Domestic Disaffection

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • Dearest Beloved: The Hawthornes and the Making of the Middle-Class Family by Walter Herbert
    California, 351 pp, $28.00, April 1993, ISBN 0 520 07587 0

‘He had lived primarily in his domestic affections, which were of the tenderest kind; and then – without eagerness, without pretension, but with a great deal of quiet devotion in his charming art.’ So Henry James summed up the career of his great predecessor in his Hawthorne of 1879. James was usually a shrewd critic, but ‘charming’ is hardly the adjective that first leaps to mind when the modern reader confronts ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’, say, or The Marble Faun. Especially since the Second World War, most 20th-century commentators have preferred to echo Melville’s celebrated remarks on his contemporary’s ‘great power of blackness’. If we are to credit Dearest Beloved, T. Walter Herbert’s dramatic reinterpretation of life among the Hawthornes, James’s tribute to the ‘domestic affections’ falls equally wide of the mark. Herbert does not refuse to believe in the Hawthornes’ tender feelings for one another, but he insists on the rage and terror that must have accompanied such tenderness, on the deep anxieties that, in his view, inevitably haunted the peaceful arrangements of the middle-class home. From a career that James thought ‘probably as tranquil and uneventful a one as ever fell to the lot of a man of letters’, a life ‘almost strikingly deficient ... in what may be called the dramatic quality’, Herbert constructs an often lurid tale of psychosocial conflict and ‘torment’, a narrative of the domestic affections translated into the idiom of New Historicist gothic.

Born Nathaniel Hathorne, the only son of a ship’s captain also called Nathaniel, and of Elizabeth Manning Hathorne, who had been two months pregnant with their first child when the couple married, the future novelist eventually distanced himself from his origins, Herbert suggests, when he changed the spelling of the family name to ‘Hawthorne’ as a young adult. When Nathaniel was four years old, word came that his father had died in Surinam, and the widow moved herself and her children back into her parents’ house. According to family legend, Mrs Hathorne settled into a reclusive mourning – Elizabeth Peabody, the novelist’s future sister-in-law and the original of Miss Birdseye in James’s Bostonians, tartly remarked ‘her all but Hindoo self-devotion to the manes of her husband’ – while her physically delicate and sensitive son grew up both sheltered and indulged by his Manning relatives. An early injury to his foot, which sidelined him for more than a year, intensified a certain ‘feminine’ and aristocratic disdain for the rough-and-tumble commerce of the world. As the time came to leave home and choose a vocation, the young man found himself increasingly reluctant to enter the fray. ‘The happiest days of my life are gone,’ he lamented after a particularly idyllic period with his mother and sisters at the Maine seashore during his early adolescence: ‘Why was I not a girl that I might have been pinned all my life to my Mother’s apron.’ Herbert suggests that Mrs Hathorne’s seclusion has been exaggerated, and that her comparative retreat from the world had as much to do with straitened circumstances and genteel pride as with excessive grief for her husband; but whatever its origins, it seems clear that her son felt compelled to imitate her example, when he in turn famously retreated to the Manning house for more than a dozen years after his graduation from college. These were his years of apprenticeship as a writer: the publication of anonymous tales and essays culminated in the appearance of Twice-Told Tales (1837) when he was 33. Only after he met and fell in love with Sophia Peabody, herself a woman of ‘delicate’ health who suffered all her life from frequent and debilitating headaches, did Hawthorne undertake his first paid employment as a measurer of salt and coal at the Boston Custom House; and only after a protracted four-year courtship of Sophia did he finally inform his mother and sisters of his decision to marry.

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