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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

The Claustrophobia Of Nineteenth Century New England

The House of the Seven Gables - Robert S. Levine, Nathaniel Hawthorne

Set in the mid-nineteenth century, The House of The Seven Gables tells the story of the Pyncheon family. Descended from a Puritan ancestor who was involved in the witch trials of the seventeenth century, the remaining members of the family now live under a curse and the plot of this novel is concerned with the working out of that curse.

Living in reduced circumstances in the eponymous seven-gabled house is the elderly spinster, Hepzibah Pyncheon along with her brother Clifford who has recently been freed after a long imprisonment for the murder of his father (a crime of which he is entirely innocent), Holgrave, a lodger who works as a daguerreotypist, and Phoebe, a young cousin from the country. This assorted company exist in an eccentric harmony until their peace is threatened by the designs of another member of their family, the greedy and ambitious Judge Pyncheon.

Along with Edgar Allen Poe, Hawthorne has been described as leading writer of the Dark Romantic movement and much of the craftsmanship of this novel is directed towards achieving an atmosphere that is deeply claustrophobic. Themes of guilt, the weight of history and the corruption that lies behind outward respectability run through the narrative. Nevertheless, Hawthorne is essentially an optimistic writer, seeming to suggest that the general tendency of humanity is towards enlightenment.

The narrative can often seem slow by contemporary standards. Hawthorne prefers to linger over the details of what he describes, analysing character and motive while teasing out analogies. Although this is enjoyable and enlightening at times, I found the last few chapters excessively rhetorical. Nevertheless, this is a novel that lingers in my mind after reading, not least because of the insight it gives into nineteenth century New England culture and society.