Rating: 3 stars
I bought The House of the Seven Gables for £1 from the book shop in the café at Mrs Gaskell’s House. Once upon a time, it had cost five shillings, and its purchaser had given it to a friend. There’s an inscription inside the front cover. The recipient is nameless, the donor signs themself M.L. and it’s clear that the book meant a lot to them.
I mostly enjoyed it. It reads like a mixture of Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Gaskell (appropriately enough) and Edith Wharton. Set in the ancestral home of the Pyncheon family, early settlers in New England, the novel encompasses comedy, mystery, horror and social observation. Nathaniel Hawthorne lived in a house very similar to the one in the book, and one of his great grandfathers was a judge at the Salem Witch Trials, so there are elements of truth to the tale. However, there is more from Hawthorne’s imagination than there is from fact, making it a very entertaining story to be taken with a large pinch of salt.
Hawthorne provides a history of the house and its occupants, before introducing the current resident, Hepzibah Pyncheon, who is a reclusive, unmarried woman who struggles in social situations. Her young cousin Phoebe comes to stay, just before Hepzibah’s brother Clifford returns to the family fold. The true owner of the house is another cousin, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, whose purpose it serves to let Hepzibah live in the house. There is also a lodger, a young man who makes daguerreotypes and socialises with a radical group of anti-establishment types.
The house has a complicated past, starting with the possible miscarriage of justice that saw the original owner of the land tried as a wizard and executed. The first of the family, Colonel Pyncheon, was most likely behind the accusations and the guilty verdict that resulted in the land becoming his. He employed the dead man’s son to build his grand house on the land, and it was downhill from there for the family.
Not a lot happens for more than half of the story, but Hawthorne still uses the wordiness of the Victorian era to describe the uneventful passage of time. I skimmed a lot of the description, picking out the detail that I felt I needed to know. If I’d been in a more relaxed frame of mind, I would have enjoyed Hawthorne’s verbosity. He has a fine way with words. Eventually, a strange incident is related by the lodger, Mr Holgrave, in which the grandson of the original owner of the land enchants (or more likely hypnotises) Alice, the great granddaughter of the thieving Colonel. Sadly, the same interlude includes some horrible racism. I’m no longer inclined to say things like “it was the language of the time”, because that isn’t true. In some quarters it’s still the current language. It’s dehumanising and disgusting.
The lodger is the catalyst for another strange moment. In telling the story of the hypnosis of Alice Pyncheon, he almost hypnotises Phoebe. He also drops hints about the past and his interest in it, but these are left hanging as Phoebe doesn’t rise to his intrigue.
It was a diversion of a book, a curious mixture of realism and fantastical imaginings. The end is really quite odd. Judge Pyncheon calls round to see Clifford on the pretext of asking him about some missing family fortune. The encounter ends with Clifford and Hepzibah fleeing town on a steam train, during which journey Clifford rants at a total stranger. Hawthorne then returns to the abandoned house and lets his imagination loose to describe a ghostly gathering of past Pyncheons and a cat that might be the devil peering in through the window at them. Eh? It’s set out as though there’s some mystery over whether it’s a dream that a sleeping Judge Pyncheon is having or whether it’s an actual ghostly gathering that Judge Pyncheon doesn’t realise he’s part of. I kind of liked it in the way I sometimes like things that defy logic.
Things get wrapped up at the end, of course. It’s all a bit of an anticlimax, but at least it’s happy.