I read The Scarlet Letter in high school (like many other high school students, I’m sure). Throughout the reading, we were focused on the symbolism of the light, Hester Prynne’s “ignominy,” and the perils of an overly religious and judgmental society.
Never did we focus much on the man who actually wrote the novel.
Now, though, thanks to Erika Robuck and her novel The House of Hawthorne, I feel as though I know both Nathaniel Hawthorne, but I especially feel as if I know his wife Sophia Peabody Hawthorne.
Robuck’s novel, a work of historical fiction, presents the story of Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, as told through a series of flashbacks as Sophia and Nathaniel journey to Boston to see Franklin Pierce.
As I read, I felt sometimes as though I was reading Sophia’s work The Cuba Journals, but in extended form. Robuck succeeds in creating the feeling of living right alongside Sophia, and as a result, I learned many things about both her and Nathaniel. For instance, I discovered the artistic community respected Peabody as a painter, and that her sojourn in Cuba—the story of which begins the reader’s glimpse into Sophia’s life—was an attempt to remedy the migraines that had plagued her for as long as she had been painting. I also learned of Nathaniel’s extreme devotion to his sisters and mother after the death of his father, and that because of his devotion, Sophia and Nathaniel waited years to marry.
Robuck develops Sophia’s and Nathaniel’s character almost equally through the retelling of events from Sophia’s expressive and beautiful perspective. One of my favorite lines was Sophia describing a horseback ride during her time in Cuba: “On the way back from our ride, a fresh morning shower mists over us, turning the air alive with diamond droplets.” The engaging prose she employs parallels the celebrations and trials in the lives of the Hawthornes, and carries the reader throughout the narrative as it flashes back and forth from the current setting of the novel—Sophia and Nathaniel’s trip to Boston to see Franklin Pierce—and the significant events of their lives.
The novel focuses almost as much on Nathaniel as it does on Sophia, but it is Nathaniel as Sophia knows him, rather than the author readers think they know—or perhaps thought they knew at the time. The intimate portrait Robuck paints of the wife and husband proves her devotion to and knowledge of her subjects.