Top 10 Quakers in fiction

From magnanimous Mrs Wilcox in Howards End to the bloodthirsty Captain Bildad in Moby-Dick, these portrayals complicate porridge-oat stereotypes

Mention the Quakers, and often the image that springs to mind is the face of porridge oats: a white-haired man in a wide-brimmed hat. Modern Quakerism, it goes without saying, doesn’t feature many people who look like that – although we still retain a reputation as trustworthy, unpretentious, wholesome and unthreateningly eccentric. Known officially as the Religious Society of Friends, from our Christian beginnings as the “Friends of Light”, the Quakers are a community without a priesthood or an official creed, but believing in truth, peace, simplicity and equality. Because we believe in everyone’s direct, personal experience of God, we don’t have set services; instead our worship takes place in unscripted Meetings, where the silence is broken only when someone (and it can be anyone) is inspired to say something.

In the light of our high ideals, it can be hard for individual Quakers not to feel inadequate. I certainly do. We’re exhorted to “let our lives speak”, and I often feel like my life doesn’t have much to say. But I am a writer. As a community that listens patiently for the truth, Quakers provide a unique place for creativity. The faith that can sit through hours of Meeting – through boredom, frustration, distraction – is the same thing that keeps me going when I’m struggling for my next idea. We worship in silence, but we’re waiting for words, which somehow gives me faith that, if I wait in front of a blank page for long enough, the right story will come.

It isn’t only our relationship with silence that has shaped my writing. My novel The Binding was deliberately set in an alternative, secularist 19th century, where God doesn’t figure even in oaths. But the book bindery to which the main character, Emmett, is sent is an austere sanctuary that enshrines the Quaker love of a job well done. The binder to whom he’s apprenticed is prickly and plain-speaking, but utterly faithful to her principles; and through her wisdom he begins to understand that the only trustworthy moral compass is rigorous compassion. And finally, while I hesitate to claim that my novel is a Quakerly story – it’s shamelessly romantic, indulgent, and a bit too brightly-coloured for that – perhaps its ultimate conclusion is the most Friendly of all: that truth and love are what save us in the end.

Here are 10 Quakers in fiction – presented, in the light of our testimony of equality, with no intended hierarchy.

1. Honor Bright in The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier
There’s a lot to love about Honor Bright, starting with her name. Leaving her family and Quaker Meeting behind her, she travels from England to America to start a new life, where she’s drawn into the Underground Railroad, the network that supported runaway slaves on their way to freedom. Although Honor finds solace in the quiet of Meeting, what really gives her strength is the grace of sincere friendship.

2. Ruth Wilcox in Howards End by EM Forster
Perhaps it’s surprising that in this novel it’s not the plain-speaking, free-thinking Schlegel family but the wealthy first Mrs Wilcox who is of Quaker descent. She’s unable to hold her own in discussion and apparently bewildered by social issues, but her decision to leave Howards End to Margaret shows inspired generosity and disregard for social mores.

3. The Middleton siblings in Notes from An Exhibition by Patrick Gale
A subtle and intelligent depiction of a modern family of “birthright Quakers” as they come to terms with the life and death of their artist mother, this novel conveys the reality of a community of Friends, including the occasional ambivalence of its members. Gale calls Quakerism “mystical but no-nonsense” – an excellent description – and he excels in exploring the interior reality of silent worship.

4. The people of the Dusty Miller in The Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss
A surprising, lyrical science fiction novel in which a Quaker community sets off to settle a new planet. Told in austere and beautiful prose, the story of the spaceship Dusty Miller has a wonderful scene where the community makes a decision through worship – seeking not consensus but divine guidance – which depicts the way a moment of illumination can emerge unexpectedly from an apparent impasse.

Sarah Grimké (1792-1873).
Speaking truth to power … engraving of Sarah Grimké (1792-1873). Photograph: The Granger Collection/Alamy

5. Sarah Grimké in The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
Based on the real Grimké, a vocal abolitionist and women’s rights campaigner in the 19th-century US, this is a portrait of a woman learning to speak truth to power. Growing up in a slave-owning household, Sarah is struck dumb by the sight of a woman being whipped, and – driven by her relationship with Handful, a slave – she becomes convinced that her ministry is to fight for emancipation. Ironically, in real life she was expelled by her Quaker community for attending her sister’s wedding to an outsider.

6. Captain Bildad in Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
A refreshing counter-example to the upstanding, idealistic Friends that feature elsewhere in this list, Captain Bildad is bitter, hard, avaricious and sanguinary, one of the “fighting Quakers … Quakers with a vengeance”. Opposed to bloodshed in principle, he has nonetheless spent his youth on the spillage of “tuns and tuns of leviathan gore” and retires to enjoy his substantial income.

7. The Paxmore family in Chesapeake by James A Michener
This novel follows the Quaker Paxmores through many generations, beginning in 1661, when Ruth Brinton Paxmore and her husband Edward are imprisoned and tortured for their beliefs. Later, predictably, the family face conflict over slavery and warmongering, but my favourite part of their story is Edward’s development from a carpenter to a shipbuilder – forced to invent a boat from first principles, he fails over and over again before he becomes a true artist.

8. May Thornton in Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls
In this touching and funny book for young adults about the suffragist movement and the outbreak of the first world war, May (born to a mother who is not only a Quaker but a vegetarian, Fabian, suffragist, Bolshevik and believer in rational dress for women) is forced to choose between her high principles and her love for Nell, a girl who goes to work in a munitions factory.

9. Andrew Raynes in The Charioteer by Mary Renault
A conscientious objector who works in a military hospital, where he falls in love with Laurie, the protagonist, Andrew is endearingly guileless and wholehearted. While a modern audience might wince at the way he has to be “protected” from the realisation of his own homosexuality (the self-knowledge, it’s suggested, might destroy him), Renault does a great job of making this idealistic young man unexpectedly charming.

10. Susanna Thorn in No Shame, No Fear by Ann Turnbull
A young adult novel set in 1662, this is a love story about Susanna, a Quaker, and Will, the son of a wealthy family. It’s also a vivid evocation of the persecution early Quakers faced, and a reminder that some of what seems quaint now (refusing to doff one’s hat, the use of “thee” to one’s social betters) was once truly radical and subversive.

• The Binding by Bridget Collins is published by HarperCollins, priced £12.99. It is available from the Guardian bookshop for £11.43, including free UK p&p.

Bridget Collins

The GuardianTramp

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