Thursday, April 2, 2015
*Hope Leslie, by Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1827)
Penguin Classics, 1998
originally published 1827
Hope Leslie is one of those novels that could spawn an entire library of dissertations since there is so much here of interest -- not only to literature students, but to students of American history as well. Written in 1827, the author chose to set her novel in the mid 1600s and in the milieu of the Puritans of Massachusetts in order to examine her present and America's possible future "by way of the past." She introduces her readers to two exceptional young women, one of whom "best embodies the new nation's potential." On another level, it's an example of "frontier romance," a departure from my previous early American novel experience, and while the lessons/morals of this novel are easily gleaned, it's also a fun adventure sort of novel. I can only imagine a contemporary woman reading this book and getting totally lost in the exploits of the heroic women around whom the story is written, all the while wondering if such empowerment of women just might be possible. I read it 188 years after it was published, and I was caught up in it, absolutely unable to put it down until I'd finished it.
Outside of the endnotes, this book is 371 pages long with a story filled with twists and turns so even a synopsis is not really possible, but the story takes place first in early 17th-century England, where the principles of religious freedom and civil liberty have attracted young William Fletcher to the colonies. His refusal to give up those principles costs him the love of his life, but William marries, goes on to America and his family settles in what is then the frontier outside of Springfield Massachusetts. Native Americans are a concern in this "savage howling wilderness," but domestic issues with Fletchers are also a growing concern, especially in light of two events. First, the Fletchers are to be the caretakers of two "Indian" children, a boy Oneco and his sister Magawisca; second, it seems that William's first love Alice has passed away and her daughters Mary and Alice Leslie coming to live with him in America at Fletcher's home called Bethel. The girls are baptized and their names changed respectively to Faith and Hope Leslie; they arrive with their aunt and their tutor and are all happy together even though Mrs. Fletcher is concerned about her teenaged son Everell's growing interest in Magawisca. Sadly, while William is away on business and taking Hope and her tutor off to Boston, Magawisca's father, a tribal chief who had lost the rest of his family in a horrific massacre by the English, decides the time is right for revenge and slaughters everyone at Bethel except Faith and Everell (Fletcher's son), whom he forces to go with him back to his camp. There, Everell, who is very much loved by Magawisca, is saved by her in a move reminiscent of Pocahontas; Faith, however, is left to the mercy of the chief while Everell makes his escape.
Seven years go by, and Everell has returned to Boston from England and Hope Leslie is a grown girl, now a companion/friend to Governor Winthrop's niece Esther, in the very midst of the Puritans. Unlike the bulk of the Puritans though, Hope is not content to blindly submit to religious or scriptural authority -- she has an independent and often rebellious spirit that is often frowned upon by others in the community (with the exception of William Fletcher, her aunt and her tutor), and it is this independence that she comes to rely on. It is also her free spirit, matched with Everell's somewhat relaxed views after having been away for some time, that is at heart of this story as she and Everell try to fight a serious injustice done to someone they both love and care about. In the meantime, there are a number of subplots that help move things along, bits of romance, and a few cliffhanger moments that keep things lively and interesting.
I can't possibly tackle all of the issues that Sedgwick raises in this book -- serious reflections on the roles and futures of women in America, the presence of women in the public sphere, their submission to male authority, the ethical treatment of Native Americans, the rigidity of the Puritans, the historical record vs. an alternate theory re what really happened as far as Puritan-Native American interaction, whether or not tolerance can exist between Native Americans and the people who continue to move further out into the American frontier -- all of these subjects would demand much more time than I can give to them. To me, though, the characters of Hope and Magawisca stand as two incredible heroines, each in their own right, each able to use her own good judgment and sense of moral right to better an entire community even though their actions are at odds with prevailing authority. Each lets her own moral code guide her in her actions, each strongly speaks out against injustice, and each is a strong representation of what all people, not just women, can aspire to as individuals in a quickly-growing and changing America of Sedgwick's time and beyond.
Hope Leslie is an amazing book on several levels and I have no hesitation in recommending it even to the most casual of readers who may want something very different. The only issue that people unacquainted with novel writing of this time period might run up against is in the way Sedgwick writes, which is sort of bulky and complicated while we're used to more streamlined prose; despite this minor impediment, though, the story flows nicely and very quickly over the nearly 400 pages. It is another book I'm very happy to have discovered.
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