Tuesday Book; Preachers and prophetesses

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I APPROACHED Unbridled Spirits warily, put off by the puffs - "gripping", "passionate" - and a blurb about "scorching prose". My unease persisted into the introduction, where the drama is sloshed on too thickly. Once I got through all this gushy impasto, I eventually reached a book that really does communicate the emotional and psychological turbulence that churns in the interior of revolutions.

In challenging hierarchy, killing a king and claiming rights, the rebels of 17th-century England were in unknown political territory. In Stevie Davies's words, "The Chain of Being which had seemed so fixed had become destabilised in a world of vertiginous dualities, so that each element was volatile in relation to all the others." Little wonder that the revolutionaries had dreams, saw visions, spoke in trances. The minority of women who left their mark on the record expressed this inner tumult with enthusiasm and fervour.

Unbridled Spirits is history through immersion. We are transported into the trance-like subversion of Anne Trapnel of the Fifth Monarchists. We hear Margaret Fell, a Quaker, but still of the gentry, rebuking her judges for whispering, and we journey with Mary Fisher, a former serving-maid from Selby, to speak to the Sultan of Turkey in Venice about the benefits of the Inner Light for his country.

These are extraordinary women doing remarkable things by the standards of any era. However, Stevie Davies's skill as a storyteller and her descriptive abilities carry us along. Her capacity for empathy draws us into the world of prophetesses and women preachers. It extends to the private moments, too: we share the grief of the artisan Nehemiah Wallington for his little daughter.

Davies's focus is on experience, and she uses words graphically. The result is a vivid account that arouses the reader's imagination. However, by opting for this style, she does not leave much space for the kind of observation that may well be ponderous in fiction, but which brings a considered depth to the writing of history. The danger of her preoccupation with experience is an impatience with the complexity of interpretation.

On one occasion, this leads Davies to dismiss too airily the cluster of difficulties involved in finding a simple cause for witch persecutions. A comparable impatience is evident in her acknowledgements, where she implies unfairly that only women have written about women in the 17th century.

None the less, we do get some brief but pithy comments on gender. For example, on the famous Putney debates of 1647 about whether the franchise should extend to the poor, she says that "The `poorest he' was not the `poorest she'." We can glean more about relations between the sexes from the sensitivity with which she describes how the prophetesses used the trance, or the classic female dilemma of Anna Trapnel, on trial for witchcraft in Truro. If she looks at her accuser, she is condemned as a whore; if she looks down, she is guilty.

The suggestive style stimulates musing. I found myself pondering the power of the voice on reading how Anna Trapnel sent off Quaker men who came to dispute with her, just by bellowing out spiritual truths. A friend of mine who had learned to scream in a radical therapy group had a similar success against a would-be mugger in Hackney. One roar and his assailant was off.

Despite the problems of experience communicated without a wider historical setting, this is a skilful re-creation and brings old texts to life most skilfully. We can chuckle and marvel and feel humility at the courage of these redoubtable women, who just wouldn't shut up. Margaret Fell, who wrote Women's Speaking Justified while imprisoned in Lancaster Castle, might have been surprised to find herself once more in print, and still relevant. "All this opposing and gainsaying of women's speaking," she commented, "has risen out of the bottomless pit and spirit of darkness that have spoken for these many hundred years together in this night of apostasy." There's more than meets the eye in inner light.