The Sea Captain's Wife: A True Story of Love, Race and War in the Nineteenth Century by Martha Hodes

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The Sea Captain's Wife: A True Story of Love, Race and War in the Nineteenth Century by Martha Hodes

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Racism, war and slavery are not merely the backdrops to Eunice Richardson's life - they will impact on her personal life choices in ways which she could never have imagined during her early years in relative prosperity in New England. A richly detailed look at an ordinary woman's experience against the grand themes of U.S. history. Fascinating reading.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: October 2007
Publisher: W W Norton & Co
ISBN: 978-0393330298

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Eunice Richardson Stone Connolly... now there's a name to conjure with. Quite probably she never called herself that. She was born Eunice Louensa Richardson, and was to become Mrs Stone and later Mrs Connolly through the course of a remarkable life, about which Martha Hodes has cared enough to spend years delving and discovering, and finally sharing with us.

Eunice was a Yankee. Born white and free in New England, to New England parents in 1831. She could trace her ancestors back to colonial America. She would die very differently - with her sea captain husband, in a hurricane, off the shores of the Cayman Islands in 1877.

In between her life was to be microcosmic reflection of many American lives during those years... all rolled into one unbelievably rich - if not always pleasant - experience. In her mere 46 years on earth Eunice was to descend from relative rural prosperity to industrial poverty of the harshest kind, but then by virtue of an abiding love and a courageous move to rise again to upper echelons, but of a very different society in a very different place. She was to have four children, none of whom would survive.

Hodes traces Eunice from the farm of her birth into the mills of Manchester (New Hampshire). She escaped as many a working girl did, only by marriage. But her hopes of housekeeping were to founder again and again as her husband proved no more reliable than her father had been - though maybe he tried harder. Times were not easy for the working class. With the cycles of boom and bust, work was plentiful and then non-existent... and diligence and hard work were not always enough. A measure of luck had to be added to the mix... and a measure of judgement. William Richardson seemed to be lacking in both.

Not one to give up however, he moved south following relatives of Eunice who were making good in the slave states. Eunice joined him. With the country falling apart, the result was inevitably a family divided by brothers and husbands fighting on opposite sides of a conflict whose aims they may not have fully understood much less supported.

Thus far our heroine's life has been eventful, but largely conventional. She has done what needed to be done to help the family survive: farm work, factory work, marriage, following her husband in his choices. Then something happens. For whatever reason, Eunice decides to abandon the South and head home. Seven months pregnant in December 1961 she travels north.

A brave decision that she might well have regretted. The war had not improved the economic situation in the north. Cotton-starved mills had little work to offer; family members were struggling to maintain their own households... Eunice was to struggle harder as a woman alone with two children to support. She took what work she could. In the mills when it was going, housekeeping, laundry. She took charity - from the family and outside it, for what choice was there? And then there was the worry about William... would he survive, would he ever come home?

As decisions go, however, this was nothing compared to what was to follow. Somewhere along the line... an infuriatingly missing somewhere along the line... Eunice met a certain Mr William Smiley Connolly... a mariner from East End, Grand Cayman.

Not merely met... but fell in love with... and married. As a white New Englander, she then moved with her black Caymanian husband and her two children to East End... where she was to spend some of the happiest years of her life.

Of course it wasn't that simple.

A marriage across colour line in the late 1800s was barely thinkable - in many States it was still actually illegal. "The North" may have fought for the abolition of slavery, but if anyone still believes that was a moral standpoint they are sorely mistaken: it was an economic one. Southern slavery undermined the value of wage-labour. The wage-economy had to be protected, or the whole economic system of the northern states could fall apart altogether. Pressure from England and Europe on the anti-slavery front leant legitimacy to the arguments, but for the most part the northern abolitionists were just as racist as their southern cohorts. Granting the franchise to black males was a price that could be paid for the abolition of slavery. After all, as history would prove, it could easily be recouped. Certainly there was no intimation that equality or integration was ever on the agenda.

The Richardson family wasn't immune from the morals of the day. Many accepted Smiley Connolly, some did not... who took what positions, and why, is just one of the many details that make this book so fascinating.

Detail. That's the point of The Sea Captain's Wife. How much of a life is bound up in the detail. Who said what to whom and what they meant by it. This is the business of the modern historian, to try to understand the motivations of ordinary people. History is not all about the momentous decisions of Bishops and Kings, a lot of it - indeed, quite probably, most of it - is about why ordinary people did what they did.

Eunice Richardson was one such ordinary person. But she left her story behind.

Martha Hodes found it in the hundreds of letters in the Lois Wright Richardson Davis Papers held at Duke University. She eked out more details and rumours over years of painstakingly following up leads among the descendants of the people in the letters. She fleshed these out with letters and memoirs of contemporaries, and with official records. Then with the historian's skill and a story-teller's flare she placed the life in the context of the time.

This is one life. A life that embodied the the grand themes of American history: opportunity and racism, slavery and war, equality and freedom - but still just one life. In telling Eunice's tale, Hodes resists the temptation to 'novelise' it. This is a history book pure and simple. At the same, however, she succeeds in keeping it personal. Facsimiles of the original letters, cross-written, every inch of page used, and photographs of the family, and the places all serve to remind us that however global the issues, their importance lies in the effect on the person.

No less interesting to anyone with a bent for social history in general, and family history in particular, are the disclosures on the research itself: the records used, the serendipitous finds and preservations, the family memories and hand-me-down tales (which often conflict) and the gaps - three years of Eunice's carefully preserved letters are missing. It cannot be coincidence that these three years are those immediately prior to her marrying her Sea Captain. Do they contain details that someone might not have want remembered?

Generally, I'm only mildly interested in how an author came to write the book... but in this case, it is genuinely difficult to separate the two. The nature of the research and the 'missing links' actually spread dim light on possibilities about what is not known. Above all the continuance of both sides of Eunice's family through the century or so since her death makes the concept of her as a living breathing person more real.

And it makes you wonder what other wonderful truly amazing individual lives lie back there, that are being unravelled as we speak.

To those who make the effort, I say 'thank you'. For any of us to learn from history we have to remember the one important fact, that ultimately it IS personal.


Might also like: For more on early U.S. history Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee takes some beating - for more personal stories, this time from the English side of the pond take a look at Brothers in War.

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