The House of the Seven Gables – Nathaniel Hawthorne

It’s thirty five years since I first read this book and it has definitely stayed on the shelf since then. I remember writing to the person who sent it to me and recommended I read it that the most remarkable thing was that it contained it’s own review in the opening line of chapter fifteen.

Several days passed over the Seven Gables, heavily and drearily enough.

Still maybe thirty five years have changed my opinion…

Well I enjoyed the book more than the last time but it is interminably slow, taking at one point nineteen pages to talk about a dead body sitting in the chair where he expired and in the 363 pages that the novel takes very little happens that couldn’t have been told in half that. The novel starts by describing the wrong committed against Mathew Maule by Colonel Pyncheon who under the pretence of calling him out as a wizard, for this was the times of the Salem witch trials, took his house and land to build his own mansion on, the eponymous House of the Seven Gables. Maule curses the Colonel as he is on the gallows that he shall die and very specifically

“God” said the dying man, pointing his finger, with a ghastly look, at the undismayed countenance of his enemy; – “God will give him blood to drink!”

When, on the very first day of the house being completed and open to guests the Colonel is nowhere to be seen and is later discovered sitting at his desk with a great gout of blood on his chest which had gushed from his mouth the curse of Mathew Maule is remembered and the descendants of Pyncheon are reckoned to be likewise cursed. The book then leaps forward to the present day, or at least to the late 1840’s (it was written in 1851) and we are slowly introduced to our small cast of characters. Hepzibah Pyncheon is an old maid and now sole occupier of the house apart from the lodger Holgrave who inhabits one of the gables, cut off from the main property by a bolted door. She is agitated when we first meet her as she is about to do something that if it wasn’t the poverty that she had been reduced to she would never have attempted and that is to open a small shop in part of the house, Hepzibah is not cut out for trade. On the first day she meets her cousin Judge Pyncheon who is most upset with her opening the shop and bringing, as he sees it, disrepute on the family name. There is clearly animosity between Hepzibah and the distinguished judge, but the root of what it is we won’t find out for over three hundred pages.

Fortunately for Hepzibah the next day her cousin Phoebe arrives from the country and proves very good at running the shop and then a little later the household is completed by the arrival of Hepzibah’s brother Clifford who is aged and apparently simple minded, but has also apparently been the cause of scandal and has been away for thirty years. From the hostility Clifford shows to his cousin the judge it is clear that there is bad blood between them. And there the book remains, dealing with minor household triumphs and tragedies for a couple of hundred pages whilst the reader is left wondering when Hawthorne is actually going to get round to doing anything significant with these characters he has assembled. Ironically just after my original quote about dreariness the plot suddenly speeds up as a crisis brings everything to a head but by which time we are well after page 275 and I have to wonder how many readers have given up before then.

Despite Hawthorne’s statements in the preface of the novel that there is no specific locality where the story is set other than a generic ‘New England’ he was actually inspired to write after visiting a 1666 colonial property owned by some relatives of his in Salem, Massachusetts. The house at the time had been remodelled and only had three gables but when it became a museum, in the early part of the 20th century, another four gables were added along with a representation of Hepzibah’s cent shop which had never previously existed. I visited the house in 1986 which was the reason for reading the book in the first place. It has taken 35 years for me to pick it up again and I might have another go in another 35 years but I can’t really see me making the effort somehow even assuming I’m still around to do so.

The copy I have is a very tatty copy of The Pocket Library ninth edition from 1959, originally published by them in 1954 so it must have been popular. The Pocket Library was a very short lived imprint from Pocket Books lasting as it did from 1953 to 1959.

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