Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker

by Silas Weir Mitchell
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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1553

First published: 1897

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Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical romance

Time of work: 1753-1783

Locale: Colonial America

Principal Characters:

John Wynne, a Quaker

Marie, his wife

Hugh Wynne, John's son

Jack Warder, Hugh's friend

Arthur Wynne, Hugh's cousin

Darthea Peniston, Hugh's wife

Gainor Wynne, John's sister

The Story

The Wynne family had descended from an ancient Welsh line. That part of the family which had remained in Wales now held the family estate of Wyncote. The American branch, being Quaker, had dissociated itself from the more worldly family at Wyncote, and Hugh Wynne grew up under the stern discipline of John Wynne's orthodoxy. John's sister, Gainor Wynne, had not become a Quaker. Because Hugh was his aunt's favorite, early in his life he fell under the influence of those who were outside the ways of the Quakers.

Jack Warder was Hugh's closest friend, the two boys having gone to school together. Aunt Gainor often invited both boys to her home in Philadelphia, where she was surrounded by a worldly group of English officers, men upon whom the Quakers frowned. Hugh enjoyed their society, to the delight of his aunt, who wished her nephew to break his Quaker ties. Jack Warder, however, did not like Gainor Wynne's friends. When he and Hugh were old enough to judge moral values for themselves, their friendship became strained. Hugh's father was never fully aware of the the way Hugh spent his time away from home.

One night, while drinking and gambling with his worldly friends, Hugh met a cousin, Arthur Wynne, of the family at Wyncote. He instinctively disliked his relative because of his superior ways and his deceitful manner. During the evening, Hugh became very drunk. Suddenly his mother and Jack Warder burst into the room.

This incident marked the beginning of Hugh's break with his father's church and the renewal of his friendship with Jack Warder. Hugh, realizing his folly, was thankful that Jack had seen him on the streets and had led his mother to rescue him from the drunken party. He began to realize the depth of his mother's love and understanding. John Wynne was quite different in his attitude. A few nights later, he took Hugh to a Quaker meeting, where public prayers were offered to save Hugh's soul. Hugh's embarrassment caused him to lose all of his love for the Quaker religion and to bear a deep resentment against his father.

At Gainor Wynne's home, Jack and Hugh heard much conversation about disagreement between the Americans and the British. Gainor was a Whig, and under her influence Jack and Hugh gained sympathy for their American compatriots. Arthur Wynne too had become part of the society that gathered at Gainor Wynne's house. Jack and Hugh had never liked Arthur, but now they had a new cause for their dislike. Arthur made no secret of his admiration for Darthea Peniston, a schoolmate of Jack and Hugh, and his bragging about Wyncote seemingly won her interest, thus arousing Hugh's jealousy. When Hugh told Darthea of his love, she insisted that she did not love him.

Meanwhile, Hugh's parents were abroad. During their absence, he stayed with Gainor Wynne. Claiming that the time was not far off when he would need such a skill, she urged him to take fencing lessons. Jack practiced the sport with his friend, although he knew it to be contrary to the laws of the church. Hugh and Jack both knew that soon they would join the American cause for liberty.

While John Wynne and his wife were abroad, Hugh received a letter telling that his mother had died. On his return, John showed no signs of his grief at the loss of his wife. Hugh himself felt her loss deeply.

At Gainor's home, where he spent more time than ever since the death of his mother, Hugh quarreled with an English officer and was challenged to a duel. With Jack as his second, Hugh answered the challenge. As a result, the Quakers notified both boys that unless they changed their ways and repented for their sins, they could no longer belong to the Society of Friends. Jack and Hugh announced that they intended to join the American army; fighting had already begun at Lexington.

Jack went to join the troops. After a short time, Hugh decided to follow him, in spite of his father's crafty excuses that he needed Hugh to conduct his business affairs for him. When he did join the army, Hugh was captured by the British and sent, wounded and sick, to a filthy prison. In the prison Arthur Wynne, now a Tory captain, saw his cousin, but left Hugh to die. Hugh never forgave him for this cruelty and for his subsequent lie concerning the meeting.

Hugh recovered and escaped from prison to return to Gainor Wynne's house. Arthur Wynne was staying at the home of John Wynne and ingratiating himself in the eyes of the old man. Hugh knew that there was something mysterious in relation to the Welsh estate of Wyncote. Supposedly Arthur's father owned the estate, having bought it from John's father. Gainor Wynne urged Hugh to investigate the title of the estate. John Wynne, it seemed, still possessed the title, and out of sympathy for Arthur's alleged poverty had promised to give it to him. Hugh was unable to change his father's decision, even after he told of Arthur's cruel desertion when Hugh lay near death in prison. His father refused to believe Hugh's story.

Hugh could not tell Darthea about Arthur's behavior, for he felt that she would rush to Arthur's defense if he said anything against his cousin.

Once, while Hugh was at home, his father, thinking Hugh was Arthur, handed him the deed to Wyncote. Knowing that his father's mind had often misled him of late, Hugh tried to convince the old man that he was not Arthur, but John insisted that Hugh take the deed. Hugh took it to Gainor Wynne.

After a rest of a few months, Hugh rejoined the American troops. He was able to perform a courageous service for General Washington, for which he received praise and a captaincy. Jack, too, had become an officer.

When Hugh and Jack returned to Philadelphia on leave, Gainor Wynne managed to expose Arthur to Darthea. Although the young girl had lost her earlier love for the Tory officer, she had been unwilling to break her promise to him. With proof of Arthur's villainy before her, however, she felt that she was free at last to break her engagement.

Again Hugh asked her to marry him, and she surprised him by accepting. Hugh still did not want the title to Wyncote, and Darthea agreed with him that after he had taken Arthur's betrothed, it would not become Hugh to take his inheritance from him as well. Although Gainor Wynne wished to press the legality of the ancient deed, Darthea threw it into the fire and so destroyed any claim Hugh might have upon the ancestral estate.

John Wynne, who had ceased to live for Hugh when he had lost his mental faculties, died soon after the war ended. Darthea and Hugh were happily married, and they lived long years together to watch their children and their grandchildren grow up unburdened by the rigorous religious control which Hugh had known in his youth.

Critical Evaluation:

Written more than a hundred years after the Revolution, Silas Weir Mitchell's historical romance recaptures the tone as well as the letter of the Philadelphia scene before and during the struggle with Great Britain. Tolstoy recreated the time of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia and its effects on the aristocracy with brilliantly conceived characterizations and dramatized historical events. Mitchell's method is modest by comparison and, if not as effective as Tolstoy's, is curiously satisfying in its own right.

What Mitchell does is play memoirist. His main character, Hugh Wynne, begins by apologizing for "having no gift in the way of composition" and a distaste for fiction. By chance, his friend Jack Warder, a major character in the novel, bequeaths Hugh his diary which is as fulsome and sensitive as Hugh is forgetful and unliterary. This "convenient" bequest does not seem contrived because it is a reflection in point of view of one of the novel's central themes: Warder's protection, through thought and deed, of his less perceptive friend.

The memoir style is very well done: coolly observant, precise in detail, and limpidly clear throughout. The eighteenth century elegance of the tone forms a poignant counterpoint to the emotional turmoil of the irrational relationship between father and son, John and Hugh Wynne. The portrait of Washington is meticulously historical, but the vindictiveness with which Mitchell attacks the zeal of conservative Quakerism mars his pretension of complete historical objectivity. The characters are largely wooden, and motivation is mechanical rather than psychological; Darthea's love is a thing difficult to believe in. Perhaps spirited Gainor Wynne, with her Whig independence and brashly lovable integrity, is the novel's best creation: "The good old lady was lamenting her scanty toilet, and the dirt in which the Hessians had left her house. 'I have drunk no tea since Lexington,' she said, 'and I have bought no gowns. My gowns, sir, are on the backs of our poor soldiers.'"

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