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Where Did the Idea for The Scarlet Letter Come From? Read the Novel, Hester

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

You won't like Hawthorne much

Illustration of Puritan woman with A on her chest
Hester Prynne with a red "A" and baby of The Scarlet Letter. Graphic illustration: Doyoung Jung

The thrill of the first read

I remember struggling through my first reading of Nathaniel Hawthorn's The Scarlet Letter sometime in the mid-1970s. What I remember most about the classic, often assigned novel was my absolute, utter epiphany when I figured out who the father of Hester Prynne's baby was. I should have been able to put it together sooner. It shouldn't have been such a surprise to discover the minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, was also the father of the illegitimate child. But I was young, innocent, unschooled in human vices, and completely stunned by the realization that a minister had been unwilling to publicly admit his own sin.

The Scarlet Letter will forever be my "bowled-over-by-discovery" moment, that electric shock of sudden understanding, that literal lightbulb moment when I understood what epiphany really felt like.

In all the years after my first reading of The Scarlet Letter, I have never again felt that same thrill of "getting it."

Laurie Lico Albanese's novel, "Hester"

Laurie Lico Albanese's novel, Hester, is a fictional backstory to Nathanial Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Albanese envisions a scenario in which Hawthorne isn't writing pure fiction when he pens The Scarlet Letter. Instead, Albanese's novel supposes that Hawthorne wrote his famous novel based on an episode in his own life. Hester Prynne is modeled after Isobel Gamble, a beautiful Scottish woman who recently immigrated to Salem with her husband Edward.

Isobel is a skilled seamstress and needleworker forced to come to America when Edward, a practicing apothecary, has gotten financial backing for a cure he claimed to create. Instead, he became addicted to opium and lost his home, his job, and his reputation. Isobel's father gives them money for passage to America to get a fresh start.

Sadly for Isobel, Edward has not changed. The aptly named, Captain Darling, hires Edward as the ship's doctor, but on the voyage, Edward gives in to his addiction. When the Captain falls ill, it is Isobel who cares for him daily and nurses him to recovery. During Captain Darling's long recuperation, Isobel discovers that the Captain engages in needlework, too, a skill practiced during his many years at sea and many quiet hours in his cabin. A deep and comfortable friendship begins.

Isobel's plight

Captain Darling helps Edward and Isobel settle into an isolated cottage, not far from a black woman named Mercy living with her two children. Edward isn't ready to settle down and immediately enlists with Captain Darling for another voyage, and the good captain is willing to give him another chance.

Isobel believes she can support herself by making dresses and doing embroidery, starting up a small shop with the four gold coins her father gave her before she left Scotland. Unfortunately, her no-good husband, Edward, has stolen her money, leaving Isobel with nothing. She must rely on her resourcefulness, her hard work ethic, and her unbelievably beautiful needlework.

The needlework, itself, is Isobel's secret. She has "synesthesia," a phenomenon affecting perception where one sensory pathway stimulates another sensory or cognitive pathway. Often, people with synesthesia see colors associated with letters or numbers, and Isobel sees colors when people speak or she reads words. Today, we understand the condition. Then, it was considered as abnormal, a deviation that would be considered witchcraft and punishable by death. Isobel has been told to hide her ability to see color with letters, but she often embroiders a tiny red "A" and hides it in a completed piece of work as her signature. Her ability to see letters and words in color is what makes her embroidery both unique and stunning.

Hidden secrets. Hidden guilt

In the novel, Hester, everyone has secrets.

Hester's needlework and the cut of women's dresses hide deformities, birthmarks, and pregnancy. Mercy, the woman next door, has her own hidden problems, and even the good Captain Darling is hiding things.

Isobel's secret stems from generations before when her ancestor, Isobel Gowdie is accused of witchcraft but escaped. Isobel is her direct descendent and carries the same gift of seeing colors with words that her grandmother had.

The hidden history of witchcraft accusations and her own strange talent are Isobel's secrets to hide. Another secret is that from the moment she sets foot in Salem and sees Nat Hawthorne, she is attracted to him.

Nathaniel Hawthorne has a secret, too. His ancestor was the judge who had condemned so many innocent people as witches, so Hawthorne carries around a heavy load of ancestral guilt and punishes himself for the "sins of the father."

Isobel and Nat are both artists. Isobel's needlework and Nat's stories are both manifestations of their thoughts and dreams, and sharing them becomes an intimacy that becomes physical as well as emotional.

Bigger historical topics are intertwined with the plot

The novel Hester combines a lot of historical information with the plot to present an accurate picture of New England in the mid-1800s. Issues of slave trading, slavery, prejudice against immigrants, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and class struggles are integral to the action.

The biggest historical punch is, of course, the witch trials around the world. The story of Isobel's ancestor accused of witchcraft in Scotland is a parallel plotline reminding the readers of what can happen when other people sit in judgment of those who are different from themselves.

You won't like Hawthorne much

Hawthorne is preeminent in American literature for his use of allegory and his exploration of the frailties of mankind. He is the author of five novels: The Scarlet Letter, The Blithedale Romance, The House of Seven Gables, The Marble Faun, and Fanshawe. Of these five novels, only The Scarlet Letter does not have a known source of inspiration.

Laurie Lico Albanese decided to fabricate a novel supposing Hawthorne's inspiration for The Scarlet Letter. In Hester, Hawthorne is seen as a self-centered, intense, odd writer who detests his ancestors and is working to prove his family's worth, abandoning Isobel without support or comment when she tells him she is pregnant. He is not a likable character. Instead, the reader is meant to appreciate Isobel's strength and tenacity and her desire to create a better life for her daughter.

We see in Isobel the strong, early feminist character of Hester Prynne that Nathaniel Hawthorne created in the heroine of The Scarlet Letter.

Same story. Different characters

Do you need to know The Scarlet Letter to read Hester?

No. You can understand the book Hester as a stand-alone book with a universal plot. An "outsider" woman with a bad husband supports herself and succumbs to the charms of another man. She becomes pregnant. People around her either help or hurt her, and she vows to overcome her plight and provide a better life for her new baby.

But if you know the novel The Scarlet Letter and/or anything about Nathaniel Hawthorne, your reading experience will be so much richer. You'll see how Hester's husband Edward translates to Chillingworth; how Hawthorne becomes Dimmesdale, (although less sympathetic because he doesn't demonstrate the intense guilt that Dimmesdale suffered,) and how Isobel morphs into Hester Prynne.

Book clubs take note

If your book club is game, try pairing the classic Scarlet Letter with Hester. Reading the two together provides a springboard for discussion: How does literature from 170 years ago affect the literature of the present? Are the issues of the past the same as the issues of the present? Are people any different now than they were then? Should The Scarlet Letter still be taught in schools? Is it still relevant? How common are men like Dimmesdale/Hawthorne? How common are women like Hester/Isobel? Does an author have to experience a situation to be able to write about it? How has your understanding of The Scarlet Letter changed from your first reading?

And the list goes on and on....

Interesting concept. Imaginative writing

Hester is based on an interesting concept.

Certainly, imagining the situations that caused Hawthorne to craft his classic a hundred and seventy years ago is a creative challenge. Kudos to Laurie Lico Albanese for pulling it off.


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