Tuesday, April 20, 2010

George Fox, Margaret Fell and purple prose

Hal and I enjoy reading aloud to each other at night. It’s usually a novel, a biography, or some exciting person’s memoirs. (In other words, nothing academic. This is reading for pleasure.) Recently we tackled Jan de Hartog’s classic novel of the beginnings of Quakerism, The Peaceable Kingdom, along with the sequel, The Holy Experiment. I had read these years ago and, while vague on the details, remembered this as exciting reading. Hal had not read the books, so I checked the combined volume out of the local library, and we got started.

Any more Hal does the reading, and I’m often asleep before the second page (and have to catch up the next day on my own). The morning after the first chapter, he commented to me, “Nancy, this isn’t the George Fox I know from his journal. The book is highly over-written.” I hadn’t recollected any of that, perhaps having been an uncritical reader in my youth. When I asked him if he wanted to continue, he said he wanted to see where the book went.

It is, indeed, exciting reading, so much so that I managed to stay awake for the following chapters. But I saw Hal’s point about the book being over-written, almost, at times, seeming like tabloid purple prose or a Harlequin romance. Frequently, we both burst out laughing. These portraits certainly did not fit the images we had of our Quaker ancestors, the heroes of the faith. Permit me some examples:

“Henrietta Best [neighbor and friend of Margaret Fell] did not know what prompted her to go and see Margaret Fell again, but the moment the thought struck her, she decided to act upon it. She did not stop to consider that more than a month had gone since Fox’s departure; all she thought about was how she herself would feel at the realization that the man she loved had gone forever. There was no doubt in her mind that Margaret Fell had fallen in love with him; a woman could fool herself about her relationship with a man only as long as he was around. The moment he had left, she would drop all pretense, and no wonder; at that moment her heart would break and the awful, awful sickness begin; the agony, the hopeless yearning with every fiber of her body, every nerve, for his presence, his touch; her every waking thought, her every dream would be centered on him in unbearable, self-inflicted torture. It was the most harrowing torment to which women were prone, and it made no difference how old they were, how wise, how rich, how well schooled in the control of their emotions. To see a woman in that anguish made every other woman want to sneak away and leave her to lick her own wounds, know that for this torment there was no solace, no cure. The only remedy was time.” (Book 1, Ch. 7)

Here’s another brief description of a ride through a dark forest, one of the passages that had us whooping in laughter (not an exaggeration): “As he rode on through Kendal forest, the increasing wind hissed and foamed in the shedding trees, sending whirling at him from the ghostly woods diapers, infant’s colic, whooping cough, vomit on the carpet, snot on his chair, bat ears, inward squint, buck teeth, midnight screams, porridge flung across the room, piercing whistles.” (Book 1, Ch. 7) And so on. This is probably enough to make my point.

But on we read, captivated by the dramatic story. I had to travel while we were still somewhere in the middle of the book, and Hal actually finished it on his own. He felt the book improved, in terms of its literary value, in the second half, the story of the early Quaker movement in America. He observed that De Hartog is an artist who uses primary colors and paints in broad strokes. An apt description.

Here are some observations: The book is a novel. While based on history, the author makes no pretense that this is non-fiction. He freely uses his imagination to depict the inner emotional states of the characters, and fills in the gaps with his own interpretations. This is all appropriate to the genre.

But, while being a novel, the author, a Quaker himself, did his research. We were glad to find a section of historical notes at the end of the first book, and learned some fascinating details.

Having said that, I must admit that this interpretation of the main characters of early Quaker history did not jive with our own readings of Fox’s Journal and other writings, along with the letters of Margaret Fell. They seemed like totally different people. I guess it hinges on the word “interpretation.” And it points out some of the differences in Quakerism today, with all the perspectives ranging from liberal to evangelical to conservative, although in possession of the same early documents.

And here De Hartog, in his historical notes, makes some interesting observations. He writes that Fell lived eleven years after the death of Fox and that during that time she edited Fox’s journal for publication (with the participation of a committee of London Friends). De Hartog notes that in this process, “All miracles and supernatural occurrences were deleted….From its pages emerged not the man George Fox had been, but the one Margaret Fell decided he should have been.”

De Hartog goes on to state that, “During [Fox’s’] lifetime she and he had battled for supremacy in the Society of Friends, each trying to impose a different concept of love on the movement as its guiding star. Only after his death did sly old Maggie, mischievous saint, finally have her way; henceforth the accent in the spiritual life of Quakers would be on service rather than salvation, tenderness rather than righteousness, and on infinite patience with the foibles of others as well as one’s own….It was a concept that would lead to great things: the first prison reform, the first humane treatment of the insane, the first school among the Indians, the first abolition of slavery….”

This is a fascinating interpretation: George Fox the evangelical and Margaret Fell the liberal. I’m dubious as to this take on subsequent Quaker history. And one look around the world shows a vibrant Quaker movement in Asia, Africa and Latin America where evangelical preaching is backed up by a commitment to works of justice and mercy in the context of the poor.

As an evangelical Friend, I especially note the absence of a key character of early Quakerism in The Peaceable Kingdom. I’m referring to Jesus. Although the novel mentions “the light within,” “the rising of God within” and so forth, Jesus is not prominent. But He fills George Fox’s Journal and defines “the light within.”

On the positive side (and so much of this novel is positive), these portraits clearly depict Fox, Fell and other early Friends as real people. This is not hagiography. Since we have the tendency to glorify our Quaker heroes, I find this down-to-earth view, however accurate or not, healthy. Some of it just could be true.

I got a notice from the library this morning that the book is due in a few days. Since I have already renewed it once, I need to turn it back, not having finished it myself. In a week or two I just may check it out again and read all the way to the end. That in itself says something, doesn’t it?


  1. This is certainly a blog I'll want Mark to read. Your comments about liberal, evangelical and conservative are most interesting. In many of our contexts, people don't want to be called liberals for various reasons--their word of choice when speaking of their position is progressive. Am I right to feel that this suggests that evangelicals and conservatives are regressive? Mary

  2. Perhaps so. The term "progressive" does imply that other perspectives are either stagnant or regressive. Some Quakers prefer the terms "unprogrammed" and "programmed," with the unprogrammed Friends being more liberal, and vice versa. But this is not helpful. In the meeting where we have our membership, the early service is unprogrammed and very Christ centered (using lectio divina) and the second service is programmed with music and a sermon, along with the cherished time of silence.

    Actually, I love it when our realities challenge the labels.