I have dubbed today, September 26, as Esther Eve. It marks the night before Yale University Press’s official publication of this marvelous book.
Its author, Ann Little, is an associate professor of history at Colorado State University. I first became acquainted with her through her popular academic blog, Historiann. When I finally got around to setting up a Twitter account, she was one of the first people I followed. She’s an accomplished historian, and her new book is, simply, captivating. I’m delighted that Ann agreed to answer some questions about her writing process and about Esther Wheelwright.
Q. How did you first encounter Esther Wheelwright and what made you decide she would be a good subject for a biography?
A. I learned about her in the course of researching my first book, Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Colonial New England, which explored in some chapters the experiences of Anglo-American women and child captives in borderlands warfare. Esther’s life stood out because she became a nun, not a French Canadian wife and mother. That, and the fact that she was the Ursulines’ first and still the only foreign-born mother superior meant that I just had to learn more about her.
Her life was extraordinary because she lived in all three major cultures in the northeastern borderlands: Anglo-American, Native American, and French Canadian. Through her life and times, we can learn about all of the girls and women she lived with.
Q. Did you confront any challenges in researching Wheelwright’s life? How did you deal with them?
A. This was an impossible book to write, because Esther never wrote a captivity narrative describing her experiences. For all that, however, her life was better documented than most middling North American women because she entered a convent, and the convent recorded her progress through the ranks there from student to novice to choir nun. Convent records also recorded a few brief versions of her biography, but I have almost nothing in her own hand about her own life and family ties.
I was told by a senior male scholar that writing this book was “daft”—both my ideas for it and the fact I was spending time pursuing them. I was lectured by a literary agent that my introduction was just out-of-date feminist cant. Feedback like this only made me more determined to write this book and to write it on my own terms. The fact of the matter is that it’s still controversial to insist that women’s lives are important and of historical significance.
Q. What was the most intriguing piece of information you found about Wheelwright? Did it confirm something you already knew or suspected? Did it cause you to see her in a new light?
A. I’m probably most excited about my explorations of eighteenth-century material culture that Esther would have experienced and contributed to as a skilled embroiderer in the Ursuline workshop.
Material culture was critical in helping me to fill in the (major!) gaps. I used the lives of the girls and women around her whose lives were sometimes better documented to make educated guesses as to what Esther was experiencing at any given time. I also thought about her immediate sensory environment: how did the world look, smell, sound, feel, and taste to a seven year-old girl in an Anglo-American or a Wabanaki village? To a twelve year-old student in early Québec? To an elderly nun coping with the British invasion and military occupation of her convent? What did they eat and wear, and even how did girls and women deal with menstruation in these different cultures? I loved immersing myself in these details, and I hope my readers find them at least as interesting as I did.
Q. What was it like to be a nun in the 18th century?
A. The important thing to remember is that nuns in the early modern period were no longer mystics who merely prayed and sought to have ecstatic visions. These nuns, especially those who came to the New World, were nuns with jobs.
Ursuline choir nuns were the higher-status nuns who taught and prayed the hours as well as performed all of the administrative labor or running an order with 45-60 nuns and dozens of boarding students at any given time, in addition to the day school. (The Augustinian nuns in other convents in Québec offered nursing care.) Lay nuns, also called converse sisters, performed the continuous and exhausting domestic labor required to provide all of these girls and women with three meals a day, clean clothing as well as bed and table linens, and tidy work spaces and living quarters.
In short, convents were a means by which French Canadian women could serve God as well as the French imperial state. They couldn’t be priests, and they couldn’t join the Troupes de la Marine or serve as colonial officials like their fathers and brothers did, but they could evangelize within their convent and serve the crown.
Q. Are there any ways in which this book project contributed to your skills as a writer?
A. At the risk of making necessity a virtue, not having many traditional historical sources at my disposal forced me to be creatively speculative. Readers will have to judge whether or not it worked, but I thought Esther’s story was so exciting and important that Americans and Canadians alike need to know about her life and to think about its implications.
We in the U.S. and in Canada have enjoyed the world’s longest and most lightly policed international border for more than 200 years now. We need to remember that it wasn’t always that way, and that our peaceful border is not the norm in the world today.
Q. Is there anything I should have asked but didn’t?
A. You didn’t ask if Esther was really pregnant at age 13 in the Ursuline convent as a student, as some in New England claimed! But you and your readers will just have to read the book to find out—
Intrigued? You can order your own copy of Ann’s book by clicking here. And when you’re finished reading, make sure to leave a review on Amazon and/or any of your favorite online sites. A review, no matter how brief, will boost the profile of this wonderful book.