From stockings and pearls to wampum belts and sects

An approachable new book from a distinguished scholar brings three resourceful 17th-century women to life.
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The Independent Culture
Women on the Margins by Natalie Zemon Davis Harvard, pounds 15.95

This is a book about three women who had, at first sight, little in common. One was a Jewish businesswoman, one a Lutheran naturalist, one an Ursuline nun. They were all born in different countries, the first two half-way through the 17th century, the third 50 years earlier. Yet Natalie Zemon Davis (the distinguished historian and author of The Return of Martin Guerre) sees many parallels between them, the strongest being their determination.

Glikl ben Judah Leib was married at 14 and had 12 surviving children. The daughter of a Hamburg trader, she was widowed at 43 and set about supporting her brood by dealing in stockings and pearls. She remarried but her second husband went bankrupt and died and she moved in with a married daughter for the rest of her life. What makes her remarkable is the document she left for her descendants. In seven books, each marking a decade of human life, it is an example of the Jewish tradition of an 'ethical will', an autobiography spiced with stories and parables drawn from folklore, the Bible, classical history and her own experiences. She comes across as a strong, brave, bossy woman, and curiously modern - the type who'd be so keen to tell you what to do you'd never get her off the phone.

Maria Sibylla Merian left no autobiography behind her, but she did leave her husband. These days, we'd describe as a dangerous cult the group of strict Labadists whose community in Friesland she ran away to join. Yet through them, she decided to visit Surinam where she developed her keen interest in the metamorphosis of insects, producing beautiful and accurate paintings of their life cycles, and pickling many of the little creepy- crawlies in brandy.

As for Marie Guyart, she was probably the bravest of the lot. A wife at 17, a mother at 18 and a widow at 19, she left her son to her sister's care and joined the Ursuline order in Tours. From there, she travelled to Canada and founded a school (which still flourishes) high above the St Lawrence river. It was tremendously wild country, populated by Iroquois, Hurons and Algonquins - people then known as Savages - whose languages she learnt and whom she came to love. She was a mystic and a teacher whose deeply affectionate letters to her son portray a wisdom and fortitude rare in any age.

Each of these three deserves her own biography: together they represent the resilience and resourcefulness of women determined to follow their destiny. Davis has written a profoundly scholarly book about them but she has also attempted to make them approachable. Sometimes this works, particularly when she goes into details: Glikl complains that her children are spoilt and dissatisfied with the simple pleasures of life; Maria Sibylla nurtures daughters and caterpillars in her busy Dutch kitchen; Marie Guyart, in her last agony, is concerned only for the welfare of her beloved Savages.

It works less well when Davis attempts to unite the three in a kind of resuscitation exercise, a short play in which they all grumble at being thrown together, and when she justifies her book in terms of her own delight in following their adventures. Nor is it a good idea to publish so many pictures in poor quality black and white reproductions. The Torah binders ''embroidered by women for the circumcision of their sons'', the alarming Waiyami wasp mats and wampum belts look sadly dull, and Maria Sibylla's fastidious paintings cry out for modern colour printing.

But these are quibbles. To read this passionately committed book is to feel admiration for the efforts of such brave women to make the most of their lives, and gratitude to Natalie Zemon Davis for celebrating them.