians working on transnational themes?
Little: All Anglophone historians should challenge themselves to do research in another language. In our field–early North America–being able to read and use more than just English is like a superpower! Whether it’s other European, or First Nations, or African languages–just learn some and push yourself to find some new primary sources and use new and different archives.
You don’t have to be an expert linguist–far from it. I studied French for three years in middle and high school, and then took a year of college French, but I was pretty lazy. (If only I had been memorizing French verb tenses instead of Duran Duran lyrics when my brain was young and plastic–but helas!) When I passed my French exam in graduate school, I thought to myself, “well, that box is checked! Now I’ll never have to think about French again.” The joke was on me when I started writing my first book, Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Early New England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), and I discovered that there were some really great French official records on some of the borderlands wars that I was writing about.
All you have to do is to be able to take good notes in the other language–be alert to whether or not there’s something interesting, and then you can work with a professional translator, a knowledgeable colleague, a dictionary, and/or Google translate–and I’ve done all of these.
Borealia: What current or next projects are you working on?
Little: I really enjoyed learning and writing about historic costume and textiles in Many Captivities, and I’ve always been interested in the high-waisted gowns that were briefly fashionable at the turn of the nineteenth century. (Think about any production of a Jane Austen novel–that style of dress.) It seems very clear that the fashion was rooted in some of the trends of the late Ancien Regime (playing peasant milkmaid at La Petite Trianon, Marie-Antoinette’s portrait by Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun in her robe a la chemise) and the Age of Revolution both; but why specifically did it appear when it appeared, why did it disappear when it disappeared, and what might this tell us about women’s lives and relationship to the nation-state in the Atlantic World?
As with my views on captivity vs. liberty, you won’t be surprised to hear that so far I have a tendency to see the new fashion as both liberating (for some) as well as oppressive, and that life inside stays and corsets (like nun’s habits) can offer more real liberty than revealing fashions. It’s awfully Tory of me to say this, but liberty may be most fully enjoyed within limits. Absolute liberty can be deranging. All you have to do is look at the current U.S. President to know that all of us live and work better and more virtuously if we’re disciplined from within as well as without. A total absence of boundaries and limits is tyrannical.
Ann M. Little is a Professor in the History Department at Colorado State University. In addition to The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright, she is the author of Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Colonial New England (2007) and several scholarly articles and book chapters on early American women’s and gender history. She blogs regularly at Historiann, and can be found on Twitter at @Historiann.
Keith Grant is an Assistant Professor of History at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick, teaching courses on early North American and religious history. His current book manuscript is Enthusiasm and Loyalty: Emotions, Religion, and Society in British North America. He is a founding co-editor of Borealia, and can be found on Twitter at @KeithSGrant.