Monday, 4 November 2013

Quaker underpants

The latest Book Group choice was mine: The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier. It’s had mixed reviews, always a good sign for a reading group, as it means there’ll probably be plenty to discuss and a stimulating range of opinions.

 The reviews pages showed an amusing spread of people who thought it included too much quilting/not enough quilting; too much about contemporary politics/not enough about the workings of the Underground Railroad of the 1850s; and convincingly/unconvincingly portrayed the convictions of a nineteenth-century Quaker.

 The aspect which irritated me most was mentioned by only one reviewer, which suggests that it’s an editorial nerd thing: the use of ‘thee’.

Quakers used what George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, called ‘plain speech’. Before about 1650 the formal ‘you’ (like ‘vous’ in French) was used towards one’s betters, and ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ was the familiar form. It was already dying out when the Quakers began to address everyone as ‘thou’. They did this to reflect their belief that everyone was equal in the sight of God, and it was regarded as dangerously subversive if not downright anarchic.

Of course Honor Bright, an English Quaker, and the Friends she meets in America would all have used plain speech. But Chevalier has all the characters using it ungrammatically – nothing but ‘thee’, even as the subject of a verb: ‘Thee hadn’t’ instead of ‘Thou hadn’t’.

This took me off onto a fascinating exploration of Quaker usage. Selma Sheldon, an American born as late as 1942, says she remembers Quakers ‘theeing and thouing’. Apparently some Quakers in the New York area did start to use ‘thee’ for all cases (nominative as well as accusative), but only fairly recently, and only locally as a sort of dialect. Certainly at this period and among the English Quakers it wouldn’t have been used wrongly.

Which brings us to underpants.

At the same time as The Last Runaway I happened to be reading Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: a writer’s and editor’s guide to keeping historical fiction free of common anachronisms, errors and myths. Susanne Alleyn deals with a wide range of issues, from Roman soldiers riding with stirrups (not widely used in Europe until the Dark Ages) to women wearing underpants any time before the middle of the nineteenth century. She’s particularly strong on the exact design of the guillotine in revolutionary France.

To my delight, Alleyn devotes some space to the grammatical use of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, for the edification of historical novelists.

Of course, Chevalier may have been (and probably was) fully aware of standard American Quaker usage, and the difference from English Quaker usage, and decided it was a refinement too far. There’s a limit to how much historical accuracy you can include without totally confusing or alienating your readers.

Which is a whole new discussion: how much historical accuracy can readers bear?


Kathleen said...

I'm in the "too much quilting" group but loved the book. I think it showed the complexity of ethical choices in the real world lives of individuals better than historical simplification and hindsight. The Quaker story is told by Jan de Hartog too. The Peaceable Kingdom is the story of George Fox and Margaret Fell, and then there is a sequel, set in Pennsylvania a little later- I don't remember the title of that. I love them both.

Jan said...

Thanks, Kathleen - two more books to chase up! I also read 'The Lady's Slipper' recently - which was partly about a rare orchid, but also about Quakers in the 17th century. If you like historical novels, you might like that, too.