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.
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.