It is ages since I read this book, in fact I had just begun reading it when we were told by a surveyor that our old house was in need of damp preservation work, all unsuspected by us – I swear those damp meters are far too sensitive! It was a fraught time and on reflection I should probably have given up on this book at that time and started on something jollier. I’m just going to write about some of my memories of it from way back. I think this one was one of my Classics Club Spin books, but life and house moving got in the way.
The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne was first published in 1851 and I imagine that it might have been required reading for some American students in schools, and that can be a real off-putter. I know that I’ve read at least one blogger who hated it but I went from thinking – this is dragging a bit and not as good as The Scarlet Letter to deciding that actually I was enjoying it and I ended up thinking that it is better than The Scarlet Letter, despite the fact that it was nothing like I expected it to be. The Scarlet Letter is really a fairly straightforward and old tale but there’s a lot more to this one.
I’m drawn to books which feature houses, especially if the house has been written with as much character and presence as any of the human characters. The house in this book certainly has presence but not in a good way. It’s full of dry and wet rot, the roof is covered with moss and it even has weeds, or should I say – flowers in the wrong place – growing out of the front gable roof. It’s dark and depressing and an unhealthy place to be, and its owner is a scowling old lady who doesn’t want anything to do with anyone.
That’s not the sort of attitude to have if you want to start up a small business, poor Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon has sunk so low (by her estimation) that she is forced to open a cent shop in her front parlour. It’s not going to be a success as she really thinks that she’s above everyone else, she’s living in the past and remembering when her family was one to be reckoned with in the community. The Pyncheon family is much reduced in size and the only other family member still living in the neighbourhood is Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, a wealthy, greedy man who wore out his poor wife in less than four years – “she got her death-blow in the honeymoon and never smiled again.”. Really the mind boggles!!
Hepzibah’s brother Clifford has just been released from prison where he has been for 30 years, convicted of a crime which he didn’t commit and it’s not long before Jaffrey begins to hound him for information on where some fabled family riches are secreted.
The whole book is lifted by the arrival of Phoebe, a young cousin who luckily has none of the Pyncheon family characteristics, she’s a sunny, happy soul and quickly becomes popular in the neighbourhood, helping to make the shop successful and there’s romance in the air too.
I enjoyed this one and I think I might even reread it sometime in the distant future, when I can concentrate on it more and don’t have builders clambering around in my own house. The setting is of course Massachusetts.