What, Exactly, Is Defiant in ‘Defiant Brides’?

Nancy Rubin Stuart’s Defiant Brides: The Untold Story of Two Revolutionary-Era Women and the Radical Men They Married is the double-biography of two revolutionary-era women. The first is Peggy Shippen, the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia business owner. Despite the family’s reservations, Peggy married Benedict Arnold, who would betray his American loyalties and sell information to the British. Arnold’s treason “implicated Peggy as a fellow traitor” (108), yet she demonstrated a dedicated and unflagging loyalty to her husband.

The woman is Lucy Flucker, who married the impoverished bookseller Henry Knox. Much as Peggy’s, Lucy’s wealthy family also expressed reservations, but their laments went unheard. Knox eventually became a rousing strategist of the continental army. And Lucy demonstrated her allegiance to her husband and nation by styling her hair into a tri-cornered hat and following him through endless military encampments.

From the archival evidence, it seems that Peggy and Lucy never met each other. Despite this, Stuart constructs a clear argument demonstrating their similarities and differences. The crux of Defiant Brides positions these women as brimming with “youthful passion and defiance, the twin forces that led both women to marry men beneath their social station… love and devotion would be their repayment, transforming those headstrong brides into resilient, forgiving wives” (122).

Yet this quote also serves as a warning to readers. Defiant Brides is essentially a historical romance novel depicting the loyalty of wives to their husbands despite their misgivings. These women’s fidelity seems to be the only instance of defiance while all their other social behaviors reaffirm dominant gender norms.

The strength of Stuart’s text is her precise demonstration of the complexities in all the relationships that existed between colonists and loyalists. Rather than writing a book that enforces a reductionist historical reworking of American history, Defiant Brides emphasizes the multiplicity of cultural and historical genealogies. Stuart never leads the reader down a path of cultural historical uniformity, but rather, she strives to demonstrate the mercurial nature of human relationships as based on a wide array of social and political influences.

As a result, she invites readers to consider the roles of women in history, and question the perspective and accuracy of canonical historical texts. Using accessible language and an abundance of primary sources, Stuart’s text reaches to the margins of historical narratives and brings a turbulent and contested history of early America to the center.

Stuart has meticulously unearthed a kaleidoscopic array of primary sources including personal diaries, newspapers, pamphlets, court records, sermons, and various forms of fictional literature. The author even includes a love letter Arnold wrote to Peggy were he “repeat[ed] almost verbatim his love letter sent two years earlier to Betsy DeBlois” (46). Utilizing these sources, Stuart paints a detailed landscape of the complexities and constructions of colonial feminine identity. She relies heavily on quotes and correspondence to progress her texts. And in many instances, she uses the primary sources to create a type of dialog between the historical players. Her writing of American history is compelling and offers the reader a chance to fully investigate and immerse oneself into the historical record.

Defiant Brides is an important cultural historical text as it unearths women’s histories as viable and valuable. When history has been dominated by male achievement and perspective, a text such as Defiant Brides serves to alleviate women of the 18th century from gender biases and dominant readings of historical and political culture. To write and read Peggy’s and Lucy’s histories has the potential to reveal long-lost narratives that complicate our understanding of women’s histories and their abilities to contribute, develop, and transform public culture. However to do so, it is imperative for women to be recentered as the focus.

Unfortunately, that is where Defiant Brides fails the readers. This text is more about the history of Peggy and Lucy in concurrence with their husbands rather than focusing on the women’s autonomous identities.

At times it seems that Defiant Brides is more a biography of Benedict Arnold rather than the two women. Arnold’s biographies and histories are ubiquitous and the man and his military tactics are well researched and developed. Indeed Stuart presents Arnold’s history as the complicated tale of a traitor whose self-importance rendered him “tragically nearsighted” (41). Thus, it’s no surprise that Stuart has the most information on Arnold and his inclusion in this book is detailed and exact. Consequentially, their narratives are frequently side swept for long descriptions of battles, military strategy, or restatements of Arnold’s waning reputation.

But this is not a history of Benedict Arnold, this is supposed to be a history of Peggy Shippen and Lucy Knox. Even Henry Knox’s history is fully developed, although nowhere as complete as Arnold’s, again does not do justice to the life stories of the women. Thus the majority of Peggy’s and Lucy’s histories are learned through the actions of their husbands and the men are recentralized as the dominant figures. Through their compacts with men, Peggy and Lucy were mere ciphers of masculinity and Defiant Brides recenters andocentric biographies.

Unintentionally, it seems, Stuart reaffirms that American history is the history of men. However, the author cannot be blamed entirely, for she was working with the extant sources that were made available to her. Women’s histories were put under erasure from the beginning, thus only adding to the challenge of bringing these narratives to the forefront.

It’s still unclear to me what these women accomplished that could be described as defiant other than marry men despite their disapproving families. Seemingly, that is the extent of their defiance. Rather, these women are more archetypes of colonial women: subservient to their husbands and consumed with domesticity. For example, Rubin Stuart contends, “to Lucy, the long-delayed dream of a normal life had become a reality – a home of her own, a brood of children, and her husband by her side” (147). Whereas “Peggy refined the role she once played as a belle in British-occupied Philadelphia, appearing as a stunning, good-will ambassador to smooth Arnold’s reception in New York’s military society” (122).

These two examples raise a major question echoed throughout Defiant Brides. What exactly is defiant? Stuart needs to be clearer as to how she sees their roles as defiant. Is she implying that Peggy played a passive political and social role thereby informing the political discourses surrounding her husband? But the point is never made explicit.

It’s arguable that the author perceives their patriarchal loyalty, despite caustic public invective, as defiant. I see it as exemplifying an unwavering acceptance of dominant gender norms. Women’s histories are commonly inextricably linked to private space and behavior: usually circulating within the realms of the domestic, family, and marriage. Yet colonial women were present in trade, civic duties, religious facets, and demonstrated other types of public influence. Nonetheless, this text only reaffirms the former position. Defiant Brides requires further deconstruction and analysis to avoid the conveyance and reiteration of dominant ideology.

At times, Stuart’s text points toward the role of colonial women as having a momentous impact in the formulation of the nation.Yet the focus on domesticity and familial responsibility take away from the defiant focus and does little to challenge the fictionalized narratives forming the histories of colonial American women. Yet the author does expound on the importance of gender, politics, and economics, while presenting a nuanced reading of historical relationships.

This book will appeal to readers seeking a historical novel that is heavily influenced by the romance trade publications. For those seeking a cultural analysis of women’s history, however, it will not deliver.

RATING 5 / 10