I’ve seen some weirdly harsh criticism of this book that I really don’t understand. Folks seemed to be upset by Suzanne J. Stark’s questioning of generally accepted ideas. But that’s what these sort of books are about. Digging deeper into history is about learning what we didn’t know, looking at things from new angles, and trying to get past preconceptions. If reading history on my own has taught me anything, it’s that our traditional schooling on the subject was wrong-headed and obscuring. History didn’t look like a 1950s film, with Romans speaking with British accents, and Middle Eastern Jews looking like Scandinavian movie stars, everything in technicolor. It was complicated, and messy, and nasty. It was filled with great and terrible people, amazing highs and horrendous lows. And there were women.
With Female Tars, Stark explores the three major types of women who might be found on a British Royal Fleet ship during the Age of Sale. Broadly, these are prostitutes, wives, and crossdressers. Each section gets into the details, using records and first-hand accounts to build a picture that may be a bit different than anticipated. Stark does a much better job of letting the reader know there are blanks in our archival memory than Kara Cooney did in her book about Hatshepsut. She makes it clear, without belaboring the point, and when she speculates, she does so with evidence to back it up.
The final part of the book is a heavily annotated selection of excerpts from the Mary Lacy (aka William Chandler) memoir. This eyewitness account of life in the navy is definitely interesting. Lacy/Chandler led a heck of a life.
This is a must read book for history buffs, especially if you have an interest in the Age of Sale. I hear the term ‘revisionist history’ tossed around as an insult a lot. Getting past orthodoxy to learn more complicated truths should not be considered an insult. History is so much more complicated and interesting.
Also, I really, really want to see a movie about William Brown (birth name unknown). That would be a heck of a story.