I've been on a historical fiction romance kick for a while. Whether it's Loving Frank or The Paris Wife, or Erika Robuck's previous novel, Call Me Zelda, I just can't get enough.
Beyond The Scarlet Letter and "Young Goodman Brown," I didn't know much about Nathanial Hawthorne, so I was instantly intrigued by Erika Robuck's latest novel, House of Hawthorne.
The synopsis from Goodreads:
Beset by crippling headaches from a young age and endowed with a talent for drawing, Sophia is discouraged by her well-known New England family from pursuing a woman’s traditional roles. But from their first meeting, Nathaniel and Sophia begin an intense romantic relationship that despite many setbacks leads to their marriage. Together, they will cross continents, raise children, and experience all the beauty and tragedy of an exceptional partnership. Sophia’s vivid journals and her masterful paintings kindle a fire in Nathaniel, inspiring his writing. But their children’s needs and the death of loved ones steal Sophia’s energy and time for her art, fueling in her a perennial tug-of-war between fulfilling her domestic duties and pursuing her own desires.
Spanning the years from the 1830s to the Civil War, and moving from Massachusetts to England, Portugal, and Italy, The House of Hawthorne explores the tension within a famous marriage of two soulful, strong-willed people, each devoted to the other but also driven by a powerful need to explore the far reaches of their creative impulses. It is the story of a forgotten woman in history, who inspired one of the greatest writers of American literature.
I can hardly discuss a historical fiction romance from the woman's perspective without noting the role feminism plays in text and context. I think it's an injustice that these types of books are often labeled as "women's fiction" or worse, "chick lit," when in fact, there's much to be learned by both sexes in stories like these.
So often women have been (and are continually) written out of history. Their voices are silenced in the wake of their male counterparts and, often, no matter how talented they are, they're relegated to supporting roles. Some might argue that historical fiction romances diminish the woman's contributions because they tend to highlight her in a supporting role. However, I think that these historical fiction romances are important because they often show the woman wanting to break out of the supporting role and they give her a voice where she hadn't one before.
Some might argue works like this are anti-feminist, but I ask, what could be more feminist than giving a voice to a women who has been a footnote to history or has been written out of history entirely?
Furthermore, as is the case with many historical fiction romances I've read, the to-be-famous male figure has his creative and political battles and the woman stabilizes him, both financially and emotionally, thereby making his work possible. It's a hell of a lot easier to focus on creating when your sphere is made harmonious by a devoted partner. That does not make the woman any less important, it's just a side effect of the times--if her own contributions cannot be appreciated merely because she is a woman, why not help the man she loves ensure his contributions are valued? To me, that's not anti-feminist. That's the essence of love.
Now that we've got that feminist rant out of the way, let me tell you some things I liked about the story.
Erika Robuck is the master of "sell people what they want, then give them what they need." Let's be honest here. Next to nobody, besides stuffy grad students studying American Romanticism, knows who Sophia Peabody is. I don't think it's a particularly well-known fact that she was Nathaniel Hawthorne's wife. So, if we're being honest here, you buy the book for Nathanial Hawthorne, then learn that it's not his story being told. There's little more that I learned about Nathanial outside of my initial impressions--brooding, dark, depressed, troubled, creativity struggling to spring free--he's rather one-dimensional. However, Sophia is so interesting that you hardly notice how dull Nathanial is. But his story has been told before, and many times over. Sell them what they want: Nathanial; then give them what they need: Sophia.
I appreciate fiction of this nature because you get to see a different side of a person when you see them through his/her beloved's eyes. You see them as how they might actually be rather than the crafted image they show the world (as I often feel biographies, and especially autobiographies, show). In this type of fiction, you see their struggle intimately and learn things about them that they themselves wouldn't necessarily want you to know. (Can you tell I trust historical fiction more than autobiography as strange as that might be?)
We have this romantic notion of writing that talented writers can just sit down at their writing desks and the words pour forth like a fountain of eternal inspiration. While I know everyone who has ever tried to write a thing knows this to be untrue, others might not. Sophia is talented in her own right as a visual artist, and getting to see her and Nathanial's creative struggle is what makes the novel.
The only thing I thought odd about the novel was its "celestial" quality. By that, I mean the word "celestial" was used 14 times throughout the 416-page text (I read it as an ebook, so it was easy enough to find this out) and most of the references were about Nathanial. He was described as a "celestial being" and "celestial individual" and looking "celestial" in the moonlight. Maybe I'm more perceptive to language since I'm a writer myself, but when an unusual descriptor is used, it tends to carry more weight if it's only employed once every 150 pages or so. I hope this has been changed in the final text (I read a not-quite-finalized advanced reader's copy). Perhaps "celestial" was a common way of describing someone in the 1830s-1860s and I'm just ignorant of history. Otherwise, I found the language to be spot on.
If historical fiction around literary figures and their wives are your thing, Erika Robuck is your girl, and House of Hawthorne is worth a read. It's out now, so you can find it at your favorite book-buying establishment.