Women’s March Week: The Failed Colonial Goodwife: A Review of The Notorious Elizabeth Tuttle

NOTE: Periodically, we will be reintroducing relevant book reviews from our previous blog, The Discarded Image. To celebrate the Women’s March of 2018, we are bringing in some of our favorite books on women from history.

Those who recognize the name Elizabeth Tuttle know her only as the paternal grandmother of colonial theologian Jonathan Edwards, a woman her grandson was raised to forget because of her alleged failings as a colonial goodwife. Yet this same woman, two centuries later, was paraded by leaders of the eugenics movement as the paragon of genetic material, a woman whose descendants include an unusually high number of intelligentsia. And in between those wildly different portraits of her lie nearly 200 years of forgotten silence.

So who was the real Elizabeth Tuttle?

Colonial American scholar Ava Chamberlain’s latest book, The Notorious Elizabeth Tuttle: Marriage, Murder, and Madness in the Family of Jonathan Edwards, resurrects a woman of seventeenth-century America who was as ordinary as any other woman but extraordinary in the diversity of claims made about her.

The Notorious Elizabeth Tuttle: Marriage, Murder, and Madness in the Family of Jonathan Edwards
by Ava Chamberlain
NYUP, 2012
258 pages (hardcover)
Available: Amazon

In her introduction, Chamberlain declares her methodology, outlines the case she will make, and establishes its position within the literature. She explains the predominant view of women in the seventeenth century (as well as the twenty-first) as primarily deceitful by nature and “prone to sexual sin,” and explains how the puritan divines countered this view by positioning women as spiritual companions to men, thereby redeeming them from their fallen nature.

Of course, one of the (many) obvious problems with this is that a woman who does not fit the socially constructed mold—by choice or by chance—is therefore relegated back to the untrustworthy category. And this is where our subject’s initial portrait begins to shapeshift.

When Elizabeth Tuttle’s husband divorced her, claiming desertion and mental illness (after ten years of regular childbearing, she refused to have sex with him), she went from respected goodwife to crazy seductress. The court felt there was precedence for her husband’s claim, as not one but two of Elizabeth’s siblings had committed murder and been declared non compos mentis. And though it wasn’t uncommon for a woman to appear in court, Elizabeth was not summoned to appear; a committee was dispatched to interview her but apparently produced no documentation of their visit. So eventually, per her husband’s wishes, she was set aside, cut off from her children, and spoken of only in hushed tones—while he remarried, started a second family and rose to prominence. Thus Elizabeth’s voice disappeared from history.

Chamberlain’s purpose, then, is to restore her point of view as much as possible, to create a chamber where her voice can echo:

My construction of a new figure of Elizabeth Tuttle is, therefore, an attempt to peel away this well-worn veneer and recover the fragments of lost humanity that lie beneath. To give this effort narrative coherence, I have structured it as a search not only for who Elizabeth Tuttle was but also for how she explained the breakdown of her marriage. Her husband’s explanation has been preserved in his divorce petitions. But the disintegration of a marriage of almost twenty-five years seldom has only one explanation. Rarely is either party wholly innocent….My narrative of the divorce exists on the boundary “between what we can know and what we can’t know” about the past.

The Prologue that follows is a sudden embrace of the narrative style, directly engaging the action on the most critical day of Elizabeth’s story.

On the morning of the last Tuesday in May 1690, Richard Edwards was perhaps carefully planing the edge of a pipe stave or tamping a hoop into place around a finished cask. He would not, however, spend this day working in his cooper’s shop. Having more important business, he took off his apron, set aside his mallet and driver, picked up a thick bundle of papers, and set out for Sandford’s Inn, where the Connecticut Court of Assistants met for its twice yearly session. As he entered the court chamber, Edwards likely felt confident that his case was strong…

…despite the basic stability of the puritan family during the first century of settlement, individual families did not always flourish. All was not right in these little peaceable kingdoms.

The stage is set for a dramatic telling of Elizabeth’s story. But from this point on, Chamberlain returns to the academic structure with which she started.

She takes great pains to trace the Edwards and Tuttle ancestors back to England. She explores colonial court cases involving mental illness, murder and divorce. She discuss how and why eugenicists claimed the Edwards family for their arguments.

She reveals that pre- and extra-marital sex, violence, and mental illness were far more common than puritan-revering Evangelical historians would like us to believe. She takes issue with all of the major biographers of Jonathan Edwards (including George Marsden, writing as recently as 2004) for disregarding or misrepresenting Elizabeth’s role in her grandson’s story. She demonstrates that the politics of gender were alive and well in the seventeenth century, just as they are still.

There is no doubt Chamberlain’s work fills a substantial and important gap in the historical record. Her research is meticulous and interpreted reasonably. She has reclaimed (or as close to as possible) an extinguished voice from our national history.

Books must be judged for how well they achieve their stated purposes, and Chamberlain has met the bar she set for herself. But form is as critical as content to story.

Chamberlain quotes colonial source material in the original spelling instead of modernizing it, and incorporates tangents that inform her research but do injustice to the narrative arc. The fascinating details she has revealed will be discovered by far fewer readers than if Chamberlain had chosen to write a narrative history. Her reasons for not doing so probably have more to do with the state of modern academia than personal preference, and academic readers certainly will find her style normative. But those who can’t bring themselves to slog through the academic language will miss out on a truly fascinating tale.

Sex, murder, madness and betrayal were the hallmarks of the life of at least one of our colonial foremothers, and I’m grateful to Chamberlain for expertly sleuthing out the real Elizabeth Tuttle. I only wish her once-buried story had not been further (and unnecessarily) obscured by footnotes.