It’s the end of September and I’m back at my desk reading and writing about all sorts of things. Reader, I am no longer in the habit of reading literary essays. It has been years! But I stumbled upon this book on Twitter and just knew I had to read it…
First, can we talk about the bonnet? Does it look to you like a Conestoga wagon? Or is it just me? From scholar Carolina Fernandez Rodriguez’s “American Quaker Romances: Building the myth of the white Christian nation” (you’ can read a synopsis of the book at this link), I’ve now learned that a bonnet is not just a bonnet. In the essay, she cites Jennifer Connerly who posits that the “Quaker bonnet” is a deeply-erotic object. Huh? I would brush this off, but I do remember an episode of “Love, American Style” (really dating myself here) with a woman who refused to take her gloves off…it drove the men in her life completely wild.
But I digress…
First, compared to Fernandez Rodriquez, I’m a total piker when it comes to reading Quaker romances. Though I set out to do much the same thing, I stopped at about 10 Quaker historicals. She read 44! Including ALL the Lyn Cote Quaker books. Wow. I’ve just barely cracked open “Their Frontier Family (Wilderness Brides Book 1).” You can read more about my journey here.
Wow, she read them all, even the really dull ones. And to read them with a critical eye, not just a “when is this going to be over, this is pretty bad” is amazing. I was also happy that she discovered some of them are not terrible!
Bonnets: I agree with many of the points she sets out. First, many a bonnet novel is written by a non-Quaker seemingly hoping to mirror the success of similar Amish bonnet novels (displayed prominently at Hudson News). At one point she quotes Valerie Weaver-Zercher, marketing president for a Christian publishing house who said, “You slap a bonnet on the cover and double the sales.”
Religion: there is a strange evangelical undertone to many of these works that seems antithetical to Quakerism. I noticed it in one collection of Quaker novellas where hardly anything resembled Quakerism as I know it (I’m not a Quaker, but I know.) Then again, there ARE evangelical Quakers, but these stories were something else entirely and even seemed to have an odd political agenda (something about states’ rights suddenly became the focus of a 19th Century romance.)
White, ever so white: Indeed, there are BIPOC minor characters in many of these novels, who take on the role of side-kick, helper, or just carry the plot forward. They tend to be “rescued” by Quakers rather than taking action. I would point out that this is the case not only in Quaker romances, but in many, many Quaker historical novels.
So what did I learn from this?
Well, I am guilty of using many of these same tropes in my writing. I don’t have a lot of bonnets, but I definitely have religious conversion experiences, and plenty of white people running around in multi-racial communities being major characters. I believe it’s worthwhile for authors to think about their use of these tropes, and ask themselves why they’re using them.
But my heart sort of goes out to…
ANYONE who wants to write a novel about Quakers. First of all, there are so few Quakers in the world today, that nearly any book about them is interesting to me. Yes, they’ve had an outsized influence in America, but often because they were doing groundbreaking things like starting integrated schools or working at the center of the movement to abolish slavery.
Second, I don’t believe anyone is getting rich writing Quaker novels (correct me if I’m wrong.) Most of the bonnet romance series books were published at least five years ago if not much longer, and then have faded in popularity.
Third, I am of the opinion that writing a book that is pro-abolition is okay. Sure, abolition can be a plot device…but it is also a plot. And it’s a better plot than many less important things romance novels include.
Lastly, I do have a soft spot for plain speech, and bonnets, and homespun dresses on unassuming heroines. My grandfather still used plain speech from time to time. I’ve never really thought about bonnets as “blinders” but some of them are truly works of art. Plain clothing is fascinating to me, and I’m especially intrigued by young Quakers who still practice it.
All in all, the book is worth a read, whether you’re a fan of the bonnet book or just see Quaker romances as another sign of late-stage capitalism.