House of Hawthorne or Feminism in Civil War Era America

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I love Nathaniel Hawthorne. I love his novels, his short stories, and especially his books for his children. Over the summer, DG editor Julia and I visited the New York Public Library’s exhibit on the history of children’s books. There, they had rare copies of some of the books Hawthorne wrote specifically for his daughters and son. For a man in the 1800’s to want his daughters to learn was a very big deal.

What I didn’t know about Nathaniel Hawthorne was that his wife was incredible. Sophia Peabody Hawthorne was not a typical Victorian lady. She was educated and an educator, she was a painter, and she was published before she even met her husband.

imageHouse of Hawthorne, written by Erika Robuck, is a fictionalization of the lives of Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne told from Sophia’s perspective.  The story of Sophia’s meeting Nathaniel, their courtship, and subsequent marriage is framed by the last time Sophia saw Nathaniel alive. The couple are taking a carriage ride from their home in Concord to Boston, where Nathaniel will journey to New Hampshire with a friend. As they ride, Sophia reminisces about the life they’ve shared.

I did not expect to love this book as much as I did. The romance was so sweet, and the respect these individuals had for each other was outstanding. Sophia starts out as almost an invalid and is made stronger by the reciprocal love between her and her husband. I love that Robuck was able to write this as a modern author looking back because she is able to give modern audiences a look at the intimacy that would NEVER have been shared during the time when the Hawthornes lived. Typically, people from this time period are pictured as stiff and uptight, which to an extent, they really were. However, behind closed doors people were very different. Sophia and Nathaniels’ private moments are what made this book so special.

imageSophia’s story is especially moving because her mother did not want her to marry. Sophia and her sisters were given an education and expected to use it to earn a living. It was inevitable that the Peabody women would meet men like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, because there were so few women with intellectual pursuits back then. Throughout the book, Sophia’s sisters, as well as other intellectual female friends, pop up and offer insight that is equal to the opinions offered by their male counterparts.

Obviously, Nathaniel wrote The Scarlet Letter and was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson and had some kids. I knew Robuck would bring up Hawthorne’s self consciousness about being a descendant of one of the men responsible for the Salem Witch Trials. What I didn’t know about Nathaniel Hawthorne is that he actually participated in Emerson’s communal living project. And hated it. I didn’t know he lived in Liverpool for a short time. And I had no clue he was friends with Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, my favorite literary couple of all time.

I recommend this book to anyone remotely interested in Nathaniel Hawthorne. My one warning is that House of Hawthorne is unabashedly sappy. If you can’t stand mush, this is not the book for you. For those still interested: the writing is great, the story is well paced, and these characters will have you smiling and crying as you read.

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