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Before the Mayflower

ISSUE:  Spring 1932

Before the Mayflower. By J. H. R. Yardley. London: Heincmann, Limited. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $5.00.

The story of Virginia’s colonization has become more familiar through the school histories and the novels written around it than through its telling by historians competent to set the full stage and place each actor in his proper part. Even when it has been told with adequate fullness it has often suffered on the one hand from a picturesque antiquarianism over-touched with sentiment, or on the other from the fragmentariness of details with the dust of research dry upon them. The sweep and the dash of the enterprise is smothered out and the significance of the making of an empire is lost in the narrowing of the story to how one of the American states began. But the dream that sent those sixteenth-century ships out first and that later brought George Percy and John Smith and their companions to the shores of the wilderness was something bigger than that. Virginia at the beginning was all English North America and Virginia was also from the beginning largely an idea. There is inevitably a different way of seeing the whole great adventurous enterprise when it is looked at from England rather than from Virginia—or even America. Mr. J. H. R. Yardley has this advantage in his retelling of the story in his book “Before the Mayflower.” It is the history to him not merely of the founding of the United States but, as well, of the beginning of the British Empire. He glows with the romance of it. These kinsmen of his conquered a wilderness and planted a nation; it is as if he also had a part in it. But he keeps steadily in mind the politics of it all and the significance of what, for England too, is coming out of it. So it becomes a part, and a glorious part, of English rather than American history; and it was surely an English enterprise by English men for English ends. Mr. Yardley does not belittle the country that at last cracked out of the egg that was so goldenly laid. He rather glories in the outcome as if the result for English adventurers was the more praiseworthy. He writes with charm and human gusto about old days that come alive with a surprising homeliness in his pages, but he writes too like a genealogist turned historian. He knows the first cousin, one feels, of each of his heroes— or villains too, for that matter. He can tell you what shire he came from and the name of the estate of his family. He enlivens his narrative with the true story of Amy Robsart and introduces the private letters of her husband. Showing that politics made strange bedfellows even in those stark days, he produces letters from the worthy secretary in Virginia, John Pory, to another Earl of Warwick, Robert Rich, that sound perilously like treason to his superior, George Yeardley; and he makes it appear that Sir George, for his part, warned by Sir Edwin Sandys, warily inspected his secretary’s letters before they left the Virginia shores. The settlement of Virginia, which began with visions of gold and treasure, exotic beauties of bird and beast, and a northwest passage, has sometimes been represented as becoming, on the part of one party in the London Company, an experiment in democratic government. Mr. Yardley does not follow the reasonings of Alexander Brown, in “English Politics in Early Virginia History,” in taking the Court Party and the Patriot Party as fighting chiefly for autocratic and liberal principles of government. He shows convincingly enough, however, that Sir Thomas Smyth directed the affairs of the colony with criminal disregard for the welfare and lives of the colonists and became immensely wealthy in the process, and that the struggle of the group of which Edwin Sandys and the Earl of Southampton were leaders was for liberalism, humanity, and the ultimate success of the undertaking, whether they based their actions upon political principles or the common sense of good business.

Sir George Yeardley (spelled Yardley by the author and kinsman) is the hero of “Before the Mayflower” and the heroine is his wife, Temperance Flowerdew, from whose family Flowerdew Hundred in Virginia took its name. Mr. Yardley, who is a faithful historian, if frankly not “disinterested,” tells his story with a human touch that gives the warmth and color of a novel to his true relation, and never loses a good opportunity to make the romantic allusions that add interest while at the same time dismissing the myth by giving the authentic facts. Thus he weaves in the true story, which Scott so differently dressed up in “Kenilworth,” of the death of Amy Robsart, through the two connections with his story. Amy Robsart’s mother was Temperance Flowerdew’s great-grandmother; Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, her falsely accused husband, was the son of that John Dudley beheaded on account of the Lady Jane Grey affair, and by whose attainder the Dukedom of Northumberland was returned to the brother of George Percy who was with John Smith at Jamestown; and from him the Earldom of Warwick came to Robert Rich, to whom John Pory wrote these confidential letters from Virginia while in the service of Governor Yeardley, whose wife was Pory’s first cousin. Thus are shuttled back and forth the threads that related the personalities of the first colony with those of Queen Elizabeth’s and Jacobean England, until a very intricate pattern emerges from which the figures of royalty itself are not absent.

The affairs of the London Company in England are merely the background of the story that “Before the Mayflower” relates. The central theme is really the colony in Virginia. From the failure of Croatan to the death of Sir George Yeardley at the end of 1627 a straightforward and very humanly interesting history of Virginia is narrated; so freshly that it seems a new story. Mr. Yardley has none of the timidities nor the jargon of the academic historian, and if there are details to which the professional critic may object, they are more than made up for to the taste of the general reader by his readiness to write of people as people rather than as certain values as if agreed upon in council by a synod of historians. The making of Sir George and Temperance Flowerdew Yeardley (who later married Sir Francis West) the central figures of the book has been the means of giving a unity and continuity to the book that it might otherwise have lacked. But they are only the chief of the many human figures that become real personalities in these pages.

Mr. Yardley would greatly have increased the value of his book, even if footnotes had to be resorted to, by giving more freely the sources of his information and the location of the manuscripts quoted, but his book makes such delightful reading even for the man of little historical background that the lack of such information will not be missed by those who read it as a book rather than as a history.

A volume so charming, limited as it is to about the first quarter of a century of the two centuries during which Virginia was something so much more important than a mere geographical division, accentuates once more the need for a great history of the first two centuries of Virginia. “Unfortunately,” says Mr. Yardley, “the material in this particular case, though plentiful, is so widely scattered throughout the length and breadth of both hemispheres, that the most diligent student might devote a whole lifetime to investigating it, and yet find the task but half done.” Since Dr. Alexander Brown assiduously gathered the mass of documents that went into his “First Republic” and “Genesis of the United States,” much new material has been made accessible, such as the papers throwing fuller and more candid light upon the colonists’ relations with the Indians, published in the American Historical Review, and the more complete account of the Jamestown settlement, by George Percy, printed in Tyler’s Quarterly. An uncovering of much that is interesting among the various archives in England, such as the Nicholson papers that were recently discussed in the London Times, is an indication of how much fuller our information about colonial affairs may still become through the combing of likely repositories of old papers in England. As Mr. Yardley says in his Prologue, “The story of North America before the Mayflower possesses features which make it second to none among the romances of nations.” The author of “Before the Mayflower” has written a rich and entertaining book, full of the idiosyncrasies of the man and the engaging franknesses and prejudices of the Englishman. However, the epic story that runs parallel to, but is quite different from, that which started with the landing of the Mayflower, still awaits the mind eager and comprehending enough to gather and grasp the facts and the pen gifted to relate a thrilling story. Mr. Yardley is right; that story, from the landing of the Discovery, the Sarah Constant, and the Goodspeed at Jamestown to the merging of the identity of Virginia into that of the Union, is one of the epoch-making sagas of history, and it awaits its fit narrator.


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