Quaker fiction: some collection highlights

Following the popular recent blogposts on fictional Quaker characters over on the Quakers in Britain blog  we thought we’d highlight some of the wide range of fiction written both by and about Quakers that you can find in the Library here at Friends House.

The Library collects two categories of fiction: books featuring Quaker characters, and books written by Quakers. The publications cover a wide period – from Regency era anti-slavery stories to 21st century young adult fiction by authors like Sally Nichols – in a range of genres and forms. The collection is a valuable resource for exploring both how Quakers have been represented and how they have represented themselves and their views.

The Negro slave: a tale (1830), title page

The Negro slave: a tale (1830)

The oldest fictional work in the collection is Bentivolio and Urania, by Nathanael Ingelo (1673), a book of religious instruction delivered as fiction. [Picture] This contains a reference to well-known Quaker James Nayler, making him one of the earliest Quaker characters to appear in a work of fiction. Most of the collection, however, dates from the beginning of the 19th century onwards.

Nathaniel Ingelo, Bentivolio and Urania, in six books (1673), title page

Nathaniel Ingelo, Bentivolio and Urania, in six books (1673)

Until late in the 19th century the Society of Friends, in common with many other religious groups, officially disapproved of most forms of fiction. Friends believed that reading stories, novels, and plays could have a damaging influence, giving false ideas about life and inspiring artificial emotions, contrary to truth.

The earliest printed version of the Book of Discipline (1783) offers the following advice, under the chapter heading “Books”:

This meeting being sorrowfully affected, under a consideration of the hurtful tendency of reading plays, romances, novels, and other pernicious books, it is earnestly recommended to every member of our society, to discourage and suppress the same.

Amelia Opie, a very popular writer at the beginning of the 19th century, felt compelled to give up the novel form when she became a convinced Quaker in 1825. She did, however, continue to publish poetry and short moral tales, which were more acceptable.

Amelia Opie, Tales of the Pemberton family. 2nd ed (1826)

Amelia Opie, Tales of the Pemberton family. 2nd ed (1826)

Following the example of Jesus and the parables, fiction with an avowedly moral or educational purpose was the only sort that was considered appropriate reading, and it is this type of book that forms the bulk of the Library’s fiction collection. The majority of these books were aimed at a young audience.

Unsurprisingly religion and moral conduct were popular themes, including re-tellings of biblical stories [Picture Happy Sunday Hours by Robert Bird] and fictionalised biographies of well-known Quakers

Plate from: L. V. Hodgkin, A Book of Quaker saints (1917)

Plate from: L. V. Hodgkin, A Book of Quaker saints (1917)

Some publications illustrated temperance and pacifist principles through fiction, including The Olive Leaf magazine, published by Anna and Henry Richardson which contains poetry and stories for children.

A page from The Olive Leaf, vol. 1 (1844)

A page from The Olive Leaf, vol. 1 (1844)

Another popular topic was the natural world. Black Beauty, one of the best-selling books of all time, was written by Anna Sewell (who was born a Quaker and buried in Lamas Quaker burial ground near Buxton, Norfolk, though she had resigned her membership), explicitly to educate the reader on the welfare of horses. This was followed by similar works by other Quaker authors such as Vic, the autobiography of a Pomeranian dog by Alfred Cooper Fryer  and Only a Cat! a story-pamphlet by Catharine Sturge.

Alfred Cooper Fryer, Vic: the autobiography of a Pomeranian dog (1880), front cover

Alfred Cooper Fryer, Vic: the autobiography of a Pomeranian dog (1880)

Catherine Sturge, Only a cat. 2nd ed. (1890s)

Catherine Sturge, Only a cat. 2nd ed. (1890s)

There were also more lighthearted animal stories that taught some basic zoology, such as Stories of Animals, intended for children between five and seven years old by Maria Hack (1820), a small book of beautifully illustrated short stories that tell the reader something about the animals in an amusing way, somewhat like Kipling’s Just So Stories.

Some of the earliest novels for adults in the Library collection were written by authors who grew up as Quakers but left the Society as adults to pursue other religious beliefs, and then began novel-writing. Sarah Stickney Ellis, educationalist and advocator of the idea that a woman’s primary duty was as mother and home-maker, wrote novels such as Family Secrets, or hints to those who would make home happy (1841).

Like Sarah Stickney, William Howitt was educated at Ackworth Quaker school. He married another Quaker, Mary Botham, and together they pursued a career as writers, publishing prolifically. The Howitts also published their poetry in a literary annual called The Gem, which features poems such as this one by Boodles founder James Kenney.

The gem: a literary annual (1830)

The gem: a literary annual (1830)

Quaker attitudes to literature have long since changed, and the arts are embraced as another source of light and inspiration (https://qfp.quaker.org.uk/passage/1-02/). Since the 20th century Friends have been writing in a variety of forms and genres: examples held by the Library include horror, science fiction and historical romance.

Janet Whitney, Intrigue in Baltimore (1951)

Janet Whitney, Intrigue in Baltimore (1951)

Margaret Thomson Davis, Scorpion in the fire (1977)

Margaret Thomson Davis, Scorpion in the fire (1977)

Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker (1988)

Olaf Stapledon, Star maker (1988)

William Fryer Harvey, The Beast with five fingers (1928)

William Fryer Harvey, The Beast with five fingers (1928). Copy with author’s MS dedication

Two of the most interesting authors in our collection had served in the Friends Ambulance Unit. William Fryer Harvey, author of well-regarded ghost stories, and Olaf Stapledon, philosopher and science fiction writer. Harvey’s most famous work, The Beast with the Five Fingers, was made into a film starring Peter Lorre. Stapledon invented the concept of the Dyson sphere, an idea that has inspired many other science fiction writers.

This blogpost has only scratched the surface of the Library’s fiction collection. Try searching the online catalogue (www.quaker.org.uk/cat) if you want to find out what books the Library holds by a particular author, or browse novels in general, or see a full list of books with Quaker characters in particular. (Hint: if these links don’t work in your browser, copy and paste them into the address bar)

We’re planning a companion blogpost on Quakers in drama later this autumn: watch this space!


Further reading

Anna Breiner Caulfield, Quakers in Fiction: An Annotated Bibliography (Northampton: Pittenbruach Press, 1993).

Nancy Jiwon Cho, “Literature”, in The Cambridge Companion to Quakerism, ed. Stephen Angell and Pink Dandelion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018) pp. 69-87.

James W. Hood, “’Novel Reading and Insanity’: Nineteenth-Century Quaker Fiction Reading Practices”, in Quaker Studies 23(1) pp. 3-24. Available online here: https://online.liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/toc/quaker/23/1

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5 Responses to Quaker fiction: some collection highlights

  1. Christopher Coffin says:

    No mention of Mollie Grubb’s ‘Quakers Observed’ (Sessions, 1993) nor (the American) Irene Allen for her Elizabeth Elliot Mysteries – Quaker Witness, Quaker Silence etc.

    • Library of the Society of Friends says:

      Thanks for mentioning Mollie Grubb’s Quakers observed in prose and verse (1993) – a nice anthology. You’ll find Irene Allen and plenty of other novelists in the collections here too.

  2. Quaker Scot says:

    I do not think that the Library has any of the dime novels by Old Broadbrim, the Quaker Detective; or, The Strangest Trail of Crime on Record (Old Cap. Collier Library no. 92) by Jack Howard. He appears to have written about a dozen of them around 1884. The front pages have amusing (to us) covers of the crimes:

  3. Pingback: Theatre: some collection highlights | Quaker Strongrooms

  4. barbaraluetke says:

    I would love to have you mention or review The Kendal Sparrow, a Quaker novel about a remarkable young woman, Elizabeth Fletcher.

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