For certain, everyone remembers Hester Prynne, the woman at the center of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s THE SCARLET LETTER. It was Hester who was forced to wear a big red “A” on her dress, in punishment for her adultery. We also remember that she had a child, Pearl, from a tryst with her lover, Arthur Dimmesdale. When Arthur died from a burden of shame too heavy for his conscience to bear, Hester took her daughter, and the two disappeared from their small village outside of Boston. Years later, Hester returned to her cottage and lived out her remaining days alone. Where had she been, and what happened to Pearl?
If we’re to believe Paula Reed’s richly crafted tale, the two traveled to England where Hester found lodging in the home of a childhood friend, Mary Wright, and her husband Robert, along with their children. Pearl, just heading into puberty, is delighted. She sees much of life as a giant adventure, hers for the taking. And what could be more exciting than London for a young lady? Hester is simply happy to be among friends. But the times are tumultuous, for King Charles has been murdered and his heir has fled. Oliver Cromwell leads the country now, although not with the allegiance of the entire nation. There are factions working on plans for his demise. Cromwell discovers that Hester has a sort of special sight: she can see sin and treachery in others just by looking into their eyes. Hester considers this a curse, but Cromwell takes it as a gift to be used for his purposes.
“It is a lonely life to be the embodiment of sin, lonelier still it is to be a legend. Day to day, little enough changes. I need never jostle my way through a crowd, for it parts where I walk, my neighbors never quite certain what might become of them should they brush against me. Once they feared I might taint them. Then they feared that I might come to know them too deeply, and through me, they might come to know themselves better than they would have wished.”
Reluctantly, Hester plays her role in Cromwell’s reign, but she spends her private time listening to those who would plot against him, and as she does, she begins to sympathize with them. Of course, things come to a head, and when she is found out, it becomes too dangerous for her to remain in England. Hester and Pearl are quickly spirited out of London and land in Bruges, Belgium, where Charles II, who rightfully should be king of England, is being sheltered. As Hester awaits her chance to meet Charles, she takes note of Pearl’s budding beauty. She will have to watch that one, for she is her mother’s daughter. Young Pearl not only has Hester’s entrancing looks, but her shrewdness and her pluck as well.
Told with wonderful attention to historical detail, HESTER is a beautiful story of what might have become of Hester Prynne and her daughter after Hawthorne’s story ended. Paula Reed exhibits sensational wisdom in the words she issues from Hester’s mouth. The fallen woman who wore the scarlet letter learned much from her experiences, and in the final analysis, she pays society back for her wandering, ultimately foregoing her own happiness. And Pearl? Well, Pearl’s story takes another path.
In 2005, I reviewed ANGEL AND APOSTLE. In it, author Deborah Noyes imagines what happened to the Prynnes, told from Pearl’s perspective. It is a much different book from HESTER, yet equally excellent and entertaining. If you liked THE SCARLET LETTER, you will triple your pleasure by adding these two novels to your shelf.
Reviewed by Kate Ayers on January 24, 2011