Friday, 24 September 2010

Friendly Quaking at Swarthmoor Hall

My week at Swarthmoor Hall, a 16th-century country house where the first Quaker meetings were held, has produced more material than I could possibly use in my next novel. Guess that's how authors end up writing trilogies.

I was given access to a collection of 17th-century printed journals and soon lost myself in the adventures of Margaret Fell, rendered in a wonderfully clear, fresh and vivid style; a reminder that good writing ages well. Margaret lived at Swarthmoor with her husband, Judge Fell. She hosted the first Quaker meetings in the 1650s and was later imprisoned for refusing to take the oath of obedience to the king (Quakers don't swear but try to be truthful at all times - "let thy yea be yea" and all that).
As Margaret herself put it: "But I answer'd the Judge, That I rather choose a Prison for obeying of God, than my liberty for obeying of Men, contrary to my Conscience."

Apart from the worthy religious tomes there were several modern booklets that showed the lighter side of Quaker life. "Laughter in Quaker Grey", a collection of Quaker anecdotes, was published by W.H. Sessions in York in 1952. Here's a cute little passage from the book - a conversation between a typically sweet, shy Quaker boy and his girlfriend:

"Martha, dost thou love me?"

"Why Seth, we are commanded to love one another."

"Aye Martha, but dost thee regard me with the feeling the world calleth love?"

"I hardly know what to tell thee, Seth; I have greatly feared my heart was an erring one. I have tried to bestow love on all, but I have sometimes thought that thee wast getting more than thy share."

(Image: Frontispiece, "Margaret Fox of Swarthmore Hall", by Helen Crosfield, London Headley Brothers, 1913, University of Tasmania Library. [Swarthmoor is also known as Swarthmore])

Friday, 3 September 2010

The Kindness of Strangers

Last night I opened my letterbox and found two neatly hand-addressed envelopes with UK stamps. How odd, I thought; the only hand-written letters I get from the UK are thank-you notes (and I couldn't remember doing anything particularly thankworthy) and wedding invites (and I hadn't seen anyone changing their status to "is engaged" on Facebook).

I opened the first envelope while walking to the metro. The sender's address, carefully placed in the top-right corner, sounded very charming, rural and English.

"Dear Sophie," the letter began. "I am intrigued by your advert in the current edition of the Friend..."

Ah! Ha! Yes! Of course! I had placed the following ad in The Friend, a pacifist Quaker publication:

Writer working on novel about conscientious
objectors would love to hear your story

At the time, I didn't really expect anyone to respond, but I thought there was no harm in giving it a try and supporting The Friend in a small way.
And now there were these two letters.
On the metro, I started reading the first: a deeply moving and personal account of a man's decision to renounce war. Before I knew it, I was sitting there, tears in my eyes, unable to stop reading even though people in the carriage - in a rather un-Parisian way - were staring at me with collective pity. And craning their necks to see what on earth was in that mysterious letter.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Book lovers' special

The last thing I expected to find in Mestia, a Svan town of about 1,500 people hidden behind the gloomy mountains of the High Caucasus, was a stunning collection of illuminated bibles and manuscripts.
Mestia is more widely known for its defensive towers: in the old days, every family in Georgia's Svaneti region had one, due to a long history of blood feuds. The towers still define the Mestia skyline, giving the overall impression of a tribe of warriors rather than book-lovers:

And this is what the towers looked like one the inside (note the drinking horns and cups in the alcove):

As it turns out, the fighting, drinking, feuding Svans also managed to produce (or import) some the world's most beautiful books. Maybe it shouldn't be all that surprising given that Georgia was one of the first countries to become Christian, and its monasteries were full of monks painstakingly copying the bible by hand. But Svaneti is so remote, and the climate so harsh, that I still don't quite understand how all those ancient bibles got there (any comments welcome).
Below is the Book of Labskali, dating from the ninth century, and another, more recent bible; there were at least half a dozen in the museum: