A Murder in the Colonies : Books: In researching 'The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin,' author Robert J. Begiebing overturns myths about women of the 17th Century.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was almost a cliche, this midlife crisis that Robert J. Begiebing found himself going through.

Here he was, a professor with tenure at New Hampshire College. He had published three books of literary criticism. He had written free-lance articles for publications like the Gypsy Scholar and Essays in Literature. His poetry had appeared in Connecticut Quarterly, Country Journal and elsewhere.

He had been married to the same woman for almost 20 years. He had never been divorced, not even once. He had two daughters, two cats and two cars.

But Begiebing was also 40 years old. His midlife brain was telling him there must be something more.

"The big joke was, I would either get a hairpiece and a red Porsche, or I would write my novel," Begiebing said.

While in this rather restless frame of mind, Begiebing was reading "Bell's History of Exeter," a 1888 book about the Exeter-Newfields region where he lives. Alarms went off in Begiebing's head when he came across a one-sentence entry in the journal of Massachusetts Bay Colony Gov. John Winthrop. It was dated June 4, 1648, and reported that:

"The wife of one Willix of Exeter was found dead in the river, her neck broken, her tongue black and swollen out her mouth, and the blood settled in her, the privy parts swollen, etc., as if she had been much abused, etc."

"God, Almighty, this is it," Begiebing remembers thinking.

Through three years of research and at least four draft manuscripts, Begiebing set about using fiction to unravel the unsolved rape and murder of the woman he renamed Kathrin Coffin. "The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin" (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $17.95) came out this spring to a review in the New York Times that lauded Begiebing's "vivid and convincing detail" and praised him as "a gifted writer with an extraordinary feeling for the past."

For Begiebing, the book became a journey into a Colonial America he had never fully imagined. At the outset of his research, his head ached, thinking of all the 17th-Century reading he would have to do to ensure historical accuracy. But in slogging through court records and poring over journals, Begiebing discovered that the stereotypes of cold, wooden men and sour, strait-laced women did not apply to the Colonial settlers he was encountering.

What he found was "Peyton Place as Hawthorne would have written it," as one reviewer called Begiebing's rendition.

They displayed avarice, they fantasized and they exploited the Indians whose land they had occupied. They laughed--a surprise to anyone who has accepted Cotton Mather as the standard humorless Colonial American. They used charms to relieve illness, and wolf dung to treat babies' colic.

Women in the colonies wore gray, that much was true. But Begiebing found the women of that era to be much misunderstood by their modern counterparts. Colonial women had their own "private economy" and "spiritual culture of enchantment" among themselves.

It is Mistress Coffin herself who best gives voice to the interior strength of the women of 17th-Century America. Begiebing uses her journal as the vehicle to express these thoughts and convictions--and found that as he wrote it, he was sometimes surprised by the directions it took.

"I wouldn't say I turned her into a 20th-Century feminist," as one reviewer charged, Begiebing said. "But I was very conscious and concerned that the women in this story were featured fairly."

Colonial history has traditionally been male history, Begiebing said. But this, too, is changing; he relied heavily on the work of 1990 Pulitzer-Prize winner Laurel Thatcher Ulrich of the University of New Hampshire, who has written extensively on the roles of 17th-Century women.

In writing about the lives of these women, Begiebing was sensitive to the risk of sounding not only hokey, but sexist. "I was concerned that women reading the story today not see it as the fantasies of a 20th-Century pig."

Exhaustive research helped him avoid a cloying tone as he wrote in vocabulary and vernacular that might have been used by characters living in the 17th Century.

"The great danger here is that you might turn it into some kind of mock 17th-Century setting," Begiebing said--or, as he called it "theme park history."

Engaging too enthusiastically in that kind of you-are-there historical fiction, "you set yourself up for ridicule," Begiebing said.

On the other hand, writing in the language of the era allowed Begiebing "to give the feeling of alienation from modern culture" that is demanded by an historically honest work of period fiction.

He said he struggled to merge fiction and historical accuracy, striving for "the old 18th-Century idea of entertaining, delighting and instructing at the same time."

Begiebing retained a strong "internal commitment" to the power of his story. He was convinced that there was an audience of readers "who were not a bunch of boob-tube lobotomies," and were willing to "suspend their disbeliefs" and immerse themselves in a their country's early history.

Still, there were moments when even Begiebing wondered about all the time and energy he was putting into what amounted to a Colonial American murder-mystery. "I thought, 'Am I just this damned fool diddling his life away while his wife and children are living in shabby gentility?' "

He was obsessed with the story and his characters. He thought about them all the time. Some of them, like Richard Browne, his primary male character, began showing up in his dreams. "Crazy, wacko stuff," Begiebing said.

Writers often wonder if they have lost their minds, taking on these bizarre projects. To make sure he was on track, Begiebing gave drafts of the novel-in-progress to "four people whose judgment I trusted."

Begiebing's board of friendly judges gave high scores to was what he calls the "central strength" of his book, showing readers that eternal truths and impulses mark the lives of people no matter what the era.

"You can't avoid your beliefs about human nature when you write a novel," he said. His own belief is that "there really are common traits to human nature. Forms and disciplines change, but the same impulses are always there.

"It's very easy to have an ideology which says that if only we structured our culture this way or that way, then human nature would be fulfilled and we wouldn't have crime or greed. But I doubt that that's true. People are people. Part of what gets people into a book set 350 years ago is that essential, eternal set of truths, what human beings are and always have been."

Philosophy notwithstanding, Begiebing had another motive for taking on his Colonial murder story, which finally offers a plausible explanation for the grisly death of Mistress Coffin. "The one thing I am crucially interested in is that I want readers to enjoy the book."

Begiebing, a lanky fellow of 44 now whose dark hairline has crept back a bit, said his "vanity has been flattered" by the initial acclaim his book has won.

He is back teaching writing, and he is at work on a new novel. This one, another historical work, will deal with infanticide in a New England town in the 1940s.

But he has not bought his hairpiece or his Porsche.

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