Bag Girl Reviews The Witches by Stacy Schiff

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One of the most endlessly fascinating episodes in American history is the Salem Witch Trials, perhaps it’s best known unsolved mystery. What made the citizens of an upstanding puritan community turn against itself with friends, family, and neighbors accusing one another of the worst crime they could think of: witchcraft. There is no shortage of books describing the events of 1692 Salem and providing theories as to why they happened, but The Witches by Stacy Schiff is a welcome addition.

Schiff provides a detailed and nuanced depiction of the Salem Witch Trials, going beyond the American History class stereotypes. She gives context to these events as well as possible explanations, without resorting to the typical conspiracy theories: these range from political divisions to ergot (a mold which is what LSD is derived from ) laced rye bread. It all began with a group of adolescent girls, a disenfranchised section of the community who were both largely ignored and highly scrutinized, it is possible that a combination of strict puritan religious beliefs and societal expectations and the repression of teenaged impulses and desires caused them to act out. What started off with youthful rebellion snowballed out of control, fed by the divisions and suspicions in their society.

Early New England lived in fear of attacks from Indians and the French, disease and other natural disasters as well as interference from the British crown. It was divided between a number of different political and religious factions. Salem village itself was split between those supported the minister, Samuel Parris, and those who resented having to pay his salary. A top of that were various land disputes and personal grudges.

Schiff puts the Salem Witch Trial against the larger backdrop of the 17th century ( the period which saw the greatest number of witch trials worldwide) as well as World History in general, specifically the McCarthy Trials of the 1950s and  the fairly recent Patriot Act/ War on Terror era, which we are (arguably) still going through. Both of these events and those like them are often referred to as “witch hunts.” The Salem Witch Trials are invoked whenever a climate of fear and suspicion cause us to turn against one another.

The Witches by Stacy Schiff provides fascinating context to the much discussed Salem Witch Trials and is a must read for anyone who is interested in these events.  I found it dry at points but that is due to the difficulty I have with non fiction. 

Bag Girl Memorial Day Special: Remembrance Day at the Rebecca Nurse Homestead

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The Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers MA hosted a World War I themed event in honor of Memorial Day Weekend. I have a somewhat Edwardian looking dress and hat and decided to wear them. Dad and I arrived in Danvers a few minutes before ten o’clock a waited a few minutes in the car before going in.

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A local group that reenacts World War I had set up a camp on the grounds of the Rebecca Nurse Homestead and there were also reenactors portraying British sailors and French soldiers. Dad was disappointed to find that there would not be any drills or demonstrations that day. To see that, we would have to come back the next day. The first part of our visit involved poking around the event to see what was there and then looking around in the Rebecca Nurse house. While looking in the wing of the house with display cases filled with artifacts dug up on the site, we met a volunteer named Don, who gave us a tour of the second floor of the house, which I have never seen before. The meeting house was set up for crafts and coloring; I made a poppy out of tissue paper and pipe cleaners.

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Dad and I were hungry by this point, so we went to the concession stand for snacks: We both got cokes. I got a bag of popcorn and a bag of candy; Dad got a donut. Afterwards, I went to the gift shop and bought and a volume of poems by Anne Bradstreet, who we studied in my American Lit. class, and a couple of postcards. I donated my last dollar to a fund to build a World War I memorial in Washington D.C. My donation allowed me to take a packet of Flanders Poppy seeds, which I later planted in a pot on my deck. We will see how well they turn out.

The reenactors had brought a great deal of interesting things to look at. A table displaying weapons had a rifle bayonet which could be detached and used as a  knife.

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Another table, which had books and other paper goods from the period, had a romantic postcard of an American soldier kissing his girl before going off to war and a basic french book, as well as a book of “naughty poems.” I wonder what people in 1917 considered naughty.

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There was also a table set up with rations which a World War I era soldier would have eaten and a fire for cooking bacon. Another table which displayed period communications devices such as radios and cameras.

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The British encampment had cigarette cards of King George V, Queen Mary, and other members of the royal family. The French encampment had an actual Croix de Guerre medal. An adorable little boy tried on a helmet at the British encampment and appeared to be having a ball. I love seeing people bring kids to these type of events.

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We left around noon and I put my postcards and poppy in my scrapbook.

Bag Girl Reviews Harlots

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*** Warning: Spoilers***

Harlots is a Hulu series that I have been hearing a lot about through the period drama related social media I follow, mainly the blog Frock Flicks. My interested was piqued but since I did not have Hulu, I got a late start in watching it. This was what made me give in and finally subscribe to Hulu. 

The series follows Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton), an upwardly mobile brothel owner in 18th century London trying to provide for her two daughters: Charlotte (Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay, London’s most sought after courtesan, and Lucy, whose innocence attracts a number of sadistic men. Margaret’s social climbing provokes a feud with Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) a high class madam and Margaret’s former employer, who steals the entire series with her bird-like menace. Manville’s performance as Lydia Quigley is something watching a vicious parrot.

One interesting thing about the series is that it includes elements usually missing in your typical costume drama: lesbianism and mixed race relationships. The slums and brothels of 18th century London are shown as a diverse place which caters to all tastes. Margaret Wells is in a common-law marriage with William North, a free black man, and they have a mixed race son. Amelia Scanwell, the daughter of a puritanical religious campaigner, has a lesbian romance with a local prostitute. It is also noteworthy for its depiction of prostitution, one of the few professions available to an 18th century woman where she could rise to wealth and prominence but at the risk of abuse and condemnation. The prostitutes in the series are not portrayed as pathetic victims or vice-ridden jezebels but rather as women using the few opportunities offered them to try to survive and get ahead. Whoredom is both glamorous and degrading.  

The rivalry between Margaret Wells and Lydia Quigley is the most interesting part of the series. Other storylines such as Charlotte’s romance with an Irish gigolo named Daniel  (Jessica Brown Findlay in another relationship with a hunky irishman), and the murder of a noble client in Margaret’s brothel do not grab you as much. You do not really care about what happens to Charlotte and Daniel but you want to see Margaret take Quigley down. I love where the character of Lucy, who starts off as a reluctant prostitute and is afraid to go off as the kept woman of a wealthy man, is going. In the last episode, she is taken under the wing of  Nancy (Kate Fleetwood) a friend and neighbor of her mother who works as a dominatrix and taught the art of flagellation. Lucy returns to her mother and tells her “I’m ready now.” My prediction is that in the next season, Lucy, who serves as one of the series’s defactio ingenues, will become a dominatrix like Nancy.

Harlots has little of the stodginess which people all too often associate with period dramas but does not feel historically inauthentic or untrue to the time period. There is a fine balance between  “this is a different time period” and “and these are understandable and relatable people.” It is accessible and appealing to the general audience but does not feel dumbed down.