Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Portraiture of Quakerism: Novels

I have been busy with "other things," but am now glad to get back to A Portraiture of Quakerism.

Thomas Clarkson wrote a A Portraiture of Quakerism in 1806, based on the intimacy he developed with Quakers while working for abolition of the slave trade. Clarkson used the first part of his book to explain the Quakers' strange prohibitions on hunting for sport, gambling and the arts. In doing so, he was trying to "normalize" Quakers to help build a case for abolition. Since they were the most fervent supporters of ending slavery, they had to be presented as a sympathetic group to the larger English public.

Clarkson discusses the various art forms 18th century Quakers prohibited or discouraged, including music and theatre. In one chapter he discusses novel reading. According to Clarkson, Quakers didn't object to novel reading on the basis that novels were fictitious. Quakers understood Aesop used fables (fictions) to teach wisdom and that Jesus spoke in parables (fictions). All the same, in the late 17th century, George Fox discouraged the reading of "romances." Quakers frowned on novels as the offspring of romances--in each case, the subject matter was often "worthless" and "pernicious," according to Clarkson. Quakers, in theory, allowed the reading of good (ie, "moral") novels, but so few existed and people read novels so indiscriminately, that Quakers discouraged the practice.

Clarkson noted particular concerns: Novels offered young people the illusion of having knowledge than they didn't really possess, and women (!) frequently read them. In a burst of sexism, he wrote that it was more "disgusting" for a woman than a man to appear more knowledgeable than she was. In addition, novel reading would unfit a woman for domestic tasks. Further, novels inspired people to act from "feelings," which could "pervert" morality, leading to actions based on sentiment, not moral truth. Worse, novels might inspire people to think for themselves (!), "believing their own knowledge to be supreme," and leading to "scepticism." Finally, and worst of all, because novel reading could be so alluring, it pulled individuals away from other, weightier reading, such as in science, law or religion, leaving people with no way to evaluate novels' flighty fancies.

As an aside, Jane Austen seemed to be aware of all these winds blowing in the early 19th century (remember, Clarkson's book was published in 1806) and addresses them in her novels, critiquing flights of "feeling" or "sensibility" in Sense and Sensibility, defending novel reading inNorthanger Abbey and being careful to supply at least an overt conventional moral message in all her books. We know too that she read "weightier" literature as well as novels.

Acknowledging that we are viewing Quakers through the prism of an Anglican outsider, several points to consider emerge:

--Early Quakers did not perceive novels as intrinsically or inherently evil: Quakers objected to their content, not their form. We can happily write all the fiction we want, as long as it edifying and truthful! How can we do more of this? Quakers have a fairly thin record as writers of important literature: where are our Flannery O'Connors and Graham Green's ... our Dosteovsky's? We do so well with non-fiction and introspection--the Journal of John Woolmanand Kelly's A Testament of Devotion jump to mind as two books that have far transcended the Quaker world and become classics--that it seems we should be able to do better than such domesticating fictions as Friendly Persuasion.

--During the 18th century, many Quakers became doctors and scientists (in large part because other careers were closed to them). For instance, Jane Austen's probable acquaintance, the Quaker Luke Howard, was the first to name to clouds as we know them today--cumulus, cirrus, nimbus, etc. However, for all their interest in Enlightenment empiricism, Quakers had apparently not yet embraced individualism, as can be seen by their denigration of novels as inspiring people to believe "their own knowledge to be supreme." What a far cry from today, when the individualism that clearly does lead to "scepticism" is applauded and encouraged. Do we as a Society need to question individualism more?

-- I find a tension between what might be called "communitarian values" (not believing one's own knowledge to be supreme) and pursuit of knowledge. Eighteenth century Quakers were apparently anything but anti-intellectual. Their fear was not of knowledge--they encouraged their members to tackle weighty subjects--but of a shallow, superficial veneer of information that substituted for mature thought. Did or do too many Friends possess simply a popular culture smattering of knowledge? What the eighteenth century Quakers valued was not the creation of a priestly/intellectual caste with a monopoly on knowledge, but a Society in which everyone was deeply educated--not to believe whatever they wanted, but to help inform the group. How do we weigh the truth that anyone can "prophesy" against the truth that some people have cultivated more wisdom than others?

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