01 April 2009
Dorothy May Jumps In
For several weeks now I've been working on sketches for a pair of portraits of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins Alden. I think I've got John where I want him, but I'm finding sketching Priscilla pretty daunting. Nineteenth and 20th century depictions of Priscilla show a pretty and demure young woman but I just can't think of her that way. No woman who would get on a rickety old ship with her family and head for an unknown wilderness where everything would have to be built from scratch could possibly have been demure. And she probably wouldn't have remained pretty for very long, either.
What this struggle to depict Priscilla has revealed to me is how inaccessible the lives of the women of Plimoth Colony are to a 21st century inquiry. I haven't found any verbal descriptions of Priscilla from her contemporaries. All I have is my imagination, and a simple imagining of myself in her position evokes such a feeling of terror I can barely imagine how she could have slept at night.
Enter Dorothy May Bradford. Her husband William Bradford never wrote about the circumstances of her death, but a generation later the Puritan historian Cotton Mather wrote that one day as the Mayflower lay moored in Provincetown Harbor and William was away on a scouting mission, Dorothy accidentally slipped over the side of the ship and drowned. Given that the ship was moored, that there was no mention of a storm, and that the waters were shallow, some have speculated that Dorothy committed suicide.
There is absolutely no proof that Dorothy committed suicide, but there's also no proof that she didn't and I'm inclined to think that it's entirely plausible under those dire circumstances. At any rate, given the paucity of factual information about the Pilgrim women I'm going to have to make most of it up. So Dorothy May Bradford has jumped into my artistic imagination and the next print will be for her.