Happy Birthday, Quaker Novelist Jan de Hartog

Here’s an important Quaker writer’s birthday: Jan de Hartog, 1914-2002. Born April 22 in Holland, he became famous there as a popular novelist, dealing with the impact of World War Two on the Dutch, especially its sailors. He later emigrated to the U.S., and settled in Houston, Texas, joining  Live Oak Meeting there.

Jan de Hartog, in 1984.

De Hartog also wrote several novels about Quakers. The best-known is The Peaceable Kingdom, published in 1971. The first half of this sprawling work is set in and around Swarthmoor Hall and Lancashire, and stars none other than George Fox and Margaret Fell.

I loved this book, it’s still a great read, and I accept de Hartog’s careful opening caveat invoking “the novelist’s prerogative of being inspired by historical facts rather than governed by them.”

Which is to say, among other fictions in the novel was his George Fox, who was sketched as a thoroughly modern liberal Friend, favoring leather, with very little of Jesus or the memorized Bible in him, which was doubtless part of why I liked it back then.

At their first meeting at her Swarthmoor estate, his Fox explains this gospel to a flummoxed Margaret Fell thus:

“‘All men and all women have that of God in them, which will respond when appealed to by that of God in myself.’”

Then, when the haughty Mistress Fell bridles at his forwardness, Fox instructs her in proper worship techniques, this time bringing in the latest mid-twentieth century meditation techniques. He says:

“‘Come, thou art, in thy heart, yearning for the experience.’

“‘Which experience, for God’s sake?’

“‘The experience of the presence of God. Come, sit with me. Be still; listen to the voice of God within thee, Thou wilt hear Him, thou wilt feel Him rise within thee, if only thou wilt set Him free.’

“His obvious sincerity made her hesitate; then she decided she would give him this one chance. She sat down again. ‘Now, then. What am I supposed to do?’

“‘Relax thy body as well as thy mind. Put thy feet together, like this. Settle thy body comfortably, so it will have no cause for restlessness. Put thy hands in thy lap.’

“She found herself obeying his instructions.

“‘Now put thy mind at rest. Close out all thoughts.’

“She tried, and discovered she had no thoughts, only awareness . . .

“‘Be still,’ he whispered, as if in reverence, ‘silence the small thoughts that babble in thy mind. . . .’

[After a few moments . . . .]

“… She cleared her throat and smoothed her skirt; he looked at her as if she had been miles away. ‘I’m sorry, Mr. Fox,’ she said, ‘I’m afraid I’m no good at this.. . . .’”

Of course, she got better at it. And isn’t this fun? It’s almost surprising that Fox didn’t unroll a yoga mat and have her take the lotus position. But while the scene was historically ridiculous, I could hardly put the book down; de Hartog seemed incapable of writing a dull page. For that matter, who can now miss the obvious undertone of sexual tension here?

No wonder that while it was widely read, The Peaceable Kingdom was also widely panned, especially by some old-line Quakers in the Philadelphia area. (I mean, good heavens–Margaret Fell, a married woman of status and substance, thinking lustful thoughts about a hunky George Fox?? How would you fit that into a sedate memorial pageant at Cape May?)

Some years ago, de Hartog told a Houston Friend, Ann Sieber, who was writing an excellent profile of him, that “when The Peaceable Kingdom was published, he was likened by the Quaker establishment to a friendly dog that comes uninvited to a family picnic – well-intentioned enough, but still capable of knocking all the carefully prepared food onto the floor with a sweep of the tail.”

Jan was being generous in that description. There are still neo-Orthodox Friends who  can’t discuss The Peaceable Kingdom without turning red in the face and showing signs of apoplexy. And it’s not hard to see why: a hundred or a thousand people have read of de Hartog’s rollicking, bigger than life liberal Fox for every one who searched out their querulous caviling about it in Quaker Religious Thought.

But there’s one other thing to note about de Hartog’s opus. “In his lectures on Quaker history,” Ann Sieber reports, “Jan has waged a sly campaign to shift the credit for much of Quaker faith and practice from Fox to Fell.”  And she also notes that in The Peaceable Kingdom, it is Margaret Fell who is by far the more fully-developed character, while Fox remains something of a mystical wraith.

Jan was pointing toward a feminist reinterpretation of this history, one that scholars have been fleshing out since then.

De Hartog’s long life was full, not only of books, but of adventure and romance — especially in the older meaning of the term, conveying excitement, charm, fascination and a touch of mystery.

[NOTE: This Post initially misstated Jan’s birthday as April.  21. Jan’s birth date is actually April 22. I regret the error,  and corrected  it above; but otherwise, the post can stand.]

Note: an abridged version of Ann Sieber’s wonderful profile of de Hartog is online here.  

It was published in full in the collection, The Best of Friends, Vol. 1, Kimo Press, 1998.

A Dutch-oriented biographical sketch (in English) is here. 

8 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Quaker Novelist Jan de Hartog”

  1. I first encountered Jan de Hartog’s writing in the 1960s, before I was a Quaker and during my seagoing days as an oceanographer. The journal ‘Safety at Sea’ published excerpts from ‘A Sailor’s Life’, and the writing was so vivid and true that I made a point of always looking for it among the morbid but oddly fascinating accounts of recent marine disasters.
    Later I met the author when he attended our Meeting in England. I remember that he said that he had just received a letter from an old sailor about a passage he had written about rounding the Horn under sail, and the relief afterwards of coming on deck finding that the ship was standing out into the Pacific with sunshine and a fair wind. The old chap had written that the account was just as he remembered his own experience, and de Hartog said to me that, as he had never himself rounded the Horn under sail and thus had to imagine the whole thing, this was quite the best sort of fan letter for an author to receive.

  2. Thanks for the notice on de Hartog! Despite some historical distortions, his Quaker novels were great, inspiring narratives. Even after many years I still remember vivid passages such as Fox preaching to a mob and in the later novel the Jewish girl in the Nazi doctor’s room and her heart pillow.

    1. Dan, thanks for this. I’ve gotten a report that I may have misread my source & Jan’s birthday is actually tomorrow. In which case, i’ll Just chalk it up as another example of what he said at the beginning of “The Peaceable Kingdom,” about being inspired by history, but not governed by it . . .

  3. Thanks for reminding me of the Peaceable Kingdom and Jan de Hartog. I, too, loved that book, and though I rarely want to read books a second time, even the ones I really loved, I think I may look at this one again, as well as some of his other writings of which I was unaware. I had forgotten that the whole first half was in England with the wonderful story of George and Margaret. I also loved the second half, about Quaker farmers in the Eastern US who had slaves and reminded me much of my family history on a Quaker farm, no slaves as far as I know, but many similarities.

  4. Some years ago, de Hertog’s Peaceable Kingdom appeared in my house from some unknown source. After a very lax search for the owner it was resigned to a bookshelf and forgotten. After my father died and I inherited his genealogy research, revealing our Quaker family tree, I remembered the novel left on my bookshelf and began reading it. For better or worse Peaceable Kingdom was part of a journey into Quakerism that I am on and hope never ends. Thanks for reminding us.

  5. I still think that de Hartog’s book that “spoke” to me the most was “The Hospital.” “The Peaceable Kingdom” was a good read but not as “gripping” or “true to life.”

  6. It was The Hospital that inspired me most, too. Having read it in my early teens, it was at the time in line with my vocational aspirations. On turning twenty, I became acquainted with my department chairman’s Quakerism and was led to read other books on it. De Hartog’s Hospital came to mind. I became convinced later that year, over 50 years ago. His autographed copy is now among my most cherished books.

  7. This is probably the one single book that has had the most impact on my life. It was reading this book that brought me Quakers back in the mid 70s. I was enthralled with the concepts put forward as religious beliefs. Fox seemed a bit strange to obnoxious but that wasn’t a concern, this was fiction. I said to myself, if there is any truth in this I have to find it. I pick up the yellow pages and found Adelphi Meeting right up the road from my parent’s house. I attended meeting that Sunday, over dressed of course, and have been there ever since. I have two copies of the book, the original one I read and a hardback copy for rereading. The paperback tome is falling apart.
    It’s a good story and actually fun to read even if it is over 600 pages long.

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