We often resent books we’re forced to read in school, but The Scarlet Letter wasn’t like that for me. Even though it was assigned reading for high school, I could instantly sense how important it was in the history of American literature. The tragic story of Hester Prynne and her judgmental community is one that stays with me half a lifetime later. I reread it in college for a Hawthorne & Melville course, for which I also read The Blithedale Romance, The House of the Seven Gables, and several of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s best short stories.
My more-than-average interest in Hawthorne, combined with my love of historical fiction about “famous wives” (see my BookTrib articles on the subject, including one specifically about the Hemingway and Fitzgerald wives) meant that I was eager to read Erika Robuck’s latest. She’s made a name for herself with novels about some of history’s famous women, including Zelda Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay and one of the Hemingway wives, but somehow I’ve never read anything by her until now.
“Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind.”
(one of Robuck’s epigraphs, from Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun)
The novel is from the first-person perspective of Sophia Peabody, later the wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Peabodys were an artistic, intellectual family who encouraged Sophia to cultivate her talent as a painter and sculptor, but illness often held her back: she suffered from debilitating headaches and turned to morphine and mesmerism for relief. The story begins and ends in the spring of 1864, when Nathaniel, suffering from a stomach ailment, sets off on a final journey without Sophia. In between these bookends, the novel spans the 1830s through the 1860s, taking in Sophia’s sojourn in Cuba as a young woman, her and Nathaniel’s courtship, and the challenges of parenthood and making a living from art.
My favorite portions of the novel were set in Concord, Massachusetts, that haven for writers and Transcendentalists. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville all play minor roles. It’s especially amusing to see Melville, Hawthorne’s ardent admirer, overstep the boundaries of polite society and become an irksome stalker. What I did not realize from previous biographical reading about the Hawthornes is that they nearly always struggled for money. They rented Emerson’s uncle’s house in Concord but were evicted when they fumbled to make payments. Nathaniel’s jobs in the Custom House and as the U.S. Consul in Liverpool (appointed by President Franklin Pierce, who was a personal friend and whose biography he wrote) were undertaken out of financial desperation rather than interest.
The Hawthornes’ time in Europe was another highlight of the novel for me. They encounter the Brownings and finally get a chance to see all the Italian art that has inspired Sophia over the years. Their oldest daughter, Una, also falls ill with malaria, which provides some great dramatic scenes in later chapters. I warmed to this late vision of Sophia as a devoted mother, whereas I struggled to accept her as a vibrant young woman and a randy wife. Her constant complaints about headaches are annoying, and I wasn’t convinced that the Cuba chapters were relevant to the novel as a whole; Robuck tries to link Sophia’s observations of slavery there with the abolitionist sentiments of the 1860s, but Sophia’s devotion to the antislavery cause was only ever half-hearted, so I didn’t believe the experience in Cuba could have affected her that deeply. Her unconsummated lust for Fernando is also, I suppose, meant to prefigure her abiding passion for Nathaniel – which is described in frequent, cringe-worthy sex scenes and flowery lines like “In his gaze, I feel our souls rise up to meet each other.”
Ultimately, my disconnection from Sophia as narrator meant that I would prefer to read about the Hawthornes in biographies, of which there are plenty. Two novels I would recommend that incorporate many of the same historical figures are Miss Fuller by April Bernard and What Is Visible by Kimberly Elkins (about the deaf-blind Laura Bridgman – who has a tiny cameo here). Beautiful Fools by R. Clifton Spargo uses a Cuba setting to better effect in telling the story of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s last holiday. I preferred all three of these to The House of Hawthorne. However, I’m certainly up for trying more of Robuck’s fiction.
I received early access to this book through the Penguin First to Read program.