Hen Frigates by Joan Druett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I like to read women's stories throughout history. Princesses Behaving Badly told of women who should've been famous for their status, but who were often forgotten after the gossip died down. They Fought Like Demons tells of women who dressed up as men to fight in the American Civil War. Sea Queens is a YA take on lady pirates. Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace is an intimate look into a Victorian lady's private life. I picked up Hen Frigates on a recommendation that it would be along those lines.
And it was, indeed. This tells of the women who joined their husbands at sea in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Women played ambassador, tended to the sick, raised livestock, helped mend sails, struggled with seasickness and rough seas, gave birth to and raised children, and sometimes even helped crew the ship, all in restrictive, heavy skirts. (One woman in these accounts wore trousers; the rest went about the ship in fairly standard laundry day garb.) The stories are told in their own words, as many women kept a diary while on board.
The book is full of information about naval life in general during the 18- and early 1900's. It contains maps of sleeping quarters and ship layouts, guides on naval lingo, definitions of types of sails, illustrations of the various kinds of ships, and lots of information about the general life onboard, for hired sailors as well as the wives.
The book does acknowledge the superstition about women at sea; some wives fretted they would be blamed for storms or disease or other misfortunes. But it doesn't stop the women from accompanying their husbands. Some women die at sea, some from childbirth and some from disease, and one wastes away because she can't keep food down. Overall, there were enough women at sea that landing at a port became a series of social calls, visiting with old friends one had encountered before.
Though many of the women are writing during the Victorian period, and they all have at least enough education to write, none are the wilting flowers the time period is known for. They remark on troubles with little more than a sardonic remark, the gravity of which has to be gleaned from their husbands' accounts of the same events. The most common complaint is boredom; once they run out of embroidery thread or sewing, many of them resort to learning navigation or other useful aspects of ship life. They're strongly discouraged from mixing with the sailors, though.
The book recounts two instances of a woman taking over the ship. In one case, a daughter puts down a mutiny after her father dies at sea, and navigates home. Another woman is left in control when disease ravages the ship, and she has to navigate, crew, and tend the sick while she, herself, suffers the illness.
Unfortunately, I ran into the same problem with this book as with They Fought Like Demons. The book covers so many women, and in such a scattershot way, that it was hard to follow any one narrative. It gives glimpses of various aspects of these women's lives, without going into much depth. The various sections are by subject, which are only loosely organized, at that.
I learned a lot reading this book, though, and not just about women I'd never heard of before. I found out a lot about the daily lives of sailors during this time period, and what it was like to sail on one of the old sailing vessels, before steamboats halved the time it took to cross the Atlantic. Interestingly, it was the ushering in of steamboats that quashed the practice of women at sea. The owners of the ships claimed the wives were too much of a distraction, and banned them. The book wraps up with the observation that wives aren't a distraction in any other vocation of the time period.
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