As graduate student, digging through archives in York, England, Sam Thomas found himself “in love with an older woman” – a 17th-century midwife named Bridget Hodgson.
Drawn to her immediately, he began uncovering little clues that she was not a woman owned by men, but one who never wanted for self-confidence, money or social stature.
He’d known for a long time that he would eventually write about a midwife. He was fascinated by their roles in society, midwifery being the only professional position that required women to have a license, as well as things like their ability to condemn unwed mothers or women accused of witchcraft.
Thomas was also looking to defy the stereotype history paints of midwives as poor, illiterate women living on the fringes of society. And he was further motivated to challenge respected literature that claims these women were more likely to be witches than anyone else.
Most people accused of witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries were women. Today, it is widely believed by historians and feminists that accusing women of being “witches” was a tool used by the Church, and the men who ran it, to control women –to keep them in their traditional roles.
Thomas explained that midwives were often accused because their authority to heal wounds and nurse people was looked at as unnatural or sorcerous.
More likely, though, men feared a woman who seemed to be gaining too much stature in society.
Beautiful women who attracted the attention of married men were also accused. And public trials and executions of these “witches” were an effective way to keep women in line, heads down, houses kept and thoughts to a minimum.
Widowed twice, Bridget Hodgson amassed a fortune controlled by no one but her until her death.
Back when he first fell in love with her, Thomas found small clues like this in her handwritten will that allowed him to come to the conclusion that she was in no way ordinary.
“Women were defined by the men that were in, or not in, their lives,” he explained. The word beside her name on her will should have read “widow.” Instead, it read “midwife.” Like this uncommon choice, others struck him.
Knowing Bridget would have had the power to name the children she delivered at the time of christening, he relished in the discovery that listed in her will was the name of each girl she delivered – all named Bridget.
It was discoveries like this that allowed Thomas to accurately fictionalize this midwife, the main character in his book, “A Midwife’s Tale: A Mystery,” and bring her to life. Again.
In the book, there are some differences between the real and fictionalized Bridget, but Thomas is not completely responsible for all of them.
For example, though Bridget actually had two daughters her children were not included in Thomas’ story, as his character “had a hard time balancing work and life.” In instances like this, she began to shape herself as he wrote, speaking in the first person rather than the more passive third person.
Set during the English Civil War, a city under siege furthers the drama Thomas captured in the story he concocted, in which Bridget ends up helping a friend accused of murder, whom she believes to be innocent.
The first edition in a series planned up to a fifth book, “A Midwife’s Tale” not only tells the story of Bridget’s predicament, it reveals truths about a male-dominated society based on classes.
Gathering all the information he could about his main character, Thomas visited the church in which Bridget’s tomb was located – another example of her power, as most congregants were buried in the churchyard in unmarked graves. But unfortunately, it had been refurbished and no longer included the original tombs located within it.
Disappointed, he had begun searching the interior for clues that she had existed there over 300 years ago when he noticed a faded wooden plaque about 15 feet up. With permission, he scaled the wall to get a better look at it.
What he found was the commemoration of a gift her daughter, also named Bridget, had given to the church.
“Daughter of Bridget Phineas Hodgson,” the plaque read.
Struck by chills in the back of his neck, in that moment he really understood. “It’s real.”
This article came from an author talk at the Lakewood Public Library March 21.
Shaded SIDE BAR: “A Midwife’s Tale: A Mystery” can be purchased at Amazon.com or through Mac’s Backs Paperbacks on Coventry Road. Call 216-321-2665 for orders that need to be shipped.