16 June 2012

Do books change over time, or is it me?

by Elizabeth Zelvin

The first series I ever fell in love with was Elswyth Thane’s Williamsburg series, which followed a family that was remarkably free of dysfunction through American history from the Revolutionary War to World War II. I took them out of the library over and over and over again as a kid. To this day, I could probably draw the family tree of the intertwined Day, Sprague, and Campion families from the Revolutionary War to World War II. The publication of the long-awaited seventh book signaled what was probably my first moment of awareness of the New York Times bestseller list. Evidently I was not alone.

When I discovered Amazon, I found the Williamsburg novels in a reprint hardcover edition. I was delighted to meet Thane’s characters again. The only problem was that I remembered the books too well. The publisher had bowdlerized a few details for the library audience, and the discrepancy between the page and my memory irritated tremendously. In This Was Tomorrow, set mostly in London in World War II, the American Stephen Sprague falls in love with his British cousin Evadne, who is innocent and passionate and given to Causes. There’s a scene where Stephen offers Evadne her first drink of champagne and she defies the repressed Hermione (who has drawn her into the Oxford Group and is really jealous because she’s in love with Stephen) to drink it. In the original, Evadne snatches the glass and stutters, “Give me that champagne!” The library edition renders it, “Give me that wine!” Lead balloon. I guess the publishers agreed with Thane that champagne represents all that is daring and sinful, too daring and sinful for the reprint house back in—well, the book was first published in 1980 and the new publishing house was founded in 1997. I really can’t explain it.

I recently bought the first in the series, Dawn’s Early Light, for my Kindle to replace a paperback edition that I had read literally to pieces. The paper had defeated the rubber band holding together pages from which all trace of glue had long vanished by becoming so brittle it crumbled away when touched. This time around, I discovered new anomalies. I remembered that Thane was an apologist for slavery. Yes, I know that characters’ opinions are not necessarily the author’s, but she’s so darn comfortable with this particular point of view, returning frequently to how childlike and happy the slaves are in civilized Virginia and how bereft they would feel if freed. (“Who gwine take care ob me now?”) One of the main characters says:

“We have had a rise in the slave trade lately. And with slave labor increasing, it is difficult for a bondservant who has worked out his time to find work to live by. That is the real evil of slavery, Mr. Day, and not man’s inhumanity to man.” Huh? The real evil of black bondage is that it takes jobs away from white workers? Tell that to, hmm, President Obama. Is that the real reason his enemies don’t like him? He took the job away from a white man? What perplexes me is that this aspect of the book didn’t bother me more when I was younger. I didn’t condone it, but I read it uncritically, intent on the story.

Thomas Jefferson is one of several historical figures who play secondary roles. When the protagonist enlists Jefferson’s aid in helping his young protegĂ©e, he reasons that Jefferson is a father, he has children and so will understand the need to get Tibby a doll and enable her to go to school. There’s no mention of the children Jefferson was willing to leave in slavery, two of them until his death. (For a discussion of the current evidence, including DNA, regarding Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings and the paternity of her children, see  http://www.monticello.org/site/plantation-and-slavery/thomas-jefferson-and-sally-hemings-brief-account ).

The other aspect of the Williamsburg novels that I read with a different attitude today is Thane’s penchant for giving her love stories very young heroines. Tibby is ten when she falls in love with the twenty-one-year-old Julian Day, though he doesn’t realize he’s in love with her too until she’s almost seventeen, a marriageable age in the 18th century. In the third book, Ever After, Bracken falls in love with fifteen-year-old Dinah at first sight, although he chivalrously makes sure she’s unaware of it until she’s free of the austere British upper-class nursery and “out” in society. In This Was Tomorrow, ten-year-old Mab is presented as a reincarnation of Tibby, immediately falling for twenty-one-year-old Jeff, who feels a strange attraction to her in spite of his love for his cousin Sylvia. (Sylvia conveniently dies in the Blitz in Homing.)

This recurrent scenario did not come out of nowhere. Thane married naturalist William Beebe, after having “idolized [him] for years,” according to Wikipedia, when she was twenty-seven and he was fifty, an age difference of twenty-three years. None of the romances in Thane’s books are overtly sexual, nor does any sex happen outside of marriage—although according to Wikipedia, Thane and Beebe had a non-monogamous “open marriage”. I didn’t question the propriety of these May-December romances when I read about them as a kid. But I'm not sure a 21st-century novelist could get away with them.


  1. You raise an interesting point, Historical accuracy is tricky in historical novels. Woe betide the writer who errs too much on the side of accuracy- as your example did in reference to attitudes toward slavery and marriage- once views have changed.
    Today both topics would be treated differently, though I suspect not more accurately, given what we know of 18th and 19th century history. The clever historical novelist reflects contemporary views in historical dress relying on colorful details to convince us that we are 'sometime else'.

  2. Janice, I could be wrong, but I've never doubted that Elswyth Thane was a Southerner whose views in the 1940s and 1950s, when she wrote the Williamsburg books, were, if not identical to, very comfortable with those expressed by the characters. I guess I base my hunch on what words she chose to put in the mouths of her most sympathetic characters.

  3. Liz, to a Southerner, Thane wasn't a Southerner. Born in Iowa, moved to New York City when eighteen, and spent later years in Vermont. I guess we Southerners think of a Southerner as farther south than those locations.
    I agree with you that books change over time, just as we change as readers and writers.

  4. The views of the 40's and 50's are different from the views of today, even for those of us who condemn slavery, segregation and the like.

    I am a product of those times. I was not in favor of those unfair laws and customs, but never really gave them much thought. After all, they didn't affect me, and as a teenager the world revolved around me. Only when the civil rights movement became public did I start to take them to heart. Of course, I didn't live in the South. But the South did not have the market cornered on racial prejudice.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that the writers in those times, even fairminded ones, used a different set of values and would most likely be loath to write like that today.

  5. As a followup to my previous comment, I am reminded of Mark Twain. Although he preceded the 40's he lived at a time when slavery was still acceptable and blacks were second class citizens, if they were citizens at all. As far as I can tell he was not one that would be in favor of this view. But I remember reading something he had written about the stage shows of the era which included blackface, stereotypical characters and he found them highly entertaining. I am sure he would not write that way today.

  6. Liz, I detest bowdlerization, especially when it's done without warning. The editor dumbs-down books, substituting her judgment for ours.

    Herschel, this gives me a chance to blab about great musicians. In minstrel shows, performers were either black… or they wore blackface. Black and white vaudevillians traveled together unless forced into segregated quarters in towns they visited.

    At least one of the blackface characters remains immensely entertaining, even beloved, Al Jolson. What today's people may not realize is that a century ago, Jolson fought on the side of black entertainers to break the color barrier on Broadway. Today's rappers might say Jolson gets a ghetto pass.

  7. The worst example of this for me was when I reread Rex Stout's TOO MANY CLIENTS as an adult. I expect Wolfe to be a misogynist; it's part of his eccentricity. But Archie?

    In that book there is a promiscuous woman and when Archie goes to question her he finds that her husband has beaten her so badly she can't (or is unwilling) to get out of bed. Archie asks if she needs anything and the husband sarcastically suggests he send her a bottle of champagne (her favorite drink).

    And Archie sends a bottle, to the husband. That's the one thing he ever did I found unforgivable.

  8. I hate changes such as the wine/champagne you mention (I will have to check my edition but I remember Evadne's reckless gulp of champagne); however, friends I have introduced to Thane recently tend to focus on her (typical of the time) attitude toward slavery. I was afraid that will prevent her from being brought back into print so was pleased to hear the first two books are available in Kindle. Tryst has a ton of fans too - maybe that will be next.

    I tried to bring in some new fans who were looking for something Downton Abbey-like to read:


  9. In response to your comment about Thane failing to make mention of Thomas Jefferson's purported children by his slave, Sally Hemings, please note that Sally Hemings was not born until 1773. The scene where the protagonist, Julian Day, enlists Jefferson's help for Tibby takes place in 1775. Hemings would have been two years old at that time. The only children that Jefferson had fathered by 1775 were those born of his wife, Martha Jefferson. The Hemings children were all born many years after Mrs. Jefferson's death in 1782, at which time Sally Hemings was only 9 years old. So Thane's account was accurate, as Jefferson had no enslaved children during the time covered in Dawn's Early Light. Also note that according to the Monticello link you included in your post, historians say that the DNA testng does not conclusively prove that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings' children. Not trying to nitpick here, but there is a growing, dangerous tendency in our current culture to rewrite history, and it is vital that truth and fact, rather than conjecture, are preserved for the future generations of our great nation.

  10. I'm about to give away my set of Williamsburg novels and am hoping that they will all be available as e-books eventually. I see that Amazon is going to come out with the first two books in Kindle editions in 2017 and am hoping that they are going with the originals and not the bowdlerized versions. I've read a few of the latter and they are really lame. The whole story about Cabot Murray's mother running off with a violinist is completely expunged from the revised versions, and Fitz's musical obsession is attributed to some sort of vague streak of mental illness in his mother.

  11. Does anyone know where I can find the genealogy chart for the Sprague-Day families? Is it available anywhere on-line? So far, I haven't been able to find it. Thanks.

  12. Jan, I could probably reconstruct the most important parts of it myself from memory! More practically, if you can't find it online, worldcat.org might turn up library systems that still have copies of the original hardcovers, which had the family tree on the endpages in front, expanding with each new book as the family grew.

  13. Actually, in...either This Was Tomorrow or the one that comes after it,,.one of the lesser characters - the English mother of Viktor? The half-German anti-hero -endd up living with her English lover. Rosalind? Rosamund? Maybe it was the book before? Anyway....


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