Jane’s most infamous short story is “William Bradford’s Love Life,” first published in Harper’s in 1869 and later reprinted in David Alden’s Daughter, a collection of her earlier Pilgrim stories, in 1892. The story describes Dorothy Bradford dying by suicide because she was so despondent that her husband William, the governor of Plymouth colony, was still in love with his first crush, Alice Carpenter Southworth. Such a titillating story captured the imaginations of many readers, and the rumor that Dorothy Bradford might have taken her own life is still repeated today (back in 2010, before I started all this research, I even asked the Richard Pickering, the Deputy Director of Plimoth Plantation, if there was any truth to it!).
“William Bradford’s Love Life” is one of Austin’s first attempts at historical fiction about the Pilgrims, well before she became more interested in doing historical research. She would have based her knowledge of names and events on her own family’s heritage and lineage, for she was descended from William and Alice Southworth Bradford. Unfortunately, the story may very well be one of the reasons Austin’s name is forgotten today. She received a fair amount of criticism and was later vilified by historians seeking to correct the “facts.”
While the Mayflower was anchored in Plymouth harbor in 1620, several of the men, including William Bradford, went on an exploratory mission on land to find a good place to settle. While they were gone, Dorothy Bradford went missing, and no one knew what happened. It was presumed that she accidentally fell overboard into the harbor. With no one around to witness her plight, she would have drowned quickly due to the frigid December temperatures and the heavy weight of her skirts.
Bradford doesn’t mention her death in his history of the colony, Of Plimoth Plantation, which might raise some eyebrows. Why wouldn’t he mention his own wife’s death? The likely answer is less salacious than you might think. Not only did he start writing ten years after her death, he was writing a history of the colony and not a private journal. He didn’t record many personal details at all, and he doesn’t give much attention to the Pilgrim women in general.
Bradford’s omission provided the space for Jane’s imagination to take over. There’s nothing in the early histories that suggested Dorothy died by suicide, much less that she did so because of unrequited love. That general storyline comes right from the sensational, Gothic-style thrillers that Jane was able to quickly produce and sell. In the 1860s, in fact, that was all that she was writing, along with her friend Louisa May Alcott (who published some of her sensational tales under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard).
But it wasn’t just the storyline. Jane concludes the tale by claiming that the facts would have been lost to history, except that some notes and letters remained to tell the truth. As a Gothic trope, the “secret” letters were so commonly used in fiction they were almost a stock element. The English Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey even mocks the trope as early as 1817. But in 1869, when the American Jane G. Austin was writing, many discoveries of historical texts were recent. The original manuscript of Bradford’s Of Plimoth Plantation had only been found a few decades earlier, for example. In that context, many of her readers believed she actually had the documents.
Later, when she republished the story in David Alden’s Daughter she includes a mea culpa of sorts in the introduction, recalling “with rather rueful mirth the reproof received from an aged relative, who, after vainly inquiring for ‘the documents in the case’ of William Bradford, remarked: ‘You have no right to defraud people by pretending to have what you have not” (v-vi).
But whereas the “aged relative” discovered that the story was fiction, other readers never did. The idea that Dorothy died by intentional drowning has been repeated numerous times over the years, even if the love triangle has disappeared from the story more recently.
Although Jane’s short story has been forgotten, the myth has not been. Like most historical myths, this story has some lasting power because it could be true.
There is circumstantial evidence to suggest that Dorothy May might have been an unhappy woman. She was only 16 when she married William and 23 when she died, and she had not only endured the difficulties of the Mayflowerjourney but also the reality of establishing a new life in desolate New England, not in Virginia where there were at least more colonists. Perhaps the most distressing factor was that they had left their small son, John, behind in Leiden.
It was winter, they were stuck on the ship because they had not yet found a suitable site to begin building their houses, and their stores were low, so they were certainly facing a bleak situation. Some scholars have even suggested that scurvy, a common ailment for those without adequate sources of vitamin C, can cause depression. Bradford himself writes compellingly of the sense of foreboding and despair they all experienced.
As well, William knew Alice and her first husband, Edward Southworth, in London and in Leiden, but as the Separatists were not a large congregation, that’s not unusual. After Edward died, Alice sailed to Plymouth in 1623 on the Anne, three years after Dorothy’s death, and she and William were married soon after. This could suggest that they were previously in love, but it’s not likely. Quite a few of the Separatists remarried in just the same fashion. The number of deaths in the first few years practically guaranteed such measures, and most marriages were probably made more out of necessity than unbridled passion or even affection.
So the speculations are just that, and there’s no concrete proof of Dorothy’s despondency or of a love triangle.
Plus, Austin completely ignores Puritan theology in the story, which isn’t surprising since she was not a Calvinist herself. In the face of hardship, Puritans would assume God was testing them and attempt to control themselves accordingly. Given a Puritan’s fear of hell, not to mention their beliefs about suffering in the physical realm as preparation for the rewards of the hereafter, it seems unlikely that Dorothy would have even contemplated suicide.
Also, the love triangle features prominently in another popular Pilgrim tale, that of Miles Standish, John Alden, and Priscilla Mullins. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had published his epic poem The Courtship of Miles Standish to great acclaim in 1858, and he claimed it was based on family legend, as he was a descendant of John and Priscilla Alden.
Austin was a descendant of William Bradford and Alice Carpenter Southworth, so she may have had an ulterior motive in portraying her ancestor in a more positive light. Decades later, she would even write to another relative of how fond she was of Alice. Austin may have been inspired by Longfellow’s success and tried to emulate the same formula, adding in a Gothic slant.
Such romances were wildly popular in the less-literary magazines, and they were easier and more lucrative to publish. 1869 was a difficult time for the Austin family, so a quick publication might have been very welcome.
After Austin’s death, the Pilgrims continued to gain fame for their role in shaping America. Pilgrim historians became increasingly more concerned with separating fact from fiction. Jane’s brother, John A. Goodwin, had already seen a need for that in his history, A Pilgrim Republic. Azel Ames and George Ernest Bowman are just two of the historians who took particular aim at Austin’s inaccuracies.
So Austin was excoriated by the historians. But she was also forgotten by literature scholars, who ridiculed sensational romances in their quest to define a truly American literature. Even Louisa May Alcott’s thrillers were overlooked and not recovered until the 1970s. For nearly a century, Alcott was thought of as a wholesome writer of children’s literature, which didn’t exactly earn her more favor with scholars, either. It’s only been in the last few decades that nineteenth-century American women writers have received much scholarly attention at all.
By 1950, Austin’s Pilgrim novels were no longer in print, although they were still occasionally included in recommended high school reading lists. That year, the story of Dorothy Bradford’s death by “suicide” gained new life when Ernest Gebler published The Voyage of the Mayflower, in which he twists the love triangle idea by having Dorothy fall in love with Christopher Jones, the master of the Mayflower. The 1952 movie version, The Plymouth Adventure, starring Gene Tierney as Dorothy and Spencer Tracy as Christopher Jones, leaves little doubt about Dorothy’s fate, which of course would have reinvigorated the story for an entirely new generation (Miles, Priscilla, and John all play supporting roles).
I don’t know whether Gebler drew on Jane’s work specifically, but he seems to have done a fair amount of research, and the story had taken hold everywhere. Even in the 1920 The Women of the Mayflower and Women of Plymouth Colony, which is sometimes still recommended as a history despite the fact that it is just as romanticized and sentimentalized as anything Austin ever wrote, includes a hint of it: “That no further comment or record was made of this tragedy seems remarkable. Out of the silences conjectures arise, as will in such conditions, without form or foundation in truth as far as can ever be known” (78). Samuel Eliot Morison’s edition of Of Plymouth Plantation, also published in 1952, speculates on it as well.
To this day, the idea that Dorothy Bradford might have died by suicide is still mentioned as a possibility in all the recent Pilgrim histories, like Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower and Eugene Stratton’s Plymouth Colony. I even found it in the Making of America: A History of the United States, the American history textbook used in the survey courses my students take.