Saturday, July 21, 2001

Overview of The Williamsburg Novels (Elswyth Thane)

The Williamsburg series of historical novels by Elswyth Thane (1900-1981), originally published in the 1940s and early 1950s, consists of seven books spanning almost 170 years of the fictional Day and Sprague families. The books start with the American Revolution and end during the first part of World War II in England.

The Williamsburg series of historical novels by Elswyth Thane (1900-1981) consists of seven books spanning almost 170 years of the fictional Day and Sprague families. The books, starting with the American Revolution and ending during the first part of World War II, are as follows:

Dawn's Early Light
Yankee Stranger
Ever After
The Light Heart
Kissing Kin
This Was Tomorrow

Though named for Williamsburg, only the first two stories center around Williamsburg (or even greater Virginia), a Williamsburg in its hey-day at the time of the American Revolution (Dawn's Early Light) but already relegated to a lesser status by the time of the Civil War (Yankee Stranger), where much of the action takes place in Richmond, the new Confederate capitol.

The last five books begin a generation after Yankee Stranger, in 1897, and continue uninterrupted through 1941, with recurring characters from one book to the next while new, younger characters are introduced along the way. These books depart sharply from the first two, in that the books are continuous from one to the next without generation gaps, and, more importantly, most of the action takes place in England, with some events in New York City. Only a few family members, in the background, remain in Williamsburg, while others take root in England. Also, given the definition of historical fiction as fiction set during times before the author's lifetime, and that Elswyth Thane was born in 1900, technically the last four books do not qualify as historical fiction. Indeed, since Thane was writing during the late 1940s and early 1950s, the last few books were written from a fairly recent time-perspective. Of course, to today's readers the books stand as real historical fiction, about times now at least 60 years ago, without the familiarity the books undoubtedly had to Thane's contemporaries.

Dawn's Early Light tells the story of Julian Day, a young British man newly arrived in Williamsburg, Virginia, who soon meets John Sprague. With the colonies in a rebellious mood, Day, who had not given the matter much thought, finds he must soon choose loyalties; does he belong here, in Virginia with the Spragues, or back in his old country? Colonial Williamsburg also hosts the lower class, the down-trodden of society, including young Tibby Mawes and her twin brother Kip, who Julian first meets when they are about nine years old--in the company of an abusive, alcoholic father. The father is soon removed from the picture, and Kip becomes one of Julian Day's students. Tibby eagerly desires schooling too, but since that is not allowed for girls, Julian arranges for her proper education as a young lady of the higher social class. Over the years, Tibby and Julian become closer, though Julian, twelve years older than Tibby, has his eyes set on other women. Set during the American Revolution, Dawn's Early Light also includes interaction with real historical figures such as the French General Lafayette, and historical events including the British invasion of Williamsburg.

Yankee Stranger, a Civil War romance, tells of young Eden Day, great-granddaughter of Julian and Tibby Day, and her romance with Yankee war correspondent Cabot Murray. The book deals intensely with the sorrows and hardships of war-ravaged Virginia, including detailed descriptions of the women's daily life tending to the wounded in Richmond. The historical elements of the story also bring out the fascinating and very true situation of espionage, including women's role as spies that hid notes in their hoop skirts.

By the time of the Civil War, members of the Day and Sprague families have married each other, and then first cousins married each other, for some very close blood ties between the two families. A secondary story thus relates the love between Sedgwick Sprague and Sue Day (Eden's sister), a love forbidden because they are double first-cousins, and a story that will be often recalled in the later books.

The last five books, starting with "Ever After" (set in 1897-1899), tell the stories of Eden Day Murray's children, especially Bracken and Virginia, and Sedgwick Sprague's daughter Phoebe. The British Campion family, with Dinah, Arthur, and Oliver, also marry into members of the Murray and Sprague families, for many interesting relationships among the many cousins on both sides of the continent. Real historical settings include the Spanish-American war, World War I, and the early years of World War II in Great Britain, detailing the lives of war correspondents and generally upper-class families of England.

A distinct anti-German, pro-British sentiment is woven into the World War stories particularly, no doubt reflecting popular British sentiment of the time as well as Elswyth Thane's own views--as one who lived many years in both New York and England during this time. Social class distinctions also pervade these later books, with some hint of snobbery to lower classes (at least as viewed by modern-day middle-class Americans); yet such attitudes probably do reflect actual views and practices of the wealthier families of the early 20th century.

Perhaps because of these realistic qualities, along with the extensive family tree charts (printed in later editions of the books), the characters of the Day-Sprague-Campion extended family do come alive, sweeping the reader into the midst of their stories and their lives.

Of these last five books, some of the strongest characters include Phoebe Sprague, who grows up in Williamsburg but spends much of her adult life in New York and England (The Light Heart), as well as Gwen and Dinah (Ever After). The male characters seem less developed, or perhaps it is just that they follow standard, more predictable patterns, especially the politically-charged news reporters of the family: Cabot Murray, son Bracken Murray, and Johnny Malone, all of whom, aside from romantic interests at certain points of their lives, apparently live for the latest news all over Europe.

The last book, Homing, stands apart from the preceding two in the series (Kissing Kin and This Was Tomorrow, the two weaker links in the series), with stronger characters including Jeff (Phoebe's son) and Mab (Virginia's granddaughter) and a great story which links the latest generation back to the first story (of Julian and Tibby) along with an interesting backdrop of early World War II in England, coming full circle back to Williamsburg, Virginia. Particularly interesting, from a historical perspective, is the account of the British evacuation of children from London, including its impact on the children as well as the country-dwelling adults, and their ever-present fear of Germans parachuting into Britain.


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LadyDoc said...

Wonderful books!

Nicola Slade said...

Agree; I've loved them for years and am currently rereading them.

JillB said...

Loved this series when I was a girl and am enjoying them all again 30 years later. I have to disagree with this reviewer that the last two books in the series are the "weaker links". Those are actually my favorites after Yankee Stranger. My heart always responds to Mab. It's not easy to see the love of your life married to someone else.

Sally said...

I read the series in the mid50's as an early teen. Now, 55 years later, I am rereading them. I am fascinated to find I sometimes recognize a turn of phrase after all these years. I've read the first three so far. I had to buy most of them off ebay because the library only had two of them. I'll give them to the library when I'm done.

Paula C said...

I have read and reread these wonderful books over and over and enjoy every moment! My mother introduced them to me when I was a teenager. She bought the series for me and they are my most prized collection!

thefunrev said...

My mother had read the series as a teenager; when we lived at Fort(ress) Monroe in the late 70s we spend weeks at Williamsburg and purchased the series for the house. She won't let me have that set, but I'm assembling my own. I reread "Dawn's Early Light" at least once a year when I'm home and have "Yankee Stranger", "Ever After" (which I just finished today), and "The Light Heart" for my own library.

My favorites are the first three and "Homing".

Sandra Wilson said...

Like some of you, I first read these wonderful novels long ago. For me that would have been in the early 1950s, about age twelve. I read them again in my thirties & again now at age seventy-three. I will pass the seven books on as a set, to my daughters & their daughters. The continuity of family life down through the decades cannot help but broaden ones concept of birth, love & eventually death, as a new generation comes into its own!
Sandra Wilson
Oak View, CA

Carol McK said...

I read the first four as a young girl and didn't know the last three existed! Can't wait to find them and perhaps start all over again with the Day/Sprague/Murray extended families.
Carol McK

Rebekah said...

These books are a family tradition. They inspire a wonderful sense of homecoming whenever they are read.

Stephanie Maier-Heist said...

I have read this series several times and never get tired of it! Each time Ms. Thane takes me on an adventure through history. <3

Sunda Grubb said...

I have read these books several times. I first found them as a teen and have continued to reread them even as I am into my 60's. I sometimes wish that someone would pick up and add to the series as there is still much history that could be added.