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 protegée, 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.