Dear Friends, I have been busy! After finishing the seventh (what?) revision of my first novel, I’ve made a goal to query an agent a day this summer. Why not? If I don’t have any luck, I’ll work on my own e-book and audio versions.
Meanwhile, my sister and I had a wonderful day last month in Darby, Pennsylvania where I once again got to visit Darby Meeting and see Darby Free Library. (DFL) The Library just received a well-deserved $1 million grant to make their library accessible and updated with necessary repairs. Darby Meeting House and Darby, Pennsylvania are among the settings in my current WIP and my next…Thomas Worth’s “journey to America” story.
John Bartram and other members of Darby Free Meeting founded DFL in 1743. They began shipping books from England to Darby and the librarian kept them in a trunk and shared them in the local community. May’s event included descendants of the original library board. I’m not one of them, though I am a descendant of a Darby Friends Meeting family.
Darby Friends Burial Ground
Our day began with a visit to the Darby Friends Burial Ground. I think I’ve written about this before: my ancestors were buried there but without markers. This proved to be a mistake for the Quakers. In their quest for simplicity, they set up burial grounds where you didn’t know where the deceased were when you went to bury someone else! Headstones soon came into fashion and we saw John Bartram’s, among others. Bartram was buried here despite being kicked out of Darby Friends. Wait–did you read Membership Discontinued?
Meeting for Worship
Following the tour of the burial ground, we attended (silent) Meeting for Worship in the 1805 Meeting House. I love all the little details of the Meeting House including old graffiti, an ancient ladder, and the bonnets (now kept in a glass case so I’m not tempted to try them on again)!
John Bartram and the Daisy
I also was delighted to meet John and Jan Haigis of Past Times Present. I had a great phone call with them during height of the pandemic, but I hadn’t been able to meet them in person. They live in Darby and know much about local, Quaker, and Revolutionary War history. Here, they entertained us with their “John Bartram and the Daisy” song. I love that Bartram taught himself both Latin and botany. There are a few Quaker references in the song.
Darby Free Library
After a nice lunch, including incredible sweet goodies from Shane Confectionery (I met the Friendly owner, Ryan Berley), we went on to Darby Free Library. Today, the one-room library supports the local Darby community on a budget of only $85,000! Darby Friends helped connect the Library with the federal grant. DFL stayed open throughout the pandemic. The library provided young people with a cozy place to read, and adults with a place to connect with community resources, or just use a printer. You can visit their FB page to find out more about their resources and funding. I loved hearing about the library’s Quaker roots.
Darby: the First 200 Years
After the check presentation at the library (more sweets!), we were back at the Meeting House to learn more about “Darby: the First 200 years,” in other words, 1682-1882, from Harold Finegan. I’d long wondered why the Darby Quakers were among the only 30% of Quakers in Early America who didn’t enslave people. Harold believes it was because of the persecution this particular group of Quakers had experienced in Northern England before coming to America. The group’s persecution at the hands of the English led to an affinity for those who were oppressed. Darby became a community involved in abolition work and “fair trade” policy in early Pennsylvania.
The Blue Bell Tavern
We wrapped up the afternoon with a trip to the (now shuttered) 1766 Blue Bell Tavern. The Tavern is the site of my Quaker characters Elizabeth and Eben’s clandestine meetings. Woodland Avenue was at one time the main stagecoach road between Philadelphia and the southern colonies. It still marks the boundary between Philadelphia and Delaware Counties. George Washington made it his headquarters September 12-13, 1777 just after the Battle of Brandywine.
All in all, a fabulous day. I always soak in more atmosphere and find new details to use in my writing when I visit a Quaker historical site. I also was happy to support Darby Free Library’s project, and meet some other folks whose ancestors made the voyage to America in 1682.
Coming up: How do you decide which books to read each year? And how do you decide where to buy or borrow them? I’ve given this some thought and will report back later this month.
Live in the Philadelphia area? Interested in Quaker, Philadelphia, or library history? I’ll be at Darby Friends Meeting House at 10 a.m. on Sunday, May 1, with others celebrating a new federal grant made to the Darby Free Library. Darby Free Library is the oldest library in continuous use in the U.S., founded by Darby Friends in 1743. Come tour the Darby Friends burial ground, join in Meeting for Worship, and learn more about Darby Friends and abolition. I’m not organizing this event, but lmk if you have questions.
10: – 10: 45: Meet for a walking tour of the Darby Friends Burial Ground
11:00 – 11:45: Participate in Meeting for Worship at the Meetinghouse
Attend at your preference, or spend more time at DFBG. They are 2 blocks apart.
12:00 – 12:50: Lunch + meet & greet
1:00 – 1:30: Press event, with Congresswoman Scanlon
1:45 – 3:45: Presentation: The Darby Quakers, the first 200 years.
Chiefly, this is about abolition. When Quakers came in 1682, 70% were slaveholders — but the Darby Quakers were not. As early as 1693 they began to work to convince their brethren of the error of their ways. It took 92 years for the Quakers to ban slavery amongst Friends. they then broadened and expanded their efforts to end slavery in our country.
I was never a great painting student but I tried. My senior year at Oberlin I took Color Theory with Forbes Whiteside. Mostly I took painting because it was easy. And relaxing. You did have to put time in at the studio. But even if you were pretty awful, you’d still get a decent grade. It wasn’t like writing an essay about a French novel.
Forbes was an interesting guy. At first, he appeared gruff and I was more than a little afraid of him. The fact that my paintings were…ahem…sort of random things I painted without having much grounding in studio art didn’t help my confidence. Forbes (as I recall through the misty goggles of time) was obsessed with Jasper Johns and some of his own painting followed Johns’s style. So along with learning about color theory, we learned about Jasper Johns.
Forbes taught us that color doesn’t really exist in the way we think it does. Look at the shadow in the photo above. The wall appears to be off-white, but now look at the shadow below: I see beige and then a deeper brown. What color is the wall?
Forbes sent us out to the Campus Diner (local coffee shop) to look at an orange wall. Staring at it, I realized that the wall wasn’t just “orange;” there were gradations of orange color depending on how the light (artificial or daylight) hit it at various times of day. and even where you stood. Rendering wasn’t just about painting an “orange wall;” it was also about what colors we saw. We spent hours in class mixing paint to approximate the various shades we saw when we looked at an object.
Forbes died in 2015 and I learned from his obituary that “From 1941 to 1945, Whiteside captained aircraft in the Pacific theater. He achieved the rank of second lieutenant and received the Distinguished Flying Cross. His more memorable experiences included six days in a raft with his flight crew after the successful ditching of their disabled seaplane, and a flight over Nagasaki following the dropping of the second atomic bomb.”
What feelings did these experiences lend to Forbes’s art? Patriotism? The horrors of war? Or were flags and pillow cases and cityscapes and a coffee house wall pieces of color that didn’t have to be symbolic at all?
Forbes barely said a word to me in class until one day he stopped right in front of my easel. I was very nervous. “This is an incredible painting!” he roared. Then he regarded me, his piercing eyes staring at me from below his shock of Warholesque wild white hair. “Is this really how things look to you?” he asked incredulously.
“Uh, yes?” I answered.
“Well,” he answered. “Your work has a delightful primitive quality! It reminds me of Neil Jenney!” I took it as a compliment even though one of my friends teases me about that compliment to this day.
A painted flag or a painting of a flag?
Are you on the blue team or the red? What do you see when you look at the American flag? How do you feel? Included? Excluded? Outraged? Warmed?
And what do you see when you now look at the Flag of Ukraine? Overnight, most of us are rallying around the blue and yellow. Already, those colors provoke emotion inme. I don’t think I could tell you what the Russian flag looks like though. I never think about it.
Jasper Johns painted the American Flag (the painting was called “Flag”) two years after being discharged from the U.S. Army. Because I’m not an art critic, I’m going to quote from Wikipedia here: “Johns’s selection of the US flag allows him to explore a familiar two-dimensional object, with its simple internal geometric structure and a complex symbolic meaning. Johns was attracted to painting “things the mind already knows,” and claimed that using a familiar object like the flag freed himself from the need to create a new design and allowed him to focus on the execution of the painting. Critics were unsure whether it was a painted flag or a painting of a flag; Johns later said it was both.”
Was Johns mocking patriotism and the flag? Or did he see the flag as a hopeful symbol? Or was it just… a flag…a piece of fabric made up of colors? MOMA refused to buy it, seeing it as anti-patriotic. Why? What did they see in it that makes it this way?
In later pieces like White Flag, and Map, Johns continued to tease us with symbols/objects. Again from Wikipedia, “Johns’s selection of the US flag allows him to explore a familiar two-dimensional object, with its simple internal geometric structure and a complex symbolic meaning. The built-up collage distorts the flag’s flatness, while the off-white encaustic obliterates the flag’s usual red-white-and-blue colouring, leaving a ghostly embalmed remnant.”
I’ve written a bit about Betsy Ross and the American flag here. And I’ve learned a bit about flag-making in writing my current novel. Why were flags important to Americans in the Revolution? Primarily, because there were so few uniforms. Flags provided something for troops and militia to gather under when perhaps all they had was a white slip of paper in their hat to symbolize that they were a soldier.
In “Revolutionary War uniforms are not so easy to pin down,” by John Kelly: “Soldiers then wore a rainbow of colors. And the hated British weren’t the only ones in red coats. Some American soldiers wore them, too. One Connecticut regiment had red coats with yellow accents. The 4th New York Regiment had white coats with red accents. The drummers for one New Hampshire regiment had green breeches and canary yellow coats. If they got coats at all. Uniforms were hit and miss, and many soldiers suffered without boots or coats. With no standing army, the Americans sort of made it up as they went along. Nearly every unit was different.”
Flags weren’t standard either. Before 1777, Patriots had a variety of flags like this one:
What would we make of the American flag if it looked like this?And did it promote unity (among a people who were pretty divided) or did it symbolize dissent from the British?
What we think we see depends on where we’re standing
I got an A in painting. It balanced out some of my other not so stellar grades. To my characters, a flag means many things: a hobby, a dangerous object, a handicraft, an expression of defiance. At times it’s something to be hidden; at times a unifier that gathers a ragtag group together. Forbes Whiteside taught me so much but above all, what we think we see depends so much on where we’re standing.
A confluence of events: the reboot of Sex and the City (SATC) i.e. And Just Like That (AJLT) and a family emergency led me to watch both the reboot and the original SATC this past month. With the attention span of a flea the past few weeks, I dipped into Miranda, Carrie, Samantha, and Charlotte’s brunchtime conversations circa 1998 while hovering over my phone awaiting crisis texts.
At the time SATC premiered, reviewers said the show was groundbreaking in its portrayal of women’s friendships. When reviewers now praise AJLT, they continue to highlight the women’s friendships as if women just started to have long-term friendships in the 20th Century. Really? Did women just start becoming friends in the 90’s? And choose to remain single? Were they just starting to dish dirt, spill tea, ponder relationships with men outside their faith and culture, and discuss romance and sex ? I beg to differ.
All my Quaker “Ladies”
Much of the research for my current WIP came from reading original sources/diaries of Quaker women and girls in the 1770’s. When not grappling with the oncoming Revolution, or running their own or their husband’s businesses, these gals gathered to spill the tea and muse on many aspects of their Quaker Friends’ lives.
“Afternoon at Caty Howels: Talk on Sally Robinson who was almost like to have gone away with an officer, but a timely interposition of Friends, gave as she herself now thinks a lucky turn.”
Carrie: Hannah Callender Sansom
She didn’t have a column in the New York Star, but Hannah Callender Sansom kept voluminous diaries from age 21 on. Her entries outlined her female friendships and Quaker community gossip. Wealthy Hannah, described in online articles as “sassy,” pens day after day of dates with her friends. When not making or spilling the tea, mending stockings, or taking day trips around the Philadelphia area in her chaise (accompanied by other young people), Hannah shares a number of remarkable stories from her social set. To wit (and I paraphrase here):
”Did you hear about our dear Friend who was taken advantage of and whisked away to be a kept woman on the island her lover owned in the Caribbean? She was pregnant with his daughter, and those he enslaved on the island tried to poison her. He decided she should go back to England where their daughter would be sent to boarding school, and our Friend would be set up in a little shop. After boarding a boat headed for Kingston, she was shipwrecked on another island. She flagged down a passing rowboat, and holding her baby, made her way towards a ship headed for Philadelphia. The ship picked her up… and just like that…she’s back!”
“Did you hear about the Quaker man who was so depressed he decided to throw a billiards game, and have someone else challenge him to a duel so he wouldn’t have to shoot himself?”
Unwed mothers: so many. Amateur midwifery: in some detail. Bodily…stuff.
“Tho’ I have not the least shadow of an opportunity to send a letter, if I do write, I will keep a sort of journal of the time that may expire before I see thee: the perusal of it may some time hence give pleasure in a solitary hour to thee and our Sally Jones.”
Charlotte: Sally Wister
16-year-old Sally writes to her friend Deborah (Debby) Norris, first by letter, and then, the post no longer delivered, in her journal. Sally’s living in the middle of a war zone in 1777, having escaped (soon-to-be British occupied) Philadelphia with her family for the relative safety of the countryside. Over a nine-month period, she documents her adventures and flirtations with various officers and soldiers who pass through the area.
Boy craziness: “OMG did you see that officer? The one with the ginger hair? OMG he smiled at me!”
Clothes: “Do I want to appear womanly or girlish?”
Pranks: “Let’s make a fake soldier out of a coat to fool the other soldier who’s coming back in here drunk.”
Marriage: “Do you think Major William Truman Stoddert could ever be interested in a Quaker girl like me??” Sally points out the problematic nature of a romance or marriage because of the wide gulf of social and religious prejudice that lay between them. He was an Anglican, a soldier, and a member of a slave owning family, while she was a pacifist Quaker, a member of a sect that forbade its members from marrying out or enslaving others. Sally remained single the rest of her life. You can read excerpts here.
“I believe that as we grow in years, we become more callous, or in some measure lose that quick sense of feeling that attends us in our more youthful days.“
Miranda: Elizabeth Drinker
Elizabeth Drinker’s affluence and her own education allowed her the literacy and leisure time to keep a diary of her life for 50 years. More serious in tone than Hannah’s and Sally’s, Elizabeth’s diary communicates a world-weary energy as she tries to run a large household during her merchant husband’s frequent absences and imprisonment. Topics include:
Living single and courtship
Complaints about Henry: away so much, she found it overwhelming to run their household. Also, what’s up with Henry and her sister?
Upstairs/downstairs: “Maid A. came back and is now together with Stablehand B. and they are having a baby together sort of under my roof.” And yet…Elizabeth Drinker was a champion of domestic workers becoming waged employees rather than indentured “servants.”
“I am not certain if I can; at least I’ll gladly try.“
Samantha? Maybe Betsy Ross?
Thrice married, thrice widowed, Betsy loved tomatoes and a little pinch of snuff. With her “piercing blue eyes,” Betsy and her sisters…got around, marrying out of the Quaker faith, sometimes well after they were “fruitful” and expecting children.
Like Samantha, Betsy was the hardest working of the aforementioned gals with her own business. While history disputes whether she did indeed make the first American flag, we do know that she supported her family in an upholstery business well into her senior years.
Betsy’s third husband was John Claypoole. Though she didn’t keep a diary that we know of, John’s recently discovered diaries reveal much of the couple’s life. John describes being imprisoned with Ross’s second husband, Joseph Ashburn. The two POW’s spent time in a British prison and John was with Joseph as he died. John then traveled to Philadelphia, and told Betsy of Joe’s death. Shortly after, they wasted no time getting married.
And Just Like That…
And Just Like That…these women had friendships that lasted for years, as I have. Whether we (or they) went to school together, were young mothers together, met through work or church, or were part of other activities, we kept up with each other. Maybe not by letters and journals, but today we communicate by phone, FaceTime, email and social media. For me, coffee has replaced tea and the bottomless SATC brunch has given way to the quiet weekday lunch. Some of my friends have remained single, some are widowed, and some have divorced. We’re not “ground-breaking,” we’re testament to the endurance of women’s friendships and interest in relationships, fashion and community over the years. Friends for life? Yes please!
Quaker disownment fascinates me. In the genealogical research I’ve done for my writing, I’ve found a couple of rule-breakers in my family tree. For example, I came upon Thomas Worth’s son, briefly disowned for–and I feel embarrassed saying this because it sounds way worse than I, in 2021, perceive it to be– “fornicating” with his fiancée. Years ago, the Quakers, famous for their openness, had a fair number of rules and rule- breakers.
Here are five you might try (or be accused of) if you were a member of Pennsylvania Meetings between 1680 and 1776.
1. Find a fiancé outside your faith The biggie. Between 1680 and 1776 in Pennsylvania Monthly Meetings, nearly 5,000 Meeting members were disowned for “Marrying contrary to discipline.” Among them were Betsy Ross and four of her sisters who left the Quaker fold for those outside the faith, leading to their discipline and the prospect of disownment. Betsy left to join the Free Quakers, famous for not observing the Peace Testimony. My research pointed out, though, that the majority of those who joined the splinter sect did so because of intermarriage and their objection to the idea of disownment, in and of itself.
2. Get pregnant out of wedlock (or get someone pregnant) Another biggie. 1311 disowned for this. I guess you could say you’re sorry but then what? “Fornication with fiancée” is 1311 but “other fornication” is 727. Early readers of my WIP keep asking “where were the parents?” Frankly, I don’t know! Did the Friends decide young people could chaperone themselves? Maybe. Also, I’m going to throw this in, because it may have led to the above: Drunkenness: 613
3. Disagree about something important Slavery: 123 disowned. Not surprising since it was one of the tenets of Quaker doctrine not to enslave after 1776 (there were a number of Quaker enslavers before that time including William Penn.) A bigger number is 504 for military attendance, including fighters in the American Revolution like Bevan and John James Pearson. Both were kicked out of Darby Monthly Meeting. John James was wounded at Brandywine.
4. Raise a big theological stink Schism: 54. John Bartram did not ascribe to Trinitarianism, the belief that God is “three in one: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Darby Meeting did. Farewell, John. World-famous botanist Bartram ended up retreating to his estate on the banks of the Schuylkill, including words of protest/theology in the stonework above his greenhouse.
5. Disagree about something unimportant Fiddling and dancing in your home: 1. I’ve cheated a bit here. This number is from Disownment in Hopewell, NM 1760-1809.
I learned from this 1991 article that Quakers did not“excommunicate” members in the same sense that other Christian churches did throughout history. The article states that Quakers have sought a way to both disown their Friends, while at the same time loving them. “Excommunication was aimed at the offender, whereas disownment was aimed at the world.” While no one was ever really prohibited from attending Meeting for Worship after being disowned, disownment precluded participation in the Meeting’s business. But still, many left Worship as well, whether to marry their sweethearts, enjoy fiddle music, or more chillingly, continue to enslave people.
Disownment provides tension in many of the Quaker novels I read. In Dash Shaw’s Discipline, Charles Cox faces disownment when he enlists in the Union Army during the Civil War. In Lilli DeJong by Janet Benton, Lilli’s father is disowned for “beginning to drink to excess” as well as marrying his cousin (who wasn’t a Friend, and marrying her two months after his late wife’s death, rather than waiting a year.) In Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway, Honor Bright fears disownment for her “silent protest” of slavery in 1850’s Ohio. In Lars Hedbor’s The Light, Robert Harris is read out of Meeting for crafting Revolutionary War weapons in his forge.
What better way to raise dramatic tension than to have a person’s faults read out loud during what we think of as a silent sect’s Meeting? Or to have that person rise in the middle of Meeting to defend themselves and call out others? I’m totally using disownment as a great scene-setter in at least two novels I’m writing. Do you have a story about disownment? Share it below or write me.
P.S. Like what you see here? Click here to read about the book I hope to bring to an audience soon!
When I started writing my first Quaker novel three years ago, I decided to take a look at other fiction featuring Friends. I didn’t want to look at the classics (nope, Moby Dick, don’t think I can write that!), but at popular books. I started by working through the “Fiction with Quakers” list on Goodreads. These books run the gamut…from classic literature to what I would call Hudson News novels (think: evangelical Quakers). Here are a few of my favorites, by time period, and with lessons learned. If you’re interested in reading any, I’m providing links to the authors’ websites (where I could find them). You should be able to order most of these books from your favorite bookseller (or find them at the library!) – Kate
1. The Peaceable Kingdom by Jan de Hartog
“I am George Fox,” said the fair-haired stranger. “May the Lord bless thee and awaken thee, Margaret Fell.” His eyes went on searching hers. They were blue like a sailor’s and of an odd shape and rather slanted.
Oh Mylanta…an 800-page book about Quakers…from George Fox in the 1650’s to the American Revolution? Yes, please! I then started to write one myself…a long, long family saga in multiple time periods. I was so excited! And then I spoke to a friend who remarked that I’d be much better off dividing my book into four books. But what about Jan de Hartog? Don’t people want to read an 800-page book with long, ponderous sentences, and Quakers behaving ever-so-badly and scandalously? Perhaps. But perhaps not. Jan de Hartog wrote in the 1970’s and historical fiction was long…and ponderous. But presenting Quakers with all their frailties and warts? Along with their history? Why not? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Peaceable_Kingdom:_An_American_Saga
Lesson: I could write a Quaker potboiler, but did I want to?
2. Forged in the Fire by Ann Turnbull
England, 1665. Will and Susanna, separated for three years, are at last free to marry. But Will’s plans to leave London are overtaken by the spread of the plague, which traps him in the city. Susanna leaves Shropshire and goes in search of him – but has their love survived?
I stumbled into the middle book of this series because the other two were hard to get from the library. By the time I reached “Forged,” the Quaker teens at the heart of the story had raging hormones, were anxious to get married, but then––why wait? The description of the Great Fire of London riveted me. But even more so I loved the story of two kids who can’t keep their hands off each other.
Lesson: I could write a sexy scene with two unmarried Quaker teens.
18th Century/American Revolution
3. The Light by Lars Hedbor
As a Quaker blacksmith, Robert is used to the challenges of fire and iron. When the American Revolution splinters his own family and threatens his community, he will wrestle with questions of belief and philosophy. He must rely on his inner light to keep his family safe, and lead them to freedom.
Lars Hedbor did a ton of research to write this book, including looking at 18th Century dialect and how Quakers used plain speech at the time of the American Revolution. I loved reading the dialogue. Early readers of my WIP were thrown, though, by plain speech, and even remarked that I was using it incorrectly. Not so! My grandfather and great-grandmother still used plain speech on occasion while I was growing up. I had a general idea of how plain speech had evolved, and was sure to use time period-accurate thee’s and thy’s. But so many people complained, I took the plain speech out to make it more readable. P.S. I kept it in, in one scene! It’s a dream sequence where an older relative appears. (I couldn’t get rid of it entirely, I love it so much.) https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18474763-the-light?utm_medium=api&utm_source=author_widget
Lesson: I could use plain speech (if I wanted to).
4. The Turncoat by Donna Thorland
Major Lord Peter Tremayne is the last man rebel bluestocking Kate Grey should fall in love with, but when the handsome British viscount commandeers her home, Kate throws caution to the wind and responds to his seduction. She is on the verge of surrender when a spy in her own household seizes the opportunity to steal the military dispatches Tremayne carries, ensuring his disgrace—and implicating Kate in high treason.
5. Sybil Ludington, Revolutionary War Rider by E. F. Abbott
What would you do if your country was counting on you? If you had a message that only you could deliver? That’s the story of sixteen-year-old Sybil Ludington’s famous midnight ride.
Quakers get a lot of walk-on roles in books set in the American Revolution. They’re usually not fighting, but patiently explaining pacifism to people, or sort of “helping out” without using weapons. They’re sympathetic to Patriotism and the other fighting characters deeply respect them. This Sybil Ludington book has a helpful Quaker. And then there’s Sybil herself: a girl Paul Revere. So why not a Quaker girl Paul Revere? And that’s where I ended up in my WIP. https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250104120/sybilludingtonrevolutionarywarrider
Lesson: Quakers show up for the American Revolution.
6. Discipline by Dash Shaw
During the Civil War, many Quakers were caught between their fervent support of abolition, a desire to preserve the Union, and their long-standing commitment to pacifism. When Charles Cox, a young Quaker from Indiana, slips out early one morning to enlist in the Union Army, he scandalizes his family and his community.
A friend mentioned this graphic novel to me, out just last month. Dash Shaw grew up in a Quaker family and I loved what he did in this book. His drawings depict the horrors of war, the horrors of slavery, and the tension in his character’s Quaker family and Meeting as they wrestle with pacifism. I write about questions around the Quakers’ Peace Testimony in my WIP and I wrote about “disaffection” last month. https://www.dashshaw.net/discipline
Lesson: I could pose questions about war and pacifism, without providing easy answers.
7. Delivering the Truth by Edith Maxwell
Midwife Rose Carroll becomes a suspect and then a sleuth in two cases of murder. Can Rose’s strengths as a counselor and problem solver help bring the murderers to justice before they destroy the town’s carriage industry and the people who run it?
I’m not a mystery reader and this was the first cozy mystery I’ve ever read. It was so much fun! I liked how Edith Maxwell wove details of 19th-Century midwifery in with murder, mayhem, and Meeting Houses. So I have a knife in my next book, which one of my characters picks up AFTER a murder. I’m developing what he does with it.https://edithmaxwell.com/books/quaker-midwife-mysteries/
Lesson: I could include a murder weapon to amp up the tension!
8. The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier
Honor Bright, a modest English Quaker who moves to Ohio in 1850, only to find herself alienated and alone in a strange land. Sick from the moment she leaves England, and fleeing personal disappointment, she is forced by family tragedy to rely on strangers in a harsh, unfamiliar landscape.
In this novel,Tracy Chevalier not only writes about slavery and the Underground Railroad, but also quiltmaking and millinery. The more I read about Quakers and needlecraft, the more I realized I might and should include embroidery and flagmaking in my WIP. https://www.tchevalier.com/story
Lesson: I could incorporate needlecraft into my Quaker novel.
9. Lilli de Jong by Janet Benton
A young woman finds the most powerful love of her life when she gives birth at an institution for unwed mothers in 1883 Philadelphia. She is told she must give up her daughter to avoid lifelong poverty and shame. But she chooses to keep her.
“You have to read this book!” my sister told me, over and over. She loved it and went to hear Janet Benton speak in Germantown. The book portrays Quakers not as heroes, but as a sometimes insular community capable of some terrible group and individual behavior (think disownment and heavy drinking). https://janetbentonauthor.com/
Lesson: The Quaker community I write about could be harsh and unforgiving.
10. The Movement of Stars by Amy Brill
It is 1845, and Hannah Gardner Price has lived all twenty-four years of her life according to the principles of the Nantucket Quaker community in which she was raised, where simplicity and restraint are valued above all, and a woman’s path is expected to lead to marriage and motherhood. But up on the rooftop each night, Hannah pursues a very different—and elusive—goal: discovering a comet and thereby winning a gold medal awarded by the King of Denmark, something unheard of for a woman.
This is a quiet book about astronomy and an interracial love affair in 19th Century Nantucket. Wait––did we say 19th Century Nantucket?? So here for that. Beautiful descriptions of the beach, the town, telescopes (!) and another fire. Great period details. I’ve tried to weave descriptions of beautiful landscapes into my writing. So while I’m working on pace, I also have plenty of quiet in my WIP.
In Chapter 19 of my WIP novel, A Little Rebellion, teen BFF’s Elizabeth and Eben have an argument about pacifism. A few days before the Battle of Brandywine. Elizabeth rides into Darby and tells Eben that British soldiers have camped out on his family’s land. Incredulous that Eben and his family choose to “do nothing” about it, she points out the soldiers might be ready to kill him. Or, as she reminds him, they might take everything his family owns, including Eben’s precious library.
“The regulars are camped on your land—where we lie together in the summer, in the other orchard, where the creeks run—this is your family’s land and they will trample it to mud and set up tents—how can you stand by?”
Eben responds by saying that his father doesn’t want to do anything. Like many Quakers of the time (including Elizabeth’s wealthy merchant parents), his family is “disaffected.”
I didn’t pull my story from thin air. Eben represents my ancestors here. The Battle of Brandywine was fought on and around Thomas Worth’s land where the East and West forks of the Brandywine came together.
In my story, Elizabeth (who’s suddenly become a demanding and annoying Patriot) accuses Darby-dwelling farmer Eben of privilege. His family has paid a fine not to join a mandatory militia. She argues with him, saying that his family’s wealth means they aren’t worried about their livelihoods, or the possibility of being killed. Those they’ve befriended earlier in the story (Free Black Friends, the enslaved, and the poor) have much more at stake in the Revolution: the promise of land, employment, and freedom.
Eben turns around and accuses Philadelphia mansion-dweller Elizabeth of privilege as well. Is the leading that comes to her at Meeting truly about others? Or will joining the Patriot cause be a way for her to separate herself out from the Quaker community she dislikes? Is she just trying to be rebellious? He explains he can hardly be expected to join a militia: he’s just a timid boy who loves books and reading.
Is it possible to be neutral in a revolution? Or is “not choosing a side” really choosing a side? I learned much about the Quakers’ disaffection in Aaron Sullivan’s scholarly (but very readable) book, “The Disaffected.” Sullivan explains, “they tried not to choose a side at all. For these people, the war was neither a glorious cause to be won nor an unnatural rebellion to be suppressed, but a dangerous and costly calamity to be navigated with care. Both the Patriots and the British referred to this group as “the disaffected,” perceiving correctly that their defining feature was less loyalty to than a lack of support for either side in the dispute, and denounced them as opportunistic, apathetic, or even treasonous.”
What if they gave a war and nobody…well, you know…
We imagine the Revolutionary War as a time when people lined up neatly along lines, like soldiers in a (British) battle: red vs. blue. But somewhere in the muddy middle were many who didn’t identify as either Loyalist or Patriot. In a presentation to the American Revolution Roundtable of Philadelphia last September, Sullivan went on to explain how this group could be expanded to include people other than Quakers: notably Mennonites and those of other religious sects. Others didn’t have time to bother with the Revolution because they were too busy herding sheep, tending to ill family members, keeping the spinning wheel going, or even profiting by selling cabbages to British soldiers. He estimates this group made up 20-40% of the American population at the time.
By the time of the Battle of Brandywine, an estimated 4,000 local militia were supposedly ready to protect Philadelphia from British troops. But as the day of Battle grew closer, Washington only was able to gather 20% of them. By the time British General Howe showed up, only 15% of the militia were ready to fight. (Spoiler: the Americans lost and the British took Philadelphia.)
Wealthy Philadelphia merchants and the price of “neutrality”
Elizabeth’s family’s privilege is similar to that of Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker and her husband Henry Drinker. The Drinkers tried to remain “neutral” during the American Revolution. Before the war began, they identified with the Crown (England) but felt that as long as they did not aid or support the British, they could hide. Much of their business was at stake. Trade with Britain (including importing tea) provided their family’s livelihood. Other wealthy Quaker families like the Powels, Shippens, and Griscoms (Betsy Ross’s family) traded with the British as well. These families had to make difficult choices as the Battle of Brandywine and the Siege of Philadelphia drew near. If the British took the city, should they go? What if they had sided with the Patriots? They’d have no choice but to leave town. The families had great incentive to stay and try to protect their property investments, and some of them, like the Drinkers, did.
They paid the price for their “neutrality.” Beginning before the Siege of Philadelphia, and continuing after the British left town in 1778, Quakers increasingly found themselves the victims of the Patriots who assumed they were Loyalists. Their houses and horses were seized by angry mobs smashing windows and painting their homes black. In September of 1777, just before British occupation, the Patriots exiled Henry Drinker and 19 other Quakers to Virginia without trial.
My pacifism: An evolving story
I’m not a Quaker or a historian but here’s the thing: I’m both Eben and Elizabeth. My novel doesn’t answer questions about involvement in the Revolution, but raises them.
Growing up with the Vietnamese War in the background, I felt drawn to pacifism. As a teenager, I registered as a Conscientious Objector. I protested the Selective Service in front of my local Post Office, with a handful of elderly activists. Being a peace activist was for me a brief and lonely experience.
But for most privileged people like myself, the threat of war is largely hypothetical. We can feel a military budget is bloated, or oppose wars happening at a distance. We have other ways of making a living or financing an education. But what happens when the war comes to our backyard? Since my teenage years, I’ve developed a more nuanced view around deterrents to war, and a deep respect for family and friends who are part of the military. And yet––the Peace Testimony: it’s part of me.
So is it?
A dirty word? “Disaffection” was used to criticize Quakers back in the day. And today, many still see choosing not to take a side as “taking a side.” But to me, the word suggests a kind of bold separation from the mainstream: whether people are standing for peace, looking out for their own interests, or questioning involvement in war.
Will Eben fight? Will Elizabeth?
Still working away on a final round of edits…looking forward to having you read along!
Mr. Brooklyn and I are standing at the bar in a pub in Blidworth Bottoms. We’ve hiked by a field of horses and made our way through a part of the Sherwood Forest. “Can we sit in the dining room?” I ask the bartender.
“No. We’re full up,” she returns. Silence.
“Could we order food?” I ask.
She nods solemnly and hands us a menu. Oh, did I say? We’ve no cell service or cash, and we seem to be staying overnight on a horse farm. We’re strangers in a strange land. (Skip on to the end if you want to know how the evening ended!)
“In the seventeenth century, the area in which the Quaker religion developed was described as ‘perfectly inaccessible by road.’ Remoteness was indeed one of the attractions. Some Quakers fled there to escape their persecutors.” – Albion’s Seed
How did we get here? Two worlds collide: the once-in-a-lifetime Red Sox versus Yankees game in London AND perhaps the answer to a question that has been plaguing me: If you were my Quaker eighth-great-grandfather living in a beautiful town in England’s North Midlands in 1682, what would prompt you to leave?
Somehow I’ve convinced Mr. Brooklyn to return to our youth for this trip to England. We’d take the train and stay in Airbnb’s just like the bed and breakfasts of our youth! It would be fun! We’d visit Manchester, Ely (where the Pennine Way begins), Oxton, Nottingham, Haworth, Liverpool, and then go on to London! I’d gather information for a planned series of novels loosely-based on my Quaker ancestors. And he’d see the big game. He agrees.
Back at the Pub
I look around the room, wondering if any of the local residents are descendants of my ancestor Thomas Worth. Or perhaps they’re related to the tormentors who I’m imagining could have made him leave Oxton. They are eyeing us.
Did I mention? We are wearing our Yankees caps. At the bar. In a pub. I tell my hairdresser about this a month later (he’s from outside Liverpool). “Oh you can’t do that,” he said. “It’s the height of rudeness!”
“…we are a poor, unworthy and despised people, scattered amongst the rocky mountains and dern valleys of the high peak country.”
A Poor, Unworthy, and Despised People
I did some research before the trip. While Thomas Worth lived in Oxton, Nottinghamshire (which is like a U.S. county), his future wife Isabella Davidson hailed from Derbyshire. I learned from David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed (if you are of Quaker or any English ancestry, please read it immediately) these shires, along with four others, made up the core of Quaker society in the late 1600’s.
Many of the people living in the North Midlands had descended from Vikings. In fact, some of the earliest Quaker practices can be linked with moots or open-air meetings, especially those at hilltop graves and standing-stones.
Quakers felt themselves alien from the schools and churches and courts and political institutions of the region. All these powerful entities, Albion’s Seed reminds us, remained securely in the hands of the ruling few. The theology of Quakerism arose from “an oppressed regional underclass which despised the foreign (to their Scandinavian Heritage) foreign culture that exploited them.”
Crime in the 17th Century
The book also describes how “there was a sense of insecurity in this sparsely settled land. Isolated houses were attacked and robbed by roving nocturnal bands, and sometimes all the victims were brutally murdered to hide the crime.” Suspicion of strangers was very common. Wow. Poor Thomas.
On to Oxton
We awaken the day after our pub experience to the sound of the horses undergoing their morning exercise (just below the window where we’re sleeping). Still without mobile service, or a car, Mr. Brooklyn goes to knock on our host’s door. She’s kind. She asks one of her employees to drive us to Oxton where I’m praying they have Uber, or at least a cell signal.
“How long have you lived here?” I ask our driver. I have shied away from making conversation with drivers the past few years, given that my interactions with hired car drivers are either silent, very strange, or admittedly more for my benefit than theirs.
“My whole life,” he answers.
“And your family?”
“Same.” He’s a man of few words, doing us a favor. I look at him: perhaps his eighth-great-grandfather knew Thomas.
Thomas Worth was baptized in this church, but he left to become a Quaker. Even after joining the Friends (or Seekers as they called themselves earlier), Thomas probably continued to worship here in the church from time to time, lest he pay a fine.
The Anglican Church Persecuted Quakers
Anglican clergy found their income threatened by Quakers who refused to pay church or “steeple taxes.” Friends were jailed and many had property seized as retaliation.
The Church eventually recognized the “Sons of Oxton” who made their way to Pennsylvania. I walk about the church to find plaques and scrolls from the 1950’s honoring those very Quakers who’d refused to honor clergy with tithes or recognition. I’m excited to see Thomas’s name on a scroll.
“The image of God appeared before her and said, ‘If I restore thee, go to Pennsylvania.’”
A reason to go to Pennsylvania?
Thomas may also have felt the need to “show Quakerism at work, freed from hampering conditions.” Other Quakers, in experiences that might be described as callings, came to America as a result of spiritual experiences. Jane Hoskins, a young Quaker, ill with a deadly fever, found that the “image of God appeared before her and said, ‘If I restore thee, go to Pennsylvania.” Perhaps Thomas found himself a “servant of God’s will.”
On the streets of Oxton
“The Quaker grave is this way!” I yell to Mr. Brooklyn as I hike off in the direction of the Green Dragon.
While I’m out of earshot, he meets up with Adrian Todd who is biking through town. Adrian knows everything about Oxton and Mr. Brooklyn buys a copy of “Hidden Oxton,” Adrian’s video in the local Post Office The P.O. also turns out to be the local convenience store and source of information about Oxton.
Adrian is wonderful and tells Rob that if we want to know more about Oxton, we should contact Colin Ashmore. Writing this blog, I was sad to learn that Colin had died in the fall of 2020.
Quakers in Oxton
In the fall of 2019, I had a great conversation with Colin to try to understand what Thomas Worth’s Oxton may have looked like.
As I understand it, in the 1600’s, Main Street was nonexistent. Water Lane was the main street, a road with a stream next to it. The stream ran into a pond, in front of the Old Sherbrooke Hall. A stone wall ran along the street.
Colin told me about Robert Sherbrooke, a Quaker active in the early 18th Century. The Sherbrookes were major landowners in the Oxton area. After Thomas left for America, Sherbrooke raised funds to build a Meeting House. He also left money to the poor Quakers, including funds to build a school. Eventually, Friends in the area moved on––to America, or out of the faith. Their numbers were small and because so many women married out of the faith, they eventually faded away.
Reunited, Mr. Brooklyn and I head to Robert Sherbrooke’s table tomb. Though there is a vault for the Sherbrooke family in St. Peter and St. Paul’s, once you were a Quaker, you couldn’t be buried in the churchyard or church. So Robert Sherbrooke is buried just across from the Green Dragon. This area became the site of the Quaker Meeting House in the 1700’s.
On to Nottingham for the afternoon! Our mobile phones spring to life in front of the Post Office and we’re able to Uber to Nottingham and then back to the farm. I’m already sad my trip to Oxton is over.
On board the Welcome for a Holy Experiment
In 1682, William Penn made a return trip to America on board the ship Welcome. Thomas and Isabella made the arduous journey with Penn, a third of the passengers succumbing to smallpox. Upon arriving in the New World, Worth was granted 150 acres of land in Darby, Pennsylvania, a richness he never would have experienced in England. Quakers balanced the dangers of the trip against a huge economic incentive: for the modest sum of 20 pounds, a family of four together with a servant would receive passage plus 500 acres of land in Pennsylvania.
Back to the start: New Friends!
By the end of that first night at the pub, we’re surrounded by the local young-ish people. Staring at our hats, they all start talking about New York! Many have visited NYC, some several times, but some haven’t travelled far from home. They tell stories about the Big Apple while we nod in appreciation of shared experience. We’ve visited the ATM, eaten some great pub food, and now hike our way back to our cozy room at the horse farm. Why would you ever leave?
I suppose I’m finally over losing the Flag Day Poetry Contest in elementary school. As I recall, it was a beautiful June day and we all sat outside looking at the flag. Our principal read the winning poem over the loudspeaker. The poem was haiku-like, breathtaking in its simplicity and emotional: the writer reflected on the beauty of the flag in free verse. Not a single eye was dry.
I, on the other hand, had written a narrative account of the Betsy Ross myth in blank verse in my typical over-the-top trying-too-hard-to-win way: “While Betsy Ross was sewing in her quiet little shop/George Washington rushed in and ordered her to STOP!” I will not repeat the rest of the awkward rhymes I remember.
As a child, I had very little feeling for the American Revolution because it mostly involved…well, men running around and killing each other and then We Won! Each battle seemed like the other to me. But stories about women like Betsy Ross, Molly Pitcher, and (later in time) Dolley Madison, came alive to me through those old orange biographies for kids. The idea that women were part of Early America: sewing, bringing water to others, maybe briefly firing a cannon or rescuing paintings from a burning White House appealed to me, maybe because I could see myself––a girl––in those stories. What the women did seemed doable.
My current work-in-progress novel, “A Little Rebellion,” was inspired by both the story of Betsy Ross, and what I imagine my Quaker ancestors might have been doing during the Revolution.
The book Betsy Ross, Quaker Rebel by Edwin S. Parry (self-described direct descendant of Betsy Ross), published in 1930, perhaps best relays the typical myth of Betsy Ross. (Thank you to my sister, Meg, for buying me a signed copy of the book!) Parry describes her as a “beautiful Quaker girl…her life was filled with tragedy and romance.” In colorful chapters describing her schooling, rivals for her affection, teenage partying (yes ,smuggled rum is mentioned) and Betsy’s subsequent disownment for marrying outside her Quaker faith, I found a heroine worthy of any novel.
But a closer look at Elizabeth Griscom Ross, via Marla R. Miller’s excellent Betsy Ross and the Making of America reveals much more: Ross was part of a powerful resistance movement made all the more remarkable because it arose out of a community that embraced pacifism and disaffection. Ross was not only a flag maker, she was a business owner, upholsterer, munitions maker (she made 60,000 musket cartridges), and one of the first leaders of a splinter sect of Quakers in America: the Free Quakers. She also was married three times.
The contradictions in her life story intrigued me: the contrast between Quaker pacifism and outright participation in military supply, the myth of Betsy as a quiet flag-making girl contrasting with the more traditional male role she took on as a businessperson and leader of a new sect.
And then there’s Betsy’s conscience: what might have prompted her to take up the American cause, when she might have been far more comfortable embracing the typical Quaker’s “disaffection” or non-involvement in the war? Disaffection, in the guise of pacifism, often meant that Quakers were able to continue to trade with all sides during the war. Though small business owners were greatly affected by British oppression through measures like the Stamp Act, I wondered at Betsy’s giving up her family, faith, and the more comfortable Quaker world, to actively participate in the War for Independence, and begin a splinter religious sect.
Betsy’s world of 1777 Philadelphia came alive to me during several visits to the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia. The first visit I made to the house in 2015 was truly eye-opening to me (I thought of Revolutionary Philadelphia as a mostly white world). Phillis the Laundress, portrayed by a re-enactor I encountered in Betsy’s cellar, was a free Black laundress. She relayed to us her backstory: she had been enslaved by her Quaker owner, freed, and then had started her own laundry business. I was surprised to learn there was a sizable free Black population in Philadelphia at the time of the Revolution (about 1,000 people), not all of whom were servants.
What might that world of 1777 really have looked like, I wondered, with white women making furniture and taking snuff (as Betsy did), free Black women operating small businesses like bakeries, and, as I went on to learn, the beginning of racially integrated schools? I began to see that world as deeply stratified but with many groups longing for the same thing: more freedom, in a shape and form that matched their circumstances.
I am grateful that Betsy’s myth was intriguing enough for me to take a closer look and start to imagine a world of young people making decisions about both their lives and the future of their country in 1777.