Friday, May 04, 2012

Writers On Writing: Reimagining Hester Prynne

The fortune cookie said, “A childhood book will have new meaning for you.”

I was eating Chinese with a group of women writers and we’d just been discussing our favorite books. I mentioned Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic tale, The Scarlet Letter. Hester Prynne, I said, was my all-time literary heroine. “But I wonder what ever happened to Pearl?” I added.

That was it. Between the cookie and the conversation, I knew I was doomed to answer my own question. I also knew that I couldn’t write a historical novel; it just wasn’t in me to do that kind of research or crafting. But I do know a lot about the Second Wave of the women’s movement. Why not put my Hester into the 20th century, replicate the main events of Hawthorne’s work within a contemporary, feminist context, then invent a life for Pearl?

So was born my first novel, Hester’s Daughters, published in January.

The reason I loved The Scarlet Letter, even though like most high school students I couldn’t grasp altogether the extraordinary insight into human psychology that Hawthorne exhibited, was Hester. I was wowed by her strength in the face of such isolation by her community; I admired her pride, and her absolute dignity. I loved that she embroidered the scarlet A worn on her bosom in such a way that it cast shame on those who looked upon it, not the woman who wore the mark of adultery. I admired how she came to be respected by the Puritans who had scorned her. I envied her empathy.

Hawthorne is said to have launched a new genre, the psychological romance. Both of those “tags” appeal to me. I am a romantic at heart with a good grasp of human psychology. In retelling the story of Hester Prynne through the lens of gender (and imagining Pearl as an adult who has her own love child), I hope I have honored Hawthorne and his characters.

Without a doubt they have enriched my life, and my literary aspirations.

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Elayne Clift is a writer, journalist, and adjunct lecturer in Gender Studies. Her novel was published in January and is available from A Vermont Humanities Scholar and regular contributor to Women’s Media Center, she lives in Saxtons River, Vt.  

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