There were few other women who appeared in the account of Phineas’ Pett’s life although one of them, yet another Elizabeth, this time the widow of his half-brother, Peter contrasts with the somewhat passive roles Phineas ascribes to the women around him by taking an aggressively active role. Phineas owed Peter £325 as a consequence of badly conceived venture in the early 1620s. Phineas had a complex personal and professional relationship with his brothers and it was not repaid during Peter’s life, but after his death in about 1631, Elizabeth, seemingly pursued by creditors herself went after Phineas with a vengeance. She had him arrested by bailiffs and despite using all his wiles, pleading his status as a King’s servant and his own alleged poverty it seems she final got her case heard at law and received payment. Getting money out of Phineas was no mean feat and Elizabeth must have been a persistent women.
So what has this brief survey of three generations of Pett women told us about the lives of Early Modern women and their families? Well, maybe nothing a student of the era didn’t know already to be honest, but although the sample is too small to be anything but anecdotal there are some interesting examples and reinforcements of what we already know.
Age at first marriage remains quite elusive for the women (or, indeed men) in question, but I’ve had a stab at estimating ages from what dates we have. In the case of Ann and Phineas’s mother, Elizabeth, they were married young enough to allow for twenty-plus years of childbearing so we can assume their late teens or early twenties. I have reckoned that the unfortunate Rachel was in her late teens when she married (and so not much older when she died). These are somewhat (although not much) younger ages than the mid-twenties which is considered the norm for Early Modern North-west Europe, perhaps due to the comparative affluence of the families involved. Pett births were usually spaced at about two years- about the norm for non-wetnursed children. Although we don’t know exact ages, the long periods between first and last recorded live births makes it clear that Early Modern women could, and did, safely give birth into their forties. This, of course, is not news and we only have to look at how late people gave up on the chances of an heir from Queens Elizabeth and (especially) Mary so see what contemporary expectations for the age at which even first pregnancies could be expected. It does, though contradict the misguided modern perception that births to women in middle life were a late 20th century phenomenon.
Remarriage, of both widows and widowers, is a recurring theme running through the three generations of Petts described here. Often this occurred very quickly after the bereavement, despite in some cases the obvious greif of the surviving spouse. Phineas himself was married and widowered three times, and at least one, probably two of his wives had married before. His father and mother both married twice and so did the wicked Reverend Nunn. These remarriages took several forms. Second wives could, like Phineas’ mother, Elizabeth, be young women embarking on their first marriage, older women past childbearing, like Susan or even still fertile younger widows like Mildred.
The tensions caused by these remarriages and the mixed families created had huge impact on the lives of Phineas and those around him- his lack of professional preferment from his elder half-brothers, the miserable existence Mary, Abigail and Elizabeth with Nunn and Abigail’s violent death and the disputes over their maintenance were all consequences of remarriages. We know that remarriages of this type were very common at the period and it is likely such tensions were equally common. Certainly the simple, nuclear family beloved of mythologists of the past is not much in evidence.
Relative ages of couple also varied. It is likely that Phineas’ first two wives were only slightly younger than him, but Mildred was far younger than Phineas, and it it likely that Phineas’ mother was much younger than his father and his sister Rachel much younger than the dissolute Rev Newman.
Of course as these women lived, they died. Some died as young children, others as young women in their prime but others (although none attained Phineas’ 77 years) lived comfortably into late middle or early old age, seeing their children into adulthood and their grandchildren born. Abigail died violently, but most died of various but often unspecified diseases. None are said to have died as a direct consequence of childbirth although Mildred was pregnant when she died.
Disappointing though it is that we have got to see little of the characters of the women in Phineas’ life, only seeing the often bald facts of their births, marriages, childbearing, illness and death and Phineas’ responses to them, I think we can see a little of the sort of lives the Early Modern Englishwoman led even from this rather masculine account of a the life of a shipbuilder.
At the risk of finishing on a male-centric note, looking at Phineas’ relationship with the women in his life also rehabilitates Phineas himself a little. He often comes often comes across as arrogant, grasping and spiteful in his business and personal relationships with men but in his kindness and generosity to (most of, at least) the women in his family, his affection towards them and the poignancy of the moments of tragedy he relates I see a more sypathetic man than a it would first appear.