In 1929 David Lawrence wrote a novel originally entitled Tenderness, which was mainly about a love affair. It became famous for having been banned, under its subsequent title Lady Chatterley’s Lover, mainly because of its inclusion of words then not permitted to be in print, and probably also because its content was considered obscene. Lawrence was desperately hurt at the burning of his book (as Peter Abelard, some centuries before him was also wounded by the experience of having to burn his book which also fell foul of righteous authority). Lawrence wrote a poem about it, asking:
Can you tell me what’s wrongThe ban on D.H.Lawrence’s book was lifted in 1960, but still left it with the aura of a bold and daring venture past the boundaries of good taste and decorum, so naturally we all read it as schoolchildren as soon as we got our hands on a copy.
With the word or with you
That you don’t mind the thing
But the word is taboo?
What I remember struck me about the novel was not the words that seemed to have gripped the attention of others, but that Oliver Mellors, the lover of the title, called his lady ‘thee’ and ‘thou’. I think it was probably the first time – I was eleven when I read it – that I’d grasped imaginatively that ‘thou’ was not a more formal mode of address, but an intimate form.
I had begun to study French at school of course, and had learned the ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ forms of address, and no doubt had it explained to me that in English the two had merged so that we used only the equivalent of ‘vous’ in modern English. That’s a very telling development, I think: losing the ability to address one’s nearest and dearest in an intimate form, retaining only the option of distance, formality and politeness, says a lot about the English.
At church, in my childhood and teenage years, we still spoke to God as Thee and Thou – and I think this had the effect of oddly reversing the sense of formality. In the 1970s, as people rebelled against addressing God as Thou, they believed (I think) they were lowering barriers of separation and distance by dispensing with a stiff, formal mode of address in favour of the everyday (and therefore more friendly, casual and intimate, they thought) form of address, ‘You’.
I mourned that passing, that modernizing because, outside of Lady Chatterley, our praying in church was the only place that had still retained the softer, more intimate ‘Thou’, with its breath of tenderness.
I loved the ideas Martin Buber explored in his book I and Thou, of being able to be completely open to, beheld by, another – with nothing held back. He wrote about communion, about really seeing one another; and that was what speaking the ‘thou’ meant to him. When you become thou to me, I have really seen you, really known you, really loved you. Really seen thee, really known thee, really loved thee.
The use of thee and thou has gone now from England’s north country. My grandfather could still speak broad Yorkshire, but it would not have crossed my father’s mind to do so.
By the time I discovered that the Quakers also said ‘thee’ – albeit with their own defiance of correct grammatical use (I don’t understand why) – that too was waning, indeed had vanished, from mainstream Quaker usage.
But it is still alive among some, not all, Plain Quakers. Quaker Jane always uses the ‘thee’ form. Others with Plain Quaker aspirations also use it, often forgetting halfway through a sentence and ending up with some ‘thee’s and some ‘you’s.
Yvonna asked me in the comment thread after yesterday’s post if I would also start to use the ‘thee’ form of address.
I like what I have found some Plain Quakers doing – which is saying ‘thee’ to those who will understand, and ‘you’ to those who would find ‘thee’ baffling and strange. That seems sensible to me.
I do very much like the Quaker ‘thee’; but I think even better I like the full usage of ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ and ‘thy’. Uh-oh. I can see it coming – I’m going to be out on a limb yet again over this one, aren’t I; following neither Quaker idiom nor anyone else’s either!