Who is Anne Dudley Bradstreet?

Gretchen Gibbs author
Gretchen Gibbs, Teen Historical Novels

I am excited about the publication of my new novel, Anne of the Fens, released by Glenmere Press on April 30th. It tells the story of the early life, before she emigrated to the New World, of Anne Dudley Bradstreet, the first American poet.

Anne is my ancestor, and the grandmother of the heroine of my first novel, The Book of Maggie Bradstreet. After I completed the book about Maggie Bradstreet and the witch trials she was involved with in Amherst, I began to read about her grandmother, Anne. If you’re not interested in poetry, you may not know of Anne Bradstreet, so I thought I would tell a little about her.

  1. She wasn’t just the first American poet, she was a great poet. It’s almost four hundred years since she wrote, not that long after Shakespeare, so the language was different, yet we can still enjoy her work. She wrote some long historical pieces, but much of what she produced was about her daily life, something that neither men nor women thought important enough to portray at that time. She wrote about her love for her husband and her children, she wrote of grief and happiness.

  2. She was a resilient and brave woman, who emigrated from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony ten years after the Pilgrims arrived. She raised four girls and four boys in that primitive environment, with the threat of disease, famine, Indians, and wild animals. Her house burned down. She still found time to produce her poetry.

  3. She was an early feminist. At a time when the role of women was to raise children and be obedient to their husbands, her life and her writing demonstrated the strength of women. Here, for instance, is her tribute to Queen Elizabeth I.

Let such as say our sex is void of reason,
Know tis a slander now but once was treason.

In addition, Anne had a fascinating early life. The family was forced to emigrate because they housed a traitor to the king. This is the fact that is the center of my story.

We don’t actually know much about Anne’s early life. She wrote a page or so about her childhood and teen-age years, in a notebook which survived, but which was covered by the scribbles of her children. That scribbling makes it easy to identify with her life; in four hundred years children haven’t changed in their search for surfaces to draw on.

She talked in this document about her religion and how she began reading the Bible at age six or seven. However, at age fourteen she writes about “becoming loose from God,” and discovering her carnal feelings. This, too, I have used in writing Anne of the Fens.

What else do we know? Anne’s father was steward to the Earl of Lincoln. I have set the story in the Earl’s castle, Tattershall, a beautiful brick building in the fen country of Lincolnshire. Anne actually spent much of her childhood at the Earl’s home in Sempringham, a former monastery converted to a manor. The family moved to Boston, England, at one point, and left the stewardship of Sempringham in the hands of John Holland, who was the traitor Anne’s family later took in. At the point of my story, the Earl is in trouble with the King over taxes the Earl will not pay. We don’t know for sure where the family lived at that time, but since John Holland was at Sempringham, it seems logical that the Dudleys moved back with the Earl into his castle, Tattershall.

Another known fact about Anne’s early life is that she was sickly. We don’t know what she had, of course, but the speculation has included malaria and rheumatic heart. At all events she had a chronic illness that she struggled with her whole life. She also had small pox, described in my book. Towards the end of her life, she watched three of her grandchildren die, one after another, two of them named for her, and then her daughter-in-law died as well. After that, Anne seems to have lost her will to live, and died at age sixty, of some wasting illness.

She could not have imagined that students would study her work, that biographers would research her life, or that someone would write a historical novel about her teenage years. I hope she would be glad.