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Accidents of Providence Read-A-Long Discussion

On March 13th, in response to the laws being passed that are encroaching on women’s rights, I announced a read-a-long of Accidents of Providence by Stacia M. Brown. This novel tells the story of Rachel Lockyer, a woman being investigated for the suspected murder of her illegitimate child. Rachel had the misfortune to live in England during in 1624, when a law aptly named An Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murdering of Bastard Children was in affect. If found guilty of this crime, Rachel faced the death penalty. Several people signed up to read this book with me and I am happy to announce that the day to discuss Accidents of Providence has finally arrived!

While reading this book, I discovered Stacia M. Brown’s website, which has some great information about the book and the time period. I used the wonderful discussion guide she provide to help me round out the discussion today.

For those who have yet to read the book, both information on the author’s website and this discussion will include spoilers. Please read the questions and comments with that in mind.

Let’s begin!

Thanks so much for joining me for this read-a-long. It’s nice know that there are other people out there reading the same book I am. Use the questions below only as a guide. I’ll be providing my thoughts in the comments. Answer the ones that interest and please feel free to ask questions of your own. I really want to know what you think. Please note that I will be working today, so I might not respond as quickly as I’d like. I hope you will bear with me.

  • What were your overall opinions of Accidents of Providence? What was your reading experience like? How did you feel about the author’s writing style and storytelling? What is it about the book that sticks out the most for you?
  • When I first heard about this book, I wondered about this law criminalizing the murder of bastard children. Why do you think that it pertained only to bastard children and not to all newborns?
  • What were your thoughts about the book’s title before you read the book? Did your impressions change after you finished it?
  • Mary was an interesting character. She seemed very conflicted about having reported Rachel. She seemed satisfied with Rachel’s work for the most part. What do you think her motivations were for observing Rachel and reporting the crime? Do you think she changed as a result of what happened during the trial and after?
  • While some of the strongest bonds a woman can have is with other women, there is something to be said about women being each other’s own worst enemies. Why is it that other women were so interested in Rachel and her affairs? Why were they the first to turn on her?
  • Thomas Bartwain has been a criminal investigator for quite some time. At first I thought his purpose was to provide background information on Rachel and provide a look at that society’s view of women. What is it, do you think, that is different about Rachel and her case that bothers him so much that makes him feel guilty and causes him physical discomfort? Did your feelings for him change from the beginning of the story to the end?
  • What are your thoughts on Rachel and William’s relationship? Was it a love affair of equals? How do they compare to Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale?
  • The trial was the highlight of the book for me. What are your thoughts about all that took place?
  • (Totally stealing this question from the author’s Discussion Guide) Are there parallels between the birth and death of Rachel’s child and her own “death”? If so, do you draw any significance from those parallels? What do you make of the role of miracles in this story, religiously, politically, and mythically?
  • Did this book cause you to think about modern society’s view of women? Does Rachel’s story in 1624 have anything to say to women living in 2012? What can the women of today learn from her experience?

I am looking forward to your thoughts!

20 Comments

  • At 2012.04.19 09:21, Literate Housewife said:

    Here are my answers to the first two questions. I’ll keep adding more throughout the day.

    Accidents of Providence started out as a slow burn read for me. I found the characters and their motivation were interesting as they sat with Bartwain. I was also trying to get a feel for Rachel. It wasn’t until the trial, however, that this book took off for me. From that point forward, I devoured the book. I had to know what was going to happen and why. I found it interesting how, from the moment her pregnancy was suspected by others, Rachel’s life was no longer her own. Everyone around her wanted to catch her in her sin and make an example of her. That continued through the investigation into the child’s death, through the trial and execution and even through her return to life. She went from grievous sinner to miraculous saint. She was neither. Her inability to simply be human was the saddest aspect of the story for me.

    Did anyone else wonder think about the name this law? Clearly the law makers of the day seemed to believe that every women pregnant with a bastard child was out to commit murder in the dark. What about married, virtuous women? What about the women, like William’s wife, who had so many children that she refers to them by their number in the birth order? Were any of those women without the means to space or control pregnancies desperate enough to do something similar? I can only imagine what it must be like to face pregnancy number 9, 12, or 14. What if your family was poor? I guess I’m asking more questions than I’m answering, but I found it curious that “lewd women” were singled out.

    • At 2012.04.19 10:07, Penny @ LiteraryHoarders said:

      Whew! Good questions!!! I admit I still have lots to read, so I might have to add my thoughts in the coming days! :-)

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    • At 2012.04.19 11:41, Literate Housewife said:

      Here are my responses to questions 3 and 4. :)

      I confess to not giving the book’s title much thought until Karen asked to discuss it. In thinking about it now, the focus for me is on the word accidents. How can we know what actually is a manifestation of divine care or direction? While the people who wrote and carried out this law during Rachel’s time clearly believed that they were being led by God’s providence, but I don’t see much of God there at all. Within Rachel’s story, accidents are everywhere. As she tried very hard not to fall pregnant with William’s child, the pregnancy was the result of an accident. That the baby died during it’s delivery was an accidental. The fear of punishment for herself and for William after the birth that caused her to be alone during the delivery can, in my opinion, be blamed on the “Godly” society that felt its intersession in private matters was essential. Even that Rachel survived her hanging was accidental. I think it’s interesting that a society could view Rachel’s trial and death sentence as providential and then turn right around and find her ultimate survival also a sign from God.

      Mary was a very interesting character to me. She wasn’t necessarily a straight-up busy body. I believe that she liked Rachel beyond her abilities as a glove maker. She seemed to me to be a person uncomfortable making decisions and judgments. Were she not a widow, I get the impression that she would have relied on her husband for that. As a widow, she is in a precarious spot. If she were to lose her husband’s business, she would have nothing. I think that her concern for the future as well as the company she kept at her church were what drove her to do what she did. I think this bothered her a great deal, though. She was one of the few people to visit Mary before her execution and she had to have known how utterly disgusting that place would be. Her going there in person shows her true heart to me.

      • At 2012.04.19 13:31, Farin said:

        * What were your overall opinions of Accidents of Providence? What was your reading experience like? How did you feel about the author’s writing style and storytelling? What is it about the book that sticks out the most for you?

        I really liked it! I thought it would take me a while to settle into it, but I ended up speeding through it. If I had a stretch of uninterrupted reading time, I probably could have finished it in a day. Stacia Brown has an incredibly assured voice for a debut writer, and her knowledge of the subject is clearly enormous. I was afraid she would fall into the trap some historical fiction authors have of regurgitating all of their research into dry and wordy expository paragraphs, but Brown did what the truly successful historical fiction writers do and used her characters to present the facts with a human face. That’s what really stood out for me: the legal ins-and-outs of this could have been so boring if she hadn’t told them from the point of view of Bartwain.

        * When I first heard about this book, I wondered about this law criminalizing the murder of bastard children. Why do you think that it pertained only to bastard children and not to all newborns?

        I think the law was rooted in the perception of sin at that time. A bastard child is conceived in sin, and therefore the mother must be as sinful and as unnatural as the adultery she committed, and therefore prone to murder.

        * What were your thoughts about the book’s title before you read the book? Did your impressions change after you finished it?

        I didn’t really have an opinion on the title. I assumed it had something to do with Cromwell’s Puritan government. It definitely had more meaning after I finished the book, particularly after what happened to Rachel.

        * Mary was an interesting character. She seemed very conflicted about having reported Rachel. She seemed satisfied with Rachel’s work for the most part. What do you think her motivations were for observing Rachel and reporting the crime? Do you think she changed as a result of what happened during the trial and after?

        Mary was a difficult character. I’m still trying to understand why she decided to report Rachel, even though she clearly had some sort of motherly affection towards her (although I think Rachel was probably older than Mary, in the end). I think her motives for reporting the incident might have genuinely been as she explained them: because her husband would have wanted her to. I think Bartwain said that widows like Mary continue to obey their husbands long after they’re gone. And I think she truly believed God told her to report Rachel, as well. I think the trial and its aftermath definitely affected her views, as seen in the last pages of the book. I don’t think she’d change a thing about what she did, but I also don’t think she’d be as quick to judge if confronted with the same situation again.

        * While some of the strongest bonds a woman can have is with other women, there is something to be said about women being each other’s own worst enemies. Why is it that other women were so interested in Rachel and her affairs? Why were they the first to turn on her?

        I think the other women were so fascinated by Rachel because everything she did was against what was accepted for the time: she was single, she associated with whomever she wanted, she was confident, she attracted looks from men, etc. I think they were quick to turn on her because they resented her freedom and because they felt she deserved to be punished for her stupidity, not to mention that testifying at the court trial probably made them minor celebrities.

        * Thomas Bartwain has been a criminal investigator for quite some time. At first I thought his purpose was to provide background information on Rachel and provide a look at that society’s view of women. What is it, do you think, that is different about Rachel and her case that bothers him so much that makes him feel guilty and causes him physical discomfort? Did your feelings for him change from the beginning of the story to the end?

        I liked Bartwain from beginning to end. There was something about his old, curmudgeonly self that made me warm to him immediately. And the moment where it dawns on him that the system is flawed was one of my favorites. I think what was different about Rachel’s case was that she never spoke in her defense and no one ever asked why she did it. And his wife pointed out everything that was wrong about it, which also helped, I’m sure ;-)

        * What are your thoughts on Rachel and William’s relationship? Was it a love affair of equals? How do they compare to Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale?

        I don’t think this was a love affair of equals at all, even though they both went into it with eyes wide open. I hated Walwyn. Haaaaated him! Not just because of his weakness but because he got off pretty much scot free, for all his crying about his love for Rachel. Rachel, on the other hand, grasped the reality of the situation immediately, and even though she was kind of martyring herself for the sake of her lover, I thought she was a lot stronger than Walwyn ever could be.
        I think Hester is the woman Rachel could have been if she’d kept her child. I detest The Scarlet Letter, but I do admire Hester’s strength.

        * The trial was the highlight of the book for me. What are your thoughts about all that took place?

        This was one of the tenser moments of the book. I loved every second! The circumstantial evidence, the collapse of the scaffolding, Elizabeth perjuring herself, all of it was so dramatic and highlighted the flaws in that system.

        * (Totally stealing this question from the author’s Discussion Guide) Are there parallels between the birth and death of Rachel’s child and her own ”death”? If so, do you draw any significance from those parallels? What do you make of the role of miracles in this story, religiously, politically, and mythically?

        I didn’t even think about this until I saw the discussion guide, but the second I read the question, I had one of those “OH MY GOD!” moments, because when I read the book, I didn’t even make the connection to the accidental strangulation of the baby and the hanging of Rachel. I suppose it’s unintentionally significant that the mother was sentenced to die in the same manner as her daughter, because most death sentences at that time were hanging at Tyburn tree (drawing and quartering was reserved for traitors, beheading for nobility).

        Miracles during this time period are interesting, because people honestly and truly believed in them. I think that politicians exploited them for their own ends (John Lilburne is another one I wanted to beat with a wooden spoon), but they genuinely believed in them as well, for the most part.

        * Did this book cause you to think about modern society’s view of women? Does Rachel’s story in 1624 have anything to say to women living in 2012? What can the women of today learn from her experience?

        I think every review I’ve read for this book brings up how relevant it is for 2012. Modern society might not be as suspicious of single women, but the other issues still exist, particularly with birth control in the news, and I’m sure there are plenty of women out there who, like Rachel, don’t have a support system they feel they can trust and end up going it alone. I guess the important things to take away are to speak up and to find someone to trust.

        • At 2012.04.19 21:28, Jennifer said:

          I loved Bartwain’s wife, too. In fact, their relationship was the only healthy one in the entire book. I wonder what that has to say about marriage? Marriage to someone who lives in their heads the way the Levelers seem to doesn’t lead to happiness at all. Bartwain, however, was a level headed man who tried to do his best.

          I’m wondering if Rachel’s case was different to him because she didn’t try to lie her way out of anything? In not defending herself, she was in a way judging herself more harshly than anyone else. I wonder if that is was made an impression on him?

          • At 2012.04.19 22:23, Karen White said:

            I think Bartwain’s journey re: Rachel had a lot to do with his own retirement and aging (though I have no idea what those mice were all about!). Perhaps in having to deal with Griffin, who irked him personally, he was also able to see that interpretation of the law, and perhaps the law itself can be flawed. Just found the part of the trial pp 141-2 where Griffin questions the minister Kiffin and Bartwain has the revelation that the law is flawed, that there’s an inconsistency between how this law and the law for treason are prosecuted. I really think that his change was an intellectual one, but his need to follow the trial was more complex. I do think that he was outraged that Rachel was not allowed to defend herself.

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            • At 2012.04.20 13:54, Literate Housewife said:

              That’s an interesting point about his age and life experience. It’s often easier to be idealistic like Griffin when you are young and have had little or no life experience to contradict your beliefs.

        • At 2012.04.19 14:51, Karen White said:

          I want to say two things right off – I’m glad Jennifer had the idea to do the read-a-long, as I might never have gotten past the first chapter with Bartwain, and I’m glad I did. Plus, Farin, you are hilarious. Now to the questions. I should also say that as I read this I thought a lot about WHEN SHE WOKE, and as I’m responding now I also have the book THE TESTAMENT OF JESSIE LAMB by Jane Rogers in my head. Both dystopian novels offer dangerous scenarios for women and power over their bodies, which sadly, is still relevant today.
          1. What were your overall opinions of Accidents of Providence? What was your reading experience like?
          I, too, took a while to warm to it. I didn’t like Bartwain at first and I didn’t get why the book started with him. He was so rigid. In addition, I was very impatient with Rachel in the beginning of the book. She was so vague. But as the story unfolded, I began to see why (post partum depression plus shock!) and I had a great deal more compassion for her. As I did for most of the women in the story. More on that later.

          2. How did you feel about the author’s writing style and storytelling? What is it about the book that sticks out the most for you?
          I agree with Farin, I can’t believe this is a debut and that the author is so young. I loved reading about her source material and what was drawn directly from real cases and what she imagined. I also think she did a brave thing in filling the book with difficult, somewhat unlikeable characters. As I said, I had a hard time getting behind Rachel, or anyone, at the beginning. Although I found her style to be a little dry and distant, at the same time I think she did an excellent job of immersing us in this very difficult Cromwellian world.
          3. When I first heard about this book, I wondered about this law criminalizing the murder of bastard children. Why do you think that it pertained only to bastard children and not to all newborns?
          So much conflict over Religion in this time – I am realizing in reading others’ comments and just now that the author has quite successfully drawn subtle parallels to modern day issues. Will religious conflict and its influence on law-making ever end? But I think this law was an extension of a general fear at the time of the power of women (their sexuality, their emotional life, their ability to give birth). Women as dark creatures that must be restrained, controlled, forcibly brought to the light.
          4. What were your thoughts about the book’s title before you read the book? Did your impressions change after you finished it?
          I wanted to talk about the title because I looked up the word Providence, to make sure I understood it correctly (Providence: a) often capitalized : divine guidance or care

          b) capitalized : God conceived as the power sustaining and guiding human destiny) and it made me think that this title is quite oxymoronic. How can God do something accidentally if he is omnipotent? I think the title points up the inherent and willful hypocrisy of the law and religious doctrine. (Plus, I had a funny thing happen with this book. As I was reading it, I kept leaving it around the house and then everytime I’d walk by and see the title, the song “Accidents will Happen” by Elvis Costello would pop into my head!)
          5. Mary was an interesting character. She seemed very conflicted about having reported Rachel. She seemed satisfied with Rachel’s work for the most part. What do you think her motivations were for observing Rachel and reporting the crime? Do you think she changed as a result of what happened during the trial and after?
          To follow up on what I started above, my compassion grew for most of the women in the story (Rachel’s mother was a tough one, though). Each and every one had to struggle under the dominance of men, and in fear that they could lose what they had at any time. From what Brown says in the notes, it was rare for a widow to be able to continue with her husband’s business, so Mary’s situation was delicate. She could not afford to have a scandal in her business. However, I don’t think she thought through all the repercussions of reporting Rachel – I kind of agree with Farin – it’s easier and somewhat automatic to do what her husband would have done. But I do think she grows through the story and begins to think for herself. I forgot that she visited Rachel until Jennifer mentioned it. The descriptions of the prison were so gritty and horrifying.
          6. While some of the strongest bonds a woman can have is with other women, there is something to be said about women being each other’s own worst enemies. Why is it that other women were so interested in Rachel and her affairs? Why were they the first to turn on her?
          Continuing with the above argument – I think Rachel was a major threat to women (and to men, even more so). She lived outside of the boundaries in so many ways. I loved the women that stood up for her though. Elizabeth’s moment of prodding the autopsy doctors to save her life instead of just standing around gawping. And my favorite character was Bartwain’s wife. She had the most powerful position a woman could have – a married woman with a stable husband who respected her (he says she’s the only woman he does respect early in the book). She is just about the only character in her book that is comfortable in her skin, and I loved that she just kept prodding Bartwain to face the problems with Rachel’s case, and the law itself. And then thinking about Rachel, in the prison, with the young girl that she helped. She would have been a good mother – she had an instinct for it.
          7. Thomas Bartwain has been a criminal investigator for quite some time. At first I thought his purpose was to provide background information on Rachel and provide a look at that society’s view of women. What is it, do you think, that is different about Rachel and her case that bothers him so much that makes him feel guilty and causes him physical discomfort? Did your feelings for him change from the beginning of the story to the end?
          I feel like in some ways the story is as much about Bartwain and what he represents as it is about Rachel. I think that he’s a voice of reason in an unreasonable time, and that he does truly grow in that he accepts that the law is not always right, that there might be a greater good.
          8. What are your thoughts on Rachel and William’s relationship? Was it a love affair of equals? How do they compare to Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale?
          Ugh. Walwyn was just an ass who could not take responsibility for himself. In some ways he is the other side of the coin of Bartwain. He’s like the Romantic poet who sacrifices all for “love”. Unfortunately, he’s not just sacrificing himself. All the BS he spouted about how Rachel was special. Yes, she did seem to be an interesting woman, she had a certain drive. But it was so sad to me how she blossomed under his attentions. That he gave to her because he was bored with his poor wife was working so hard to take care of the kids and the house while he flitted about! Jerk. If a girlfriend were running around with him I would counsel her to run the opposite direction.
          9. The trial was the highlight of the book for me. What are your thoughts about all that took place?
          gonna skip this for now.
          10. (Totally stealing this question from the author’s Discussion Guide) Are there parallels between the birth and death of Rachel’s child and her own ”death”? If so, do you draw any significance from those parallels? What do you make of the role of miracles in this story, religiously, politically, and mythically? totally agree with Farin – though I did not see the connection till she mentioned it!
          11. Did this book cause you to think about modern society’s view of women? Does Rachel’s story in 1624 have anything to say to women living in 2012? What can the women of today learn from her experience?
          Basically, we need to keep fighting, because the prejudice against women and the attempts to control our bodies is still in the law and in practice. And remember that women need to support each other instead of undermining each other.

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          • At 2012.04.19 15:33, Farin said:

            We should start a We Hate William Walwyn Club. And you’re absolutely right: the fact that Rachel blossomed under his attentions was all the more frustrating.

            • At 2012.04.19 15:43, Karen White said:

              I’m in. Though that might already clear from my comments!

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              • At 2012.04.19 21:20, Jennifer said:

                I may be shunned from my own read-a-long discussion, but I didn’t hate Walwyn. I can’t say that I liked him, but I don’t hate him the way you two do. If he had known she was pregnant all along and still acted that way, I might have felt differently. The man had just gotten out of jail though. Could he have done more for Rachel? Yes. Would it have helped her situation? I don’t know. I do see what you’re saying, but I reserved my hatred for that creep of a minister. I can’t remember his name, but I spit in his face! Does that redeem me at all for not hating Walwyn?

                • At 2012.04.19 22:23, Karen White said:

                  Hmmm. Some shunning may be in order :) But I agree on Kiffin, the minister. He really represents so much about what is wrong with religious leadership.

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                  • At 2012.04.20 09:19, Farin said:

                    Kiffin was pretty awful.

                    I think what got my back up about Walwyn was that he was all talk and no action. I’m not saying he should have destroyed his family and took a public flogging for Rachel’s sake, but those empty declarations drove me crazy.

                  • At 2012.04.20 14:26, Literate Housewife said:

                    You know, there is something kind of awful about a person who offers a whole lot of empty promises (just like the devil if I remember my catechism). At least with the preacher you knew where you stood. There is something to be said for that.

          • At 2012.04.19 21:34, Jennifer said:

            Karen, I think it’s great that you bring up those dystopian books (I’ve only read WHEN SHE WOKE – I’ll be picking up the other). I hadn’t thought about this until you mentioned it, but ACCIDENTS OF PROVIDENCE has that same feel. That it is based in historical fact is troublesome. I suppose I like to think of dystopian settings as impossible, but they are not. It’s so very important that we be vigilant and raise our children to respect themselves and women in general. It quite honestly wouldn’t take much to get into that sort of situation. Lord knows that the Virginia and Arizona legislatures are working very hard at it.

            • At 2012.04.19 22:26, Karen White said:

              Well said.
              Off topic, but that was one thing I loved about JESSIE LAMB. It seemed possible. Horribly.
              What’s the saying: “The more things change, the more they stay the same”?
              I don’t think that individual men necessarily fear women, but in groups they seem to. Which then results in attempts to quash them.

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          • At 2012.04.20 08:52, Sheila (Book Journey) said:

            You have a great discussion going here! The book sounds really interesting!

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            • At 2012.04.23 10:32, Karen White said:

              Hey, all, just posted my review:
              http://karenwhiteaudiobooks.com/2012/04/23/review-accidents-of-providence-by-stacia-m-brown/

              Happy Monday…

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