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The Folger Spotlight

Collection Connections: 'Beheld' by TaraShea Nesbit

Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, speakers provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, we revisit the presentation by Rachel B. Dankert, Adjunct Lecturer in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, about Folger collection items related to the novel Beheld. Discussion questions for the novel can be found here.

We would like to thank the Capitol Hill Community Foundation and the Junior League of Washington for their generous support of this program.

Beheld by TaraShea Nesbit, immerses its readers in the inner lives of two women divided by class, religion, and systems of justice in the Plymouth colony of New England. Ten years after the religious separatists commonly known as “Puritans” landed on the shores of Patuxet with their indentured servants, few worldly goods, and even less food, John Billington, an Anglican former indentured servant murders his new neighbor over promised land in this “New Canaan.” As the novel progresses, Eleanor Billington (John’s wife) and Alice Bradford (second wife of William, political leader of Plymouth) share stories from their pasts that inform, question, and ultimately reinforce the outcomes of the present.

Like one event unfolds subject to many perspectives in Beheld, the verb “travail,” now rarely used, contains many meanings that describe the themes of the novel perfectly (Oxford English Dictionary).

“Of a ship: to roll or pitch heavily and right itself with difficulty”

Through the different narrators in Beheld, we are able to piece together accounts of the treacherous voyage from Europe to the New World undertaken by the Dutch and English travelers on the Speedwell and then Mayflower. When they landed at Patuxet (later Plymouth) in December 1620, an unknown world lay before them. For Alice Bradford, who came on a later voyage, the Mayflower voyage of myth and legend was one of intense interest because of the circumstances surrounding the death of her husband’s first wife, her best friend Dorothy. The journey was exceedingly difficult, beset by storms and illness. Early printed books attempted multiple methods of depicting the otherworldly experience of landing in territory unknown to the people on board these ships, such as bird’s eye views of ships landing, peoples meeting for the first time, and the conflicts found there.

A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia by Thomas Hariot, 1590. Folger Shakespeare Library: STC 12786.
America: being the latest and most accurate description of the New World by John Ogilby, 1671. Folger Shakespeare Library: O165.

“To exert oneself; to labor, toil, work hard”

The daily life of the people in the Plymouth colony is one of constant travail. Crops and other food must be grown and harvested for both the colony and to fulfill fiscal obligations in Europe. Domestic duties, hunting, diplomacy and protection of the settlement take any “free” moments. For a formerly indentured family like the Billingtons, their plantation labor is lost in descriptions such as the one we see here for “Of gourds both great and small.”

The American Physitian by William Hughes, 1672. Folger Shakespeare Library: 160- 266q.

“To torment, distress, or harass (human or animal); to afflict, trouble; to weary, tire”

A latent class, religious, and national conflict comes to a head between Captain Miles Standish and William Bradford as representatives of the colony and John Billington when a parcel of land is distributed to the “Newcomen” rather than given to Billington as he deserves. The novel expands on what little we know about the inner lives of indentured workers.

We are able, thankfully, to recover some of the names of those who indentured themselves to travel a world away to travail for future freedom, as we can see in this indenture for Thomas P[u]lling, age twenty, who engages to work his indenture at a plantation in Barbados beginning in 1683.

Indentured servant contracts for the colonies of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Barbados [manuscript]. 1682/3 January-1683 December. Folger Shakespeare Library: V.b.16 (23).

“Of a woman: to suffer the pains of childbirth; to be in labor”

But for all of the travails of men, perhaps the most meaningful throughline in Beheld is that of women who travail the pains of childbirth and motherhood. Dorothy has difficulty conceiving and loses a pregnancy. Upon giving birth to her first child, her husband William Bradford convinces her to leave her son in the Netherlands, while her friend Alice goes back on a promise to Dorothy and brings her children with her. Eleanor Billington’s son dies in the Plymouth colony and it is his parcel that leads John Billington to do the unthinkable to the “Newcomen.” 

Bound through shared experiences of motherhood, Alice and Eleanor both speak to the travails of becoming a mother in the early modern world. Fraught with danger, great care was taken to prepare women’s souls for childbirth as we can see in the frontispiece to Speculum matricis, or the expert midwives handmaid by James Wolveridge (1671).

Alice even mentions making her last will and testament, a common practice of the era that morphed into a devotional literary genre reserved (almost) exclusively for women. One of the frequently printed and popular examples of this genre is The Mother’s Blessing by Protestant separatist (i.e. Puritan) mother Dorothy Leigh.

Leigh’s text not only enumerated ways for her sons to pursue a godly life after her death, but pressed them to hold firm to the courage of their convictions and not be swayed by rulers unfriendly to their beliefs. 

James Wolveridge. Speculum matricis; or, the expert midwives handmaid. London, 1671. Folger Shakespeare Library: W3319.2.
The mothers blessing. . .By Mris Dorothy Leigh. 1640. Folger Shakespeare Library: STC 15408, 1640 edition.

As we see in Beheld, the families left their homes in pursuit of freedom from religious persecution and for financial enrichment. But as our novel reminds us, these pilgrims did not find the “New Canaan” a land flowing with milk and honey, but with blood.

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