Hester Gives The Scarlet Letter the Origin Story We Didn't Know It Needed

Books Reviews Laurie Lico Albanese
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<i>Hester</i> Gives <i>The Scarlet Letter</i> the Origin Story We Didn't Know It Needed

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is an American classic familiar to almost anyone who took an eleventh-grade English class. Your mileage will almost certainly vary when it comes to how you feel about the novel—it can be difficult to find its heavy themes of sin and shame compelling in a modern-day context or square our own sensibilities with Hester Prynne’s insistence on protecting a man’s reputation at the expense of her own. But if you too have long struggled with finding something in Hawthorne’s novel to relate to (or had problems navigating its occasionally plodding prose), then Laurie Lico Albanese’s Hester is the book you need in your life this Fall.

A fictional origin story of sorts, the novel spins a historical tale of a young seamstress who could have served as the inspiration for Hester Prynne, and, through this proxy, gives us the female perspective that is so absent in Hawthorne’s story. Not to mention, it pokes at an intriguing historical gap—in her author’s notes, Albanese points out that something happened in Hawthorne’s twenties to transform him from the outgoing young man of his college days to the more stoic, solitary version of his later life. A broken heart or a hidden love child seems just as likely as lingering guilt over his family’s unfortunate connections to the witchcraft panic in Salem.

Hester follows the story of Isobel Gowdie, a talented seamstress whose synesthesia—a condition that causes her to see colors associated with sounds and letters—has made her skilled at hiding the truth about herself from others who would more than likely view her strange ability as deliberate witchcraft rather than an accident of biology. Forced to emigrate to America after her husband Edward’s opium addiction lands them in the poor house, she hopes for a fresh start in Salem. But the town is not especially welcoming to foreigners, particularly women who live alone. And when Edward almost immediately heads back out to sea to serve as a ship’s medic—and takes Isobel’s savings with him—she has to try and earn a living with her needle. She finds work at a local tailoring shop, whose exploitative owner pays her far less than her elaborate embroidery is worth, simply because she knows that as an outsider Isobel has few other options for work available to her.

A chance encounter leaves her drawn to Nat Hathorne, a young aspiring writer struggling to get his stories taken seriously and trying to come to terms with both the legacy of the town he lives in and his own family’s involvement in Salem’s most infamous event. Initially, he seems to see Isobel as a sort of charmingly magical muse and encourages her in her dreams of crafting elaborate designs in a dress shop of her own. (She even tells him about her ability to “see” colors, including—you guessed it—a red letter “A” in the alphabet.) As their relationship turns from harmless flirtation to romance, the danger for Isobel increases: women in Salem can be shunned or even put out of the town for adultery, because while this story may be over a century removed from the witch trials, they still loom large over the town, and its citizens have not lost their penchant for suspicion and judgment. (Particularly where women are concerned.)

But as heroines go, Isobel is easy to root for and a joy to read about—much more so, some (read: me) might say than the Hester Prynne she will supposedly inspire. Her imagination and love of design are expressed through the lush descriptions of her many tailoring projects, including delicate gloves dotted with rich and colorful details and a showstopper of a shawl depicting the Garden of Eden that’s meant to help establish her professional reputation in town. For his part, Nat Hathorne—who will one day change the spelling of his last name in order to literally profit off of a woman’s misery—doesn’t exactly come off great. For all his posturing about his supposed abilities to see through to the truths of those around him, he is more than willing to ignore the worst flaws in himself and those like him, sniffing indifferently at the presence of a slave catcher in town and refusing to give up the very status and influence he so enjoys mocking. That Nat seems to ultimately delight in slumming it with a married, lower-class woman who he’ll never have to actually commit to actually tracks, is what I’m saying.

Albanese deftly weaves in many real-life historical elements into this tale: The world of nineteenth-century Salem is fully lived in and richly realized, even as it incorporates snippets from the stories of several of the women who were wrongly accused of witchcraft in its not-so-distant past. As Isobel discovers more about some of her neighbors and the secrets they keep, the story touches on everything from the bigoted ways Irish and Scottish immigrants were treated in supposedly progressive America to the Underground Railroad and the dark and unspoken racism that exists in many of the town’s most supposedly elite families.

Even readers who are unfamiliar with The Scarlet Letter will find plenty to enjoy in Hester, thanks to Isobel’s strength of character and capable determination—to survive, to thrive, and to live a life of meaning on her own terms.

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.