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Puritanism, Old and New: In Conversation with Marly Youmans on her New Novel

Marly Youmans, author of several books of poetry and fiction, released her new novel, Charis in the World of Wonders, just as the country was going into pandemic lockdown. I read this novel of Puritan society recently and talked with her about it by email. Here’s our full discussion, ranging over everything from contemporary politics to the nature of evil.

AM:  In a novel by a poet, language is often a character unto itself—and the character to which the reader is first introduced, as early as the first paragraph:

“I have heard tell that truth loves the light and is most lovely when most naked; and yet I have dreaded sunrising for half my life, and misliked the sounds of birds waking and the look of naked skin when rose and gold were lighting up the quarrels in the window. And in meetinghouses, I have listened as the ministers raged against the wilderness, the lair of Satan, and though I know more of both the beauty of the trees and the burning-flax flare of hell-fire than any of them are likely to know, I do not deny the power of the gloom lodged in groves or the mystery that flashes behind the leaves, eager to devour us, eager to transform us. For this is the world of wonders, an enchanted place of dreams, portents, and prodigies.”

Needless to say, this is not the conventional prose of the early 21st century popular historical novel. This is a contemporary voice hybridized to a period prose style. What sources or models did you draw on to create the “feel” of this voice?

MY:  Although I don’t think it matters how a writer goes about making (instead, it matters whether the thing made is good), I admit to being one of those writers who rebels against too much preparation, who doesn’t draw up lists and charts, and who resists the idea of outlines and knowing too much before she begins. Loving surprise and the unfolding of story—magic!—I may have some vague, airy ideas but tend to start when I feel the pent flood of yet-unknown story. So I don’t seek a model in any conscious way.

If there is a prior model, it has to be my own Catherwood (FSG, ’96), a book in which I plucked up a few dialect words that may have moved into early America.  Catherwood and Charis in the World of Wonders have some elements in common: the occasional spice of strange, evocative words from particular parts of England; the seventeenth century; and a passage through the wilderness, though for Charis that part of her adventure is short. (As for Catherwood, the book is out of print, though I’ve had reprint requests—I haven’t decided what to do there—and a wonderfully belated review in Post Road from novelist Emily Barton in 2016. Twenty years late is a record for me! And currently a young Canadian director and a producer have the book under film option.)

Once upon a time, I was a grad student immersed in early American documents and writings, as well as Renaissance poetry and prose, so I’m sure what you call a hybridized period style is tinged by that reading. I am still fond of seventeenth-century poets like Bradstreet, Taylor, Herbert, Donne, Traherne, and Vaughan, and during the writing of Charis, I did glance back at writings by people like the Mathers and John Cotton; I also read documents new to me (Boston laws, descriptions of Massachusetts Bay occupations, a goldsmith’s account, town histories, etc.) and Saltonstall family letters. The seventeenth century seems to me not so much a far-off time as a place where I can wander. Some day I may write a third novel set in some corner of that realm, perhaps in Virginia or the Carolinas.

The debt I owe for the colorful words is to an interesting minister and collector, Robert Forby, and his The Vocabulary of East Anglia, an attempt to record the vulgar tongue of he two sister counties, Norfolk and Suffolk, as it existed in the last twenty years of the eighteenth century and still exists, with proof of its antiquity from etymology and authority. He was reaching back a half century and also arguing for the great age of the words, so he was a handy friend for me. His passion for saving dialect words served me in several ways.

The words capture meaning in lively and vivid syllables. They conjure a world we recognize, yet make it strange. But don’t we meet up with lag and laggard and a limp rag in the lazy lagarag? Nabbity has echoes of bit and nib and rabbit that suit a tiny woman. Some are marvelous fun that we understand instantly in context: the reproach of naughty-pack, the pronounced sulkiness of mulpy, the hard-headed noggin of knobble-tree.

Looking back, I find that words also generated moments inside scenes. Beggar’s velvet carpeted a wedding night, the floor shifting with the fine down from a featherbed and making the solid, work-a-day world into a frail, magical place. Bishybarnybee was part of what gave birth to a scene of escape, vision, and exhaustion after Charis fords a great river on Hortus, and it obliquely refers back to the fired house. Like spells, words like frampled and harnsey-gutted may have helped to transform Goody Holt into a spiteful creature like the stepmother from a Cinderella tale.

 

AM: What was it like having a book come out at the height of a global pandemic? Although I understand you have something of a knack for timing your releases….

MY: Yes, I confess to having received a bad fairy’s gift when it comes to timing.  My second book, Catherwood (FSG, ’96), had sold more than 12k copies and gone into paperback with the newly revived Bard imprint when HarperCollins collapsed and restructured, without the Bard imprint and with the book floating in limbo. That was my first experience with the bad luck possible with timing. The next book, The Wolf Pit (FSG, ’01) had its pub date shifted, and as a result the book landed just after 9-11. I still can’t muster a complaint about that disaster-luck because much more than a book suffered or died.

So if there must be a pandemic, my bad fairy will shake her rotten ash-wand and gift me with a peculiar pub date. But she does not surprise me any longer with her bad-timing tricks.

 

AM: The May 1690 opening of the novel, “Sup Sorrow,” foregrounds a horrific attack inflicted on English settlers from an English perspective. Increasingly, such settlers are being regarded, in universities and in popular culture, as racial supremacists dispossessing indigenous peoples. Did you feel any pressure or tension in your storytelling to accommodate the changed (and changing) attitude of Americans toward this phase of our collective history?

MY: If I were to make a novel in which, say, a current English professor at Sarah Lawrence or Oberlin or some other elite private college proceeded to recount Charis’s story, I could hardly avoid writing about “racial supremacists dispossessing indigenous people.” But she is not of our time. Charis has complicated feelings about the colony and the tribes with their various alliances, but I don’t wish to write a book with characters who wear old-fashioned dress but reveal new-fashioned minds. Where is the truth in such stories? Instead, I aim to leap into the place, the time, and the mental world of my characters. To fail to do so is to fail the craft we practice.

 

AM: In the second and third chapters, we are introduced to several characters: benevolent figures in the Saltonstalls, Charis’s somewhat less than benevolent employer Goody Holt, as well as a goldsmith who is a potential love interest. Are any of these figures based in real or historical people?

And to consider the opposite idea: would a reader be too far off the mark to sense you echoing an archetypal relationship with Charis in the Holt household, familiar from fairy-tales such as Cinderella?

MY: No, that would be exactly right; as a child, I loved various versions of the Cinderella tale (“Allerleirauh,” “Catskin,” “Tattercoats,” etc.) Many of them involve a flight near the start of the story, and that may be why my mind jumped to a pattern like the uneasy relation between Cinderella and her stepmother’s family when Charis fled her home. I was aware that Goody Holt resembled the cruel stepmother, that Lizzie Holt was like a horrid stepsister, and Mehitabel—well, no spoilers!

Also in mind during that portion of the story was the idea that any romance had to be a kind of Romeo and Juliet tale that ignited quickly, impetuous and passionate. Otherwise, there could be no romance because Charis is hemmed in by the strictures of Andover (today’s North Andover) and by the Holt household.

And yes, I have borrowed historical figures where it suited me. The Dane clan is pilfered from history. Francis Dane was a vigorous opponent of the touch test and other witch-finding modes. He stood up for his people with boldness against accusations of witchcraft, knowing that he and his family would suffer for doing so. Likewise, the younger pastor Barnard was a follower of Cotton Mather, drawn by notions of witchcraft and satanic “remarkables.”

The Saltonstalls were notables in wealth, birth, and importance to the governing bodies of New England, and I’ve tried not to veer too far from how they might have acted, based on family letters, though all the interactions with Charis are wholly fictional. I encountered Nathaniel Saltonstall many decades ago, through the diary and letters of Samuel Sewall. The two were friends, and they come off better than the other judges on the Court of Oyer and Terminer—Saltonstall because he resigned from the court around June 8th of 1692, at the time when the first accused “witch” (Bridget Bishop) was tried and sentenced for witchcraft, and Sewall because he was the only man remaining on the court to insist on a public confession of his guilt (at Boston’s South Church) and to ask pardon of God and man.

A good many minor historical figures are mentioned, such as hanged witches,  accused witches, rowdy Haverhill boys and their derelict papa, and an unfortunate young woman accused of killing and burying her newborn twin sons. (She’s the source of Hawthorne’s “fair maidens” who dig “little graves in the garden” in “Young Goodman Brown.”)

 

AM: Each section divider carries an illustration. Could you describe your creative relationship and history with the illustrator, Clive Hicks-Jenkins?

MY: Clive and I e-met years ago. We each have a slightly different memory of how that happened. The first image of his I ever saw was “The Prophet Fed by a Raven,” at the top of the Endicott Studio website run by Midori Snyder and Terri Windling. I remember commenting there, but Clive says I defended him (like a tiny Francis Dane, hurrah!) from criticism.

His response to whatever I said was to go and read my entire blog like some sort of word-starved anaconda and then write me a letter. We caught fire as friends, and for the first year of our acquaintance we wrote each other constantly. Strange common threads bound us together—metaphysical twins.

How we first did a project together, I hardly remember. I wrote some poems for some of his paintings. Was that first? Since then, we’ve worked on many books together—mine, and also several U.K. books focused on his work. And in his Artlog post, “The Art of the Cover,” he says, “To date I’ve made more covers for Marly Youmans than I have for any other author. She was the first to suggest I might come up with a cover image for a book.” I can’t imagine having asked him (my Southern ancestors would disapprove to an extreme degree, and rotate in their ever so modest and tactful graves); I imagine it was more plant-like than that, and things just grew up between us. He writes, “The first book for Marly was her novella Val/Orson, and I’ve been been working with her ever since. Thinking about it, I see a pattern emerges, and at the heart of it is the certainty that I don’t want to make banal covers. All the authors I enjoy working with create layers of mysteries and ambiguities in their writings, and those qualities give me the space to grow images that interest me.”

Clive calls himself my illuminator, and I like that; it suggests that he is adding light and vision to my work. And that’s the truth. Like Sendak, he’s someone who “so falls in love with writing” that he grows wonderfully close to it by adding image. Though I should add that Clive is quite a creditable wordsmith in his own right, and I wish he had time to write a biography, as his transformation from dancer and actor and choreographer and set designer and director to painter during his seven-year retreat to Tretower is a fascinating saga. I also dearly love his charming descriptions of little animals and their adventures around his home, Ty Isaf.

I was lucky enough to visit Clive (and his partner, Peter Wakelin, curator and writer, former Secretary of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, and former Director of Collections and Research at National Museum Wales) for his 60th birthday retrospective at the splendid Gregynog Gallery of the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. And since I arrived before other guests, I managed to see the show hung and was able to spend many hours looking at Clive’s work. It was a marvelous time. The kind that sticks hard in memory.

We’re still in touch frequently (though now it’s usually messaging back and forth, rather than letters), and I enjoy having advance peeks at his new projects. I’m always interested in what he is making. Right now he’s all fantastical owls and nightingales, working on Simon Armitage’s translation of the medieval poem. Recently he won the 2020 Book Illustration Award from the Victoria and Albert Museum, and that makes me happy.

 

AM: In the time and place in which the novel takes place, religion had an intense emphasis on sin, Satan, and fallenness–an obsession, at the societal level and the individual level as well, which plays into the fate of Phoebe Wardwell (I’ll leave it at that to avoid any spoilers) and into Charis’s own fate. What are your thoughts on the role of sin and evil in the novel? Do you agree that Satan has undergone a relative deemphasis in contemporary faith?

MY: We tend to think of Puritan belief as monolithic—some big basalt Puritan statue of a man with a goofy giant buckle on its hat—but Puritan thought varied. Massachusetts Bay was harder, harsher than England, as was its depiction of Christian faith. But ministers were not stamped-out coins, not identical in their understanding, or in their education and reading of sacred texts. One of the challenging things about writing the novel was the juggling of multiple views on issues of sin and evil: Charis’s questions; Francis Dane’s more humane version of Puritan thought, more congenial with how the godly appeared at the time in England; and the stricter version that appears here and there through Thomas Barnard and references to others. Lizzie and Mehitabel make use of folk fortune-telling, as was not uncommon among the colonists, though condemned as sinful in Sabbath meeting. Though Lizzie and Mehitabel sometimes offer comic relief, the issue of personal and community evil is a burning thread that stitches its way through frontier villages like Haverhill and Andover. Phoebe’s fate is based on a recorded incident (with a different outcome), and diaries and documents of the time give us anecdotes of people made desperate by ruthless self-examination.

The novel also touches on the complex alliances between native tribes and their French and English allies; this, too, is part of the intensity and fear that we see with the godly, allied with ideas of wilderness (that evil place where Satan rules), dark (the uncertain time of day, when evil is freer and what the godly called “nightwalking” is forbidden), and wildness (native men who may be allies or tormentors.)

Satan is a potent figure in the colony’s mind, understood as actively recruiting and busily interfering in the thoughts and choices of the people—moving among them, bodiless and invisible and potent. In contrast,  yes, you’re right; there has been a marked decline in the idea of evil among many Christians today, and there are also many understandings of what the name Satan suggests. Where secular ideas have intermarried with Christian ones, they give birth to new questions. When truth is viewed as relative, how do we begin to grasp evil? When human beings lack any moral order and framework, how can they come to see their experiences, particularly experiences of suffering, as meaningful?

When some post-post-moderns bump into the traditional view of Satan as the fallen angel who is also the “great dragon” and “ancient serpent,” the one who rebelled against God through pride and is infinitely tricksy, I expect that they simply reject all: angel-serpent, symbolism, evil. I remember a man I met in Cambodia, telling me about his sister, killed by one of Pol Pot’s Communist foot soldiers. She was just a girl. She was hungry. She plucked a piece of fruit from a tree in the jungle and was murdered for doing so. Casually, easily killed. She was one mote from out of the Cambodian genocide, some two million souls killed or starved or lost to untreated illness. Wasn’t that shooting an act of evil? Wasn’t the dragon curled around the fatal tree? I look around me and find that the world is a symbolic place. The image of the girl’s hand, reaching up for fruit: it arrows back to the image of Eve’s hand reaching up for the apple. But our ancient serpent whispers this time not to the girl but to the young Khmer Rouge soldier. I think of Lieutenant-General Roméo A. Dallaire, commanding the U. N. assistance mission for Rwanda during the genocide waged against the Tutsi people, saying: “I know there is a God because in Rwanda I shook hands with the devil. I have seen him, I have smelled him and I have touched him. I know the devil exists and therefore I know there is a God.”

 

AM: “Charis” means “Grace,” “kindness,” “life,” and classically, Charis is one of the Graces; the word also occurs in the New Testament and in Homer, where Charis is the wife of Hephaestus (perhaps a parallel with Jotham Herrick’s profession, both being smiths or metalworkers, who work with fire). Charis herself, in the chapter entitled “The Far-Faring,” reveals the background of Hortus’s name. Were there any other names that you chose with an eye to allusion?

MY: Some of the novel’s names are borrowed from history, as are their owners (Dane family members, Martha Carrier, Thomas Barnard, the Saltonstalls, etc.)  Sometimes I have contributed a fictional member to a family with a strange history. I added a Dane simply to meet Mehitabel’s desires. Sent-out girl Damaris ties the story, every so faintly, to the Judge Hathorne of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, the ancestor who was the irritating oyster-grit to the pearl-making mind of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Lud turns out to be a Duston, and thereby is woven into that difficult-to-compass tale of Hannah Emmerson Duston of Haverhill (and to Elizabeth Emmerson and her buried twins, another link to Hawthorne’s fiction.) In a time of statue-toppling, Hannah stands as a stumbling block. Statues were erected in her memory in the nineteenth century, in a time when westward expansion and “the Indian problem” meant unrest for our nation’s conscience. With a woman called Mary Neff, Hannah was abducted during the 1697 raid on Haverhill, only a week after giving birth. In Magnalia Christi Americana, Cotton Mather reports that the Abenaki “dash’d out the brains of the infant against a tree.” Later, she and Mary and a boy tomahawk and scalp the family group assigned to transport them. Contemporary accounts are fairly dry reportage, but in the nineteenth century, writers treat the subject rather differently. John Greenleaf Whittier gives us “grinning savages” but also a savage mother, transformed by seeing her child destroyed. The moral ambiguity of  Hannah—the captured postpartum mother of nine who witnessed the killing of neighbors and her infant before taking revenge—animates an early Hawthorne sketch, “The Duston Family,” which portrays her captors as victims and Hannah as a Puritan motivated by a darkness that lives in every human heart. So when I chose Duston or Hathorne as names, I reached for the complications in our national history and rooted the story in our literature. These things don’t need to be perceived by readers but are a part of one writer’s way of dreaming a path into the past.

Some names are simply relying on the naming traditions of the colony. Though we tend to be fascinated by some peculiar first names like PraiseGod, JobRakedOutoftheAshes, Lament, or MeneMeneTekelUpharsin, most names were derived from the names of biblical figures. Girls born in the colony were most often named Elizabeth, Mary, or Sarah. If we traveled back there, we would also meet many boys named John, Joseph, or Samuel. I kept primarily to common names because multiple citizens of the same town would have the same first names. I even used them for more than one character by using nicknames (as, Lizzie and Eliza for Elizabeth.)

Jotham simply popped into my mind—it’s an appropriate biblical name because Jotham was the eleventh King of Judah. He is in the genealogy of Jesus found in the gospel of Matthew: “And Uzziah begat Jotham. And Jotham begat Ahaz. And Ahaz begat Hezekiah” (Matthew 1:9, Geneva Bible.) I recall using a king metaphor in the novel, so choosing the King of Judah may have colored my mind. (And you’re right about Jothan’s Homer connection; I did think of Charis and Hephaestus.) It would have been a rather high name, given to a child regarded as having some social rank.

Again, Mehitabel was chosen simply because I liked it, though it was among the less common names. I have wondered if it might have been because of reading Rachel Field’s Newberry Medal book, Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, when I was small. Mehitabel is a doll in that book, and my Mehitabel appears in several key scenes involving a doll. Perhaps!

AM: Witchcraft and witch hunts drive the plot in the latter half of the book. The word “witch hunt” is in common use today, not least in the President’s tweets. In your research for the book, did you find parallels between that historical America and contemporary America? Did dwelling in that time period illuminate your understanding of this one?

MY: The most obvious parallel is the power to ruin another’s life during a time of panic and upheaval. We’ve had quite a few such periods in the past few centuries. And it has been mere decades since we felt a tsunami of fear about witchery; think of the scare over satanic ritual abuse that crashed over Little Rascals in Edenton, North Carolina and other day care centers. And currently we can so easily shred someone’s career, security, and mental health with a label like racist or fascist or Nazi. Whether in the 1690’s or today, it can be impossible for an accused person to receive impartial treatment in the court of public opinion. John Burroughs was hanged after flawlessly reciting the Lord’s Prayer—believed to be impossible for a wizard to do—but Cotton Mather urged the spectators to consider that the devil is able to appear as an angel of light.

Another dominant parallel is between the harsher forms of Puritan thought, exemplified by, say, young minister Barnard or the dreadful fear of damnation that seizes Phoebe Wardwell, and the strictness of current ideologies. As evidenced by diaries, many among the godly agonized over the state of their consciences and the workings of God’s grace. A pastor like Francis Dane worked for the earthly and heavenly good of his people and was not quick to condemn. Ministers from England who came to the colony sometimes found that the church leadership was too harsh and punishing. Some current thinkers see the social justice movement in a similar light, finding it a new and stern secular “religion” relying on the insistence that power is the lodestone of human existence, a belief in the absence of any objective truth, and a conviction that identity politics will reveal to us both the oppressed and the oppressor. As in the time of the witch trials, judgment leads to the destruction of lives.

One man disapproved of the trials and dropped off the Court of Oyer and Terminer: Nathaniel Saltonstall. And one man—Saltonstall’s friend Sewall, author of the fascinating Diary of Samuel Sewall—made a public confession of “shame and blame” when the frenzy was over and clarity arrived in the colony. The other judges, reared to study conscience, sin, and God’s grace, failed to act out and speak their repentance in the meetinghouse confession expected of the godly. Repentance and forgiveness were active forces in Massachusetts Bay, necessary ways of remaining in proper community with others. Today we see much public blame and self-blame for wrong-speak and wrong-thought but little in the way of forgiveness.

To plunge into the seventeenth century is to be confronted with a raft of ideas that are now rejected by mainstream academics, journalists, and the elite: the view that life is, as Joseph Epstein once put it, a kind of drama of salvation where “one’s actions matter, that they are being judged in the highest court of all, and that the stakes couldn’t be greater”; the idea that female heroism is tested and proven in the uncertain passage through childbirth, a journey that binds together death and life; the centrality of family bound together by love, loyalty, and a shared moral scaffolding; the belief that God accompanies human beings in times of duress and captivity; and, simply, the assumed merit of Western civilization. This assumption was not as sweeping and unthinking as it is now portrayed; as an example, perhaps it is good to remember that the repentant, hair-shirted Samuel Sewall published our first abolitionist tract, The Selling of Joseph in 1700, condemning “man-stealing” and declaring slaves to be the brothers and sisters of Christ.

 

AM: The “world of wonders” sounds as though it could be a separate, fantasy world, accessed through a “wormhole” of sorts, like Narnia through a cupboard–but then we (through Charis) realize it is, in fact, the world as it is, interpenetrated with mystery. Could you expand on this insight for us?

MY: The title refers back to a number of Puritan documents and books. “Remarkables” and “wonders” are astonishing to and often mentioned by Puritan divines and leaders, whether they refer to a surprising blessing or to perceived mysteries like the “monstrous births” of Mary Dyer and Anne Hutchinson, the prickings from an invisible needle, or a stalking raven thought to be a witch in bird-form. Cotton Mather wrote an account of the terrible events of 1692, Wonders of the Invisible World: Being an Account of the Tryals of Several Witches, Lately Executed in New-England. (His father, Increase Mather, contributed Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits.) Then along came that clever Boston cloth merchant, Robert Calef, who put out a spirited attack, More Wonders of the Invisible World, which joggled the Mathers from their powerful seats. Though they remained influential, Increase Mather soon was no longer president of Harvard, and Cotton Mather never attained that expected post.

The wonders of Charis in the World of Wonders, then, are two-sided and paradoxical. They nod to a time of witch trials and supposed witchery, yet they also point to Charis’s transformations. Much that was fearsome becomes familiar to her and, in time, beautiful and meaningful. So, at the last, she sees even the treacherous gulf that divided her people from their old home in England as ravishing and wondrous:

                  It came to me that the sea is a mystery but one dreamed by God. To whom the sea belongeth: for he made it. And I thought that before the worlds were molded, the oceans were meant to ebb and flow and sometimes tower, reaching toward the heavens. God fashioned the waters and their salt, changeable secrets out of joy and pleasure, and likewise he formed me, and all he longed for me in my life was that I be alive, all the way alive and whole like the sea, doing what I was intended to do, being all of what I was meant to be—a woman rejoicing in Creation and sensing another, better world next to our own, a mother and wife, a wielder of the needle, an apprentice to a goldsmith, and a candle on fire. The inchoate longings and unsure thoughts, my own tidal feelings and my waves of sorrow or unexpected happiness that I had felt since leaving Falmouth were currents in my own mystery, for who is not a riddle and a wonder to herself, to himself? For we are a crossing of the particular and mortal by the infinite in which there is neither male nor female, neither Jew or Gentile or English or Wabanaki, and what could be more strange?