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Review: The House of Hawthorne, by Erika Robuck
New American Library, 2015 402 pp. $26

Sophia Peabody has received a most unconventional upbringing for an early nineteenth-century woman, even for one born into Massachusetts intellectual circles. Her poor health has much to do with this. Sophia gets crippling migraines from random noises, commotion, or even by expending effort to concentrate–a pity, because she’s a gifted artist. Yet, on certain days, attempting to draw or paint bring on attacks that leave her bed-ridden. Her mother assumes that Sophy must give up all thought of marrying, because, if childbirth didn’t kill her, the work of keeping home and husband would. Consequently, she must devote her life to art and avoid any excitement other than what may be found in her sketchpad and books–only the appropriate sort, of course.

Fat chance. Sent to the reputedly healthful climate of Cuba with her sister, Mary, also of frail health, Sophy finds heat of more than one kind. Nature feels unleashed, more vividly savage, and the colors and marvels of the landscape stir her sensibilities as an artist and a person beginning to realize that she’d like to widen her experience. Living among the plantation gentry, the family entertains neighbors of their social class, who impress Sophy with their manners and bearing. But the slavery that supports these people and, by extension, her sister and herself, is always close at hand, and the revulsion Sophy feels for it, and the sympathy for the slaves, tells her that Cuba is no place for her. In a way, this comes as a wrench, because she’s formed an attraction for a plantation owner’s son, a shy, modest young man who seems to hate the system as much as she does. Nevertheless, the Peabody sisters return to Massachusetts.

Matthew Brady's photograph of Nathaniel Hawthorne, taken during the 1860s, not long before the author's death (Courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons)

Matthew Brady’s photograph of Nathaniel Hawthorne, taken during the 1860s, not long before the author’s death (Courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons)

Enter Nathaniel Hawthorne; talk about a thunderclap. They first meet in the company of Sophy’s sister, Elizabeth, who wants him for herself:

When I enter, Hawthorne’s eyes meet mine, and he rises. By the holy angels, I feel my soul at once aflame and reaching through my breast toward him. I falter, and he is at my arm, leading me to the sofa. I try to ignore the heat–the fire of our first joining–and lean back once I am seated. I tear my eyes from his to look at Elizabeth, and I see a pain in her face that makes me wish I had stayed in my room.

Thus begins a lengthy courtship of two people burning for one another, and I mean, they can’t wait to tear each other’s clothes off–except that they do wait, and for years. The House of Hawthorne is a charming novel, and this section is my favorite. Sophy must outwit her jealous sister and prod her intended to tell his family they’re engaged, something he’s extremely loath to do–and he has his reasons. Nathaniel and she must struggle to restrain passions that are positively transcendental. The future author of The Scarlet Letter tries hard not to be a Puritan and succeeds to a larger extent than his reputation might suggest.

I like the writing, which is simple and direct, much like the narrative itself. Notable characters from the Hawthornes’ literary circles, both in Massachusetts and abroad, play roles–Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, and the British poets Browning, for example. But none come fully alive, perhaps because Robuck never grants any more than a thumbnail sketch, generally a familiar one. Emerson is cold and pompous. Thoreau prefers his own company to that of society. Melville is a needy pain in the neck.

As with these characters, Robuck fails to make full use of the themes she introduces. Sophy’s artistic life before and after marriage makes the point, echoed by two characters and the woman herself, that she’s sacrificed to Hawthorne and his career what she might have achieved. It’s not that he discourages her art–far from it–it’s that she doesn’t have the time. But there sits the feminist argument, mentioned and mulled over a little but unfortunately not developed. Likewise, though the Hawthornes discuss slavery and feel deeply about it, especially Sophy, they take no stand, because they oppose war as the means to end it. But this resolution seems unsatisfying, particularly since their siblings, abolitionists all, were mad at them for it, as were, no doubt, their famous friends. I’d have also wanted more thoughtfulness about death, which strikes frequently during the narrative and causes the Hawthornes much grief. Again, they mention it, consider it, and utter a notion or two, but they don’t get down and grapple with it. They save the grappling for each other.

That’s not bad, just less than it could have been. The House of Hawthorne is a nice book, only lighter in impact than it could be.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.