In Hester (St Martin’s, Aug.), Albanese imagines a character who inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
Where did the idea for this book come from?
Hester begins with a literary mystery: Who is Hester Prynne, and what would she say if she could tell her own story? Revisiting The Scarlet Letter, I was captivated by Hawthorne’s famous Custom House Introductory, which includes a complex fiction about discovering Hester’s embroidered 17th-century scarlet A hidden behind a brick in the Custom House, where the author was employed in 1849. In my novel, I take that story one step further, imagining that Hawthorne composed that fiction to steer readers away from the truth as I’ve imagined it in Hester: that he had a lover in Salem, and that she bore his child out of wedlock.
To what extent did the finished book differ from your initial concept?
My first iteration of the novel imagined that Hawthorne’s lover was a real person he knew in Salem or Boston. Some historians and literary scholars say the early American feminist Margaret Fuller was a model for Hester Prynne. I followed this premise as far as I could, writing hundreds of pages about Margaret and Nat’s love affair. But in the end, I just could not make them have sex on the page, and so I had to switch gears. That’s when my Scottish heroine, Isobel Gamble, came to me. I was delighted and relieved to meet her.
Why did you decide to give Isobel synesthesia?
Hester Prynne’s embroidery is so exceptional that villagers pay good money for her work even though she’s a scorned and outcast woman. In a time when everyone from the wealthiest to the poorest women were handy with a needle, and could make everything from fine embroidered dresses to embroidered bed covers and shrouds, what would make Hester’s embroidery so spectacular that people would pay for it? Some explanation was surely needed for her work and its value. Maybe Hester has synesthesia, I thought while reading Hawthorne’s evocative descriptions of her work. That would explain its superlative expressive quality.
What challenges did you face while writing this?
Researching the stories about women accused of witchcraft—they aren’t pretty or fun. These are true horror tales of superstition, cruelty, greed, and murder. Calling a woman a witch, or accusing her of witchcraft, was an easy and convenient way to send her to jail and seize her property. It’s especially disturbing when you consider there are still hundreds of women accused of witchcraft every year. Hawthorne’s ancestor was a magistrate in the 1692 Salem witchcraft trials, and appears here in flashbacks. Showing the truth about those accused and their accusers was very important to me.