The Weaker Vessel, by Antonia Fraser. Illustrated. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 544 pp. $19.95.
''Were there any women in 17th-century England?''
This question was asked of author and historian Antonia Fraser by ''a distinguished person (male) when I told him the proposed subject of my new book, '' as she reports in the preface to that book, ''The Weaker Vessel.'' And this question, absurd as it obviously is, hits on one aspect of Lady Fraser's book that contributes most to its appeal.
For ''The Weaker Vessel,'' the sixth of her historical/biographical works, is about Everywoman, in a century whose customs allowed very few women to distinguish themselves enough to be remembered by posterity. By writing of ''heiresses and dairymaids, holy women and prostitutes, criminals and educators, widows and witches, midwives and mothers, heroines, courtesans, prophetesses, businesswomen, ladies of the court, and that new breed, the actress'' - as the book jacket promises - Lady Fraser has given us a far more tangible sense of what everyday life in 17th-century England was like than a traditional history of the period could do.
This is by no means a feminist tract. Focusing on the lives of women of all sorts, Lady Fraser shines a beam of immediacy, of authentic situations and real-life people right through the obscurity which hide the past from our view. What we learn about the lot of women is fascinating, sometimes astonishing, and often thought provoking. But it is only one aspect of what we learn about the times themselves.
We meet the 14-year-old heiress Frances Coke, whose marriage to the insane John Villiers was engineered by his rapacious younger brother, the Earl of Buckingham. We meet the extraordinary Mary Ward, founder of an institute of teaching nuns, which survives to this day. We meet the articulate, eccentric Margaret Duchess of Newcastle, the gifted poetess and painter Anne Killigrew, the scheming courtesan Catherine Sedley, and the witty actress and prostitute Nell Gwynne - and countless others. When we read Lady Fraser's lucid and lively accounts of their circumstances, we learn a great deal about their century in general, and about women, psychology, economics, religion, customs, and a myriad of other aspects of it in particular.
The book is a pleasure to read because it is not all one thing. Lady Fraser gives as much space to historical and social background as she does to anecdotes of women's lives. The variation from one strain to the other provides a welcome change of rhythm, compared with the sometimes breathless string of details found in her biographies. She also contrives to reintroduce people whom the reader met earlier in the book, when their lives serve to illuminate another aspect of the times, so that we feel we are encountering old friends again.
The book contains a fine index and 50 pages of references, which attest to the fact that Lady Fraser's research was based on primary source material rather than on the work of other historians. But that is not surprising; what historians have ever written of the nameless mass of 17th-century women before? We can be grateful that Lady Fraser has. For anyone who reads her book, they, and their times, will never be nameless again.