Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The House of Hawthorne by Erika Robuck

My reading of Nathaniel Hawthorne came after my formal education. When other high school freshman were reading A Scarlet Letter I was in a team English class, in the 'advanced' reading group, and we were given different books to read. Taught by Mr. Botens we read The Catcher In The Rye by J. D. Salinger--with parental approval. I had never read anything like it and that summer I read all of Salinger. (In senior year I would have Mr Botens for World Literature, sending me off to the library to read in full the excerpted philosophers and writers we covered.) But A Scarlet Letter and Silas Mariner and even Romeo And Juliet became part of my 'catching up' reading after university.

I was in my later twenties when I first encountered A Scarlet Letter. I loved it and read it again. I then read other works by Hawthorne: (click on title to links to ebooks) Rappicini's DaughterThe House of the Seven Gables and even A Blithedale Romance. I later realized that one of my favorite books as a girl had been A Wonder Book For Boys and Girls.

As to Hawthorne's personal life, outside of his ancestors being involved with the Salem Witch trials and his working at the Custom House, I knew little.

The House of Hawthorne by Erika Robuck surprised me. I was unsure I would like it. The cover made me think of, well, a romance novel. But I was carried into the narrative world of Robuck's fictional Sophia Peabody and enjoyed every page.
Sophia Peabody, later Hawthrone
Sophia was one of the "Peabody Sisters of Salem."  Her sister Elizabeth never married; she became an educator and was the first woman publisher. Sister Mary also taught but later married educator Horace Mann. Sophia was artistic, but suffered migraine attacks that disabled her; the treatment included morphine. In 1833 it was arranged for Sophia to visit Cuba for her health with Mary as her companion; Mary acted as governess to their hosts children in exchange for room and board.

Cuba changed Sophia's life. The exotic atmosphere and environs inspired her as an artist. She felt her first attraction to a man and gave up all ideals of remaining unmarried and dedicated to her art. And she encountered the horrors of slavery.

After she returned home her sister Elizabeth received a visit from their neighbors, two sisters and their brother Nathaniel who Elizabeth declared more handsome than even Lord Byron. For Sophia it was love at first sight.
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Who could blame Sophia? When I first saw this portrait about, oh, thirty years ago I thought he was very handsome and bought the postcard!

Robuck has written her story through Sophia's viewpoint. The novel begins at her last parting with her ailing husband Nathaniel, looking back over her life and the love shared with her husband. They were spiritual soul mates and intellectual equals who shared a deep sexual attraction. Nathaniel was a loner, uncomfortable with notoriety and with society, a man who dwelt too much on his ancestors and his personal failings. He set Sophia on a pedestal with the angels and calls her his Dove. She she gives him a painting he considers it too precious to share and he keeps it behind a black curtain for personal viewing.

Their physical attraction overcomes Nathaniel's hesitancy to marry and Sophia's desire to become an artist of repute. Nathaniel was 35 and Sophia 30 at the time of their marriage. The new lovers kept a diary of their marriage, and love letters survive. Their marriage brought personal joy although they live in near poverty as Nathaniel struggled to find employment to support them as he wrote.

Sophia is the stronger of the couple. Her motto is "Man's accidents are God's purposes." She supports her husband and neglects her own art.

They moved from place to place, and Nathaniel from job to job including a stint in England when his college friend Franklin Pierce gave him the position of Consul. Sophia longed for permanence.

Sophia was able to give up morphine when she began treatment under Dr. Fiske who used mesmerism. Nathaniel was uncomfortable with the process of Fiske's hands-on technique and objected to his wife's later belief in the occult and obsession with contacting the 'other world.'

New England was the center of America's intellectual world, and the Hawthornes knew all the movers and shakers. The Alcotts, Thoreau, Melville, Longfellow, Margaret Fuller, the Brownings, and Emerson were friends.

Tragedy came easily in the 19th c. Friends and family drown at sea, malaria takes lives and health. Children and spouses die, leaving broken families. Sophia describes her husband chopping wood and giving food to his family, growing thin, and agonizing over his inability to provide for them. Their daughter Uma nearly dies from "Roman Fever" while in Italy.

Photograph of Nathaniel Hawthorne 
Nathaniel became America's first novelist of repute after the publication of A Scarlet Letter. They were able to purchase a home and find financial security.

The story of the Hawthorne marriage proves that fact can be more romantic than fiction.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The House of Hawthorne
by Erika Robuck
Penguin Group
ISBN: 9780451418913
$25.95 hard cover
publication May 5, 2015