When a great novel is penned and the author passes on, that story doesn’t change much if at all, and being considered universal and timeless, hence great, it will likely continue to be read for a long time.
This seems to be the case with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a classic novel all but set in stone.
But recently a brave and creative soul penned a companion story, Hester, an enchanting tale utilizing some of the illustrious threads used all those years ago. Hester offers a creative account about what’s left unexplained in The Scarlet Letter and perhaps the life of its author.
Anyone familiar with the man Nathaniel Hawthorne will recognize strands of truth with this new book’s character Nat Hathorne. Hawthorne himself was “a man…at war with himself”(177) and he did indeed change the spelling of his name, adding the “w” to distance himself from a damning past.
In Laurie Lico Albanese’s novel Hester, the focus isn’t on the man Hawthorne or the character Hathorne; the lens is on the central female character Isobel Gamble, from whose perspective most of the story is told.
Hester introduces a new tale set in Salem, Massachusetts in the early 1800s that ultimately intersects with the classic The Scarlet Letter. Isobel, who experiences synesthesia enabling her to see colors linked to voices and sounds, is our ticket into this alternative world:
“Here in Salem I, too, can be someone new. I feel a possibility that brings the fast-beating excitement of colored voices, the pink wind, the hum of faeries beneath the May trees. Though the colors still frighten me, they have also begun to inspire”(66).
Readers accompany red-haired Isobel on her journey from Scotland to Salem as well as her journey from innocence to discovering that the world is often harsh and not a safe or just place. Isobel’s trajectory forces her to recognize the power of her gifts and when and where it is safe in this treacherous landscape to reveal them.
Salem’s terrain is dangerous for its stubborn, debilitating grip on an unsavory past that includes witch trials and slavery. There is a hunger and determination for freedom for those whose ancestors were persecuted and enslaved, especially since their descendants are still treated as outcasts, some with bounties on their heads.
What appears on the surface in Salem does not reveal the strong undertow, making navigation in this new place especially dangerous and challenging for Isobel. As she says,
“We [Isobel and Nat] stand for several moments together, and I recall what my father told me: enchanted beings live beside the sea. They rise and look beautiful, but they keep their powers hidden from sight, much as the placid sea is always brewing a storm somewhere unseen”(118).
This is true of Isobel’s new friend Nat, an aspiring writer; he’s an enigma she’s warned to steer clear of but one whose mystery and melancholy prove impossible to resist.
In this world, the visible and spoken are not what they seem, and the invisible and unspoken only accessible to some. This phenomenon propels much of the story, and prompts questions for readers to ponder and to perhaps ask themselves:
“Keep silent: I have been told this by women I love and trust and by women who care nothing for my fate. But how can I live and be silent? How can I speak and be safe?”(254).
One way Isobel is able to speak is through her embroidery, where she can express and share the colors she hears and sees, sometimes encrypting messages for the benefit of others, such as the sentiments she stitches onto the burial robe of a friend:
“I have put my love and gratitude, hopes for freedom, and wishes for the world into this very shroud, and now I understand: by keeping silent I hold my gifts and my strengths close. I do not need to speak of them aloud; I can let the colors speak for me”(297).
And although Isobel is able to “let the colors speak,” this doesn’t address the problem that so many wrestle with: a harmful silence about the past.
“And yet silence doesn’t protect us from the past, as I well know. When a legacy haunts a family the echoes reverberate even if no one hears them. This is what Nat is saying and I know it’s true. I feel it is true, for Isobel Gowdie’s legacy haunted my mother to the end of her life, even as it haunts me now”(142).
Isobel Gowdie, Isobel’s namesake and ancestor was accused of being a witch in Scotland, a secret her family held tight; Nat Hathorne’s ancestor was a judge who sentenced Salem witches to be hanged, a shameful past also kept quiet. Legacies unreckoned that continue to cause pain and dysfunction and in this story destroy the young couple’s chance for their love to bloom, even with a baby on the way.
Throughout the novel, Albanese intersperses passages about the plights of ancestors, such as cruel Judge Hathorne, persecuted Isobel Gowdie and others, revealing layers of what lies behind and beneath the characters’ pasts and lives.
Albanese explains: “I write historical fiction based on the lives of real people and put women at the center of those stories. These are women who have been marginalized by history or whose triumphs and tragedies have been forgotten by today’s readers.”
As readers and women, we say thank you, Laurie Lico Albanese!
Yet, for all the secrets and persistent ugliness beating in the heart of Salem, there are those on the periphery doing the dangerous and good work of cultivating hope, delivering others to freedom in ways not suspected or detected.
Along these outer edges, Albanese has created characters readers would want to know and be for their remarkable strength and commitment to one another; for risking their lives in the underbelly of this prosperous, bustling port town of Salem.
Isobel is assisted and saved by those working in the shadows, especially other women:
“My ladies in the forest – they are the women who help one another in ways that can be seen and also in invisible ways that aren’t always known…we are more beautiful and strong together than apart”(299).
Isobel, hurtfully rejected by Nat, and the fabric of the town itself, moves far north of Salem to protect herself and her daughter. It’s years later when The Scarlet Letter is published and brought to Isobel’s attention that she recognizes herself as Hester. But Nat’s story doesn’t tell her story, nor all of the story. He has stitched a secret into a story that only a few will recognize, but through this, their daughter will learn the truth. Isobel breaks the cycle of secret-keeping and readers rejoice.
This new narrative, Hester, contains multitudes! It is an exquisite, powerful tale of resilience, beauty, and the importance of transparency not to be missed.
In her Notes and Acknowledgments at the end of the book, Albanese explains that The Scarlet Letter is the only novel of Hawthorne’s not known to be based on an actual experience:
“Hawthorne was a secretive man who burned many of his letters, papers, and journals. He published only five novels in his lifetime all but The Scarlett Letter spring from a known inspiration”(318).
This has spurred many to wonder if this novel too is based on some sort of experience. Perhaps writing The Scarlet Letter was a way for Hawthorne to relieve some guilt, share a secret in a veiled way? If so, what was this experience and who were the players? Hester provides one well-researched and beautifully crafted possibility.
Albanese says of the original Hester in Hawthorne’s classic,
“I understood that while Hester could not escape her past or her fate, she could harness her power by summoning the strength of her creative fortitude”
and then adds,
“I gave that creative fortitude to my character Isobel Gamble”(317).
I add that Albanese has demonstrated her own creative fortitude by penning this companion novel, Hester.
Laurie Lico Albanese is a Nasty Woman Writer.
© Maria Dintino 2023
Albanese, Laurie Lico. “Behind One of the Most Famous Faces in Art.” Lit Hub, 24 Feb 2017, https://lithub.com/behind-one-of-the-most-famous-faces-in-art/.
Albanese, Laurie Lico. Hester: A Novel. St. Martin’s Press, 2022.