Published by NAL
Publication date: May 5th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Erika Robuck is an author who loves to explore the lives of other authors through her fiction. She continues this tradition in her latest, The House of Hawthorne, by following Sophia Peabody as she is courted by and eventually weds Nathaniel Hawthorne. With her outstanding attention to detail and thorough research Robuck uses Sophia’s perspective to provide insight into her husband’s nature well beyond his writing talent. This is an intimate novel about the man who wrote such American greats as The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, but who never achieved the financial success of some of his contemporaries and so, led a life with his family of uncertainty and often, economic distress. Through Sophia’s eyes we see how the man and the writer are in constant battle.
The novel begins with Sophia’s life as a young woman with an artistic temperament in a family filled with love and acceptance of the arts but very little security. This is the 1820s so the other notable aspect of a time is the delicacy of women. Sophia is beset with headaches with no known cause and no efforts to treat beyond using morphine. She is a talented painter but is coddled in her ill-health in a way that is, quite frankly, to modern day thinking, annoying and yet, for the times, probably accurate. This annoyance is not specific to Sophia, because Hawthorne himself is a less than stalwart character—so tied to his mother and sisters that he takes over three years to tell them of his engagement. It is once they marry and begin their lives on their own that The House of Hawthorne hits its stride and Nathaniel and Sophia come to life.
One of the more endearing aspects of the novel is the passion that continues in the marriage. It is one thing to read of this when marriage is new and lovers are young but Hawthorne’s letters to Sophia when she is away with their three children are deeply touching.
You are a welcome ghost, haunting and tormenting me at all hours of the day and night. I run my hands thought my hair, trying to conjure the feeling of your fingers in it…The winds of the waterway assault me, chilling my bones to the marrow in their reminder that there is no warmth for me while you are gone…When this separation is over, we must never allow it again. How could I have done this? I am frantic, Dove.
At the same time as The House of Hawthorne describes a marriage of abiding love Robuck also chronicles the attitudes and mores of the times. We see that while Sophia embraces her life as a wife and mother she finds it comes at a cost to her painting
My artistic power is a snuffed candle
And while Hawthorne supports her efforts to recapture her muse he is adamantly opposed when their daughter shows a talent for writing, as a woman being published is unseemly. Through these kinds of details Robuck gives us a nuanced portrait of a man conflicted by many aspects of life and of the world around him. At the same time she hangs this portrait against a backdrop of American events, providing the reader with both an enduring love story and a sense of how it was impacted by these events. We may know Nathaniel Hawthorne as a great American author but in The House of Hawthorne Robuck shows us that without the love and strength of his dear Sophy we may never have known about him at all.