In the final years of the seventeenth century in a small town in New England, the venerable Colonel Pyncheon decides to erect a ponderously oak-framed and spacious family mansion. It occupies the spot where Matthew Maule, ‘an obscure man’, had lived in a log hut, until his execution for witchcraft. From the scaffold, Maule cries to the presiding Colonel ‘God will give him blood to drink!’
The fate of Pyncheon exerts a heavy influence on his descendants in the crumbling mansion for the next century and a half.
But although a distant family sin appears to have populated the old house with unhappy ghosts, held tenuously between life and death, the arrival of young Phoebe Pyncheon from the country breathes fresh air and sunshine into mouldering lives and rooms, and the novel begins to work against the crushing weight of history.
The dark and suppressive nature of a Hawthorne novel is not new to our group. We read The Scarlet Letter a few years ago, so there were no big surprises this month with our return visit to this American classic writer.
It could be the time of year, but most struggled to complete this (what some described as tedious) novel and were at odds to comprehend exactly where Hawthorne meant to go with it. The plot seemed non-existent, which didn’t help getting you through the monotonous rambling descriptions Hawthorne so loves.
We discussed the style that seemed so popular in the day and compared its likeness to Dickens and Bronte. In a time when there was little in the way of visual entertainment, novels of this sort would have been an important diversion from everyday life. So Hawthorne’s long and illustrative narrative may well be daunting to us modern readers, but we can see how it worked in a time of romance novels (when in fact all novels were considered ‘romance’).
The term ‘gothic’ was also bantered around and Cathy, who did not think she would take to this book, found herself quite enjoying this dark, boding tale and believes she could be reading one of the first gothic novels written.
In the end, we decided Hawthorne was able to weave an exemplary kind of magic with his words (his many, many words) and that alone is worthy of consideration, and a read.