To fans of feminist stories, witchy tales of realistic romance, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, this is the novel for you! As the eponymous name implies, Hester is about the woman behind Hawthorne’s famous heroine. Albanese begins with the premise that she was a real woman, that the Hester Prynne of Hawthorne’s fame was based on a person from his own past, fantasized into the character of The Scarlet Letter.
In this backstory, Hester Prynne is a young Scottish woman, Isobel Gamble, who arrives in the New World for the express purpose of leaving behind the old one. It is an adventure tale, interspersed with romance, lust, avarice, and desire for belonging. The novel follows Isobel through her first few years in the northern colony, around a hundred years after the terrible witch trials at Salem, in the early 1800s.
But the magnetic charm of Hester doesn’t hinge on this legendary and vile history, even though the witch trials still bestow both a lurid glamour and an ugly stain on those whose ancestors took part in it. The community as a whole has a long memory and a store of dark secrets: the witch trials and the African slave trade (though illegal, the formerly enslaved and the enslaved still feel the manacles of bondage in all kinds of social, cultural, and institutionalized ways).
Simultaneously, the novel does not stand on the appeal of the fictionalized Hester or the “real” Isobel, though the characters in Hester are well-crafted as complex, nuanced individuals filled with flaws and virtues. No, the real pull of this story is its vivid portrayal of Puritan life as a gendered, stratified, prestige-hungry society. Hester spreads out for the reader a vast and complicated landscape of social politics. The world Albanese crafts is a real one. The reader gets a look into the world of Puritan men and women that lies beyond the stereotypical discussions of marriage and sexlessness and religion; Albanese’s Isobel is a working woman — a seamstress — and we see through the eye of her needle into the labor women do, both socially as the pillars around which society is upheld and economically as employers, employees, merchants, and consumers. We also see the emotional labor women are tasked with, according to society and their men — husbands, brothers, fathers, and so on.
The women of Hester are not powerless as a result of their labor. They do, in fact, wield immense influence and can — in some circumstances — exercise a great deal of agency. They work within the patriarchal framework of Puritan society to defy it, uphold it, mold it to their needs and ambitions. Isobel Gamble is only one of the women in Hester around whom the novel revolves. There is also Isobel Gowdie who is Isobel Gamble’s ancestress; Mercy, a woman of African descent, formerly enslaved; Felicity, a shrewd merchant in Salem; Nell, a fellow immigrant; and the Silas women, members of Salem’s old guard elite. Hester is about all these women and the world they lived in and shaped like clay through their ambitions and circumstances.
The story takes all the way to Pearl, the narrator in Hawthorne’s novel, but it is not the Pearl that he created for us; she is Isobel’s Pearl. Any fan of The Scarlet Letter will find continuity and novelty in Hester.
This is a gorgeous novel; its prose is simple, succinct, and sharp, much like the crisp starkness of Puritan collars and its story is ornate, a twist of knots and tiny stitches like the floral embroidery of Salem’s women.