What an odd book this is! It starts with a good story – at the end of the seventeenth century in a New England town, Colonel Pyncheon, a local dignatory decides he wants the land that Matthew Maule has built his cottage on. Met with opposition the Colonel flexes his political muscles and has Maule hanged for witchcraft. But the imposing house he builds on the site is said to carry a curse and bad luck seems to haunt future generations.
At the time of the novel Hepzibah Pyncheon is the custodian and shares the ‘heavy hearted old mansion’ with her lodger Holgrave, a young believer in radical reform . Clifford, her brother arrives home from prison carrying the mark of a person whose youth has been stolen from him and then Phoebe a young distant cousin arrives, as lovely as fresh air and blossom. The possibilities seemed set for a thrilling tale in a gothic setting.
The trouble was there didn’t really seem to be a story, and what there was was incredibly slight.
To make ends meet, Hepzibah decides to open a room of the house as a ‘cent shop’, but as a ‘gentlewomen’ finds this degrading. Although she’s a kind hearted person her face is set in a permanent scowl which doesn’t ingratiate her to customers and added to this her cousin, another Colonel Pyncheon who has done very well for himself likes to gloat at Hepzibah’s poverty. One night Colonel Pyncheon comes to the house and Clifford and Hepzibah leave him sitting in a chair, very still as they run out of the house nervously and jump on a train just for the fun of it. A couple of days later, Colonel Pyncheon is found dead in the chair with blood on his shirt.
This slight story is padded out largely by repetition, for example a whole chapter is given to asking why doesn’t the Colonel get up from his chair, when we have known why from the first sentence!
‘Still lingering in the old chair! If the Judge has a little time to throw away, why does not he visit the Insurance Office. . . This was to have been such a busy day!. . . And has he forgotten all the other items of his memoranda?. . .Pray, pray, Judge Pyncheon, look at your watch, now! What, not a glance? It is within ten minutes of the dinner hour!’
It went on and on like that until I wanted to scream! But there were two characters I liked very much and they were Hepzibah and Phoebe. The house is a prison to Hepzibah, she is so overwhelmed by her sense of tradition that it has robbed her of her life. Her courage in opening the cent shop is huge and I felt very sympathetic towards her, probably more so because the narrator treats her with such condescension (‘it was overpoweringly ridiculous – we must honestly confess it – the deportment of the maiden lady, while setting her shop in order for the public eye.’) Phoebe is the light to Hepzibah’s darkness. She’s young and charms everyone. I was a bit worried when she first arrived that she was going to be ‘the angel in the house’. A character too good for this world, so beloved by Victorian authors. but then I realised that the peaches and cream descriptions of her come from Clifford who has been shut away for so long and the narrator. While she is full of goodness her work ethic and her understanding of the effect the mouldy house is having on her makes her a a decision maker – not a drippy Dora Copperfield!
If there’s a moral it’s that old ways are bad ways. Published in 1851, this is a book that’s looking to the future and Hawthorne fills the pages with all things new. It’s clear that The House of the Seven Gables is a motif for all that is old and suffocating, Hepzibah and Clifford escape from it by the new railways, and then the four survivors (including the young radical experimenting with the beginnings of photography) hurry from its hereditary darkness to the lightness of Colonel Pyncheon’s new modern house. But again it doesn’t really amount to anything as Holgrave wishes such a house had been built in brick rather than wood, so that it can stand for generations – Phoebe exclaims in amazement ‘how wonderfully your ideas are changed!’ but there’s no explanation and she still marries her champaign socialist!