Hesper Honeywood is a passionate, authentic, gutsy heroine searching for fulfillment away from her childhood home of Marblehead Massachusetts. Disaster seems to stalk her as she suffers grief and loss during the Civil War, poverty and hardship and desertion. When she does eventually land a husband we are dismayed to find him self-absorbed and are shocked by the level of selfishness he exhibits. However, Evan redeems himself when Hesper falls ill and he steps up to the mark, caring for her in spite of his own desires and personal inclinations.
One of the things I wondered as I read this book was, will Hesper ever really find true happiness and contentment? The author does such a thorough job of foreshadowing that it seems the reader has plenty of warning that all will not be well in Hester’s life. Some vague unspecified disaster is often just around the corner or lurking in the shadows to discourage Hester or interfere with her dreams.
“…as she led the slave-catcher from the buttery, through the larder and into the borning room, pausing in each for him to poke and pray and open cupboards, she was puzzled by a question. Why did the olden times seem so romantic – while the present never did? She had a vague realization that this night’s work would also seem romantic someday, but it didn’t now. That’s because I don’t know the ending – she thought. Things you hear of from the past, you know what’s happened, you don’t have to worry. Yet at the moment, she wasn’t worried. She felt contempt, mastery, inner excitement, not worry, as she led the slave-catcher through the rambling house, even pointing out cupboards and crannies he might overlook.”
Compare this scene fraught with tension with the sentimental writing Seton intersperses in this Marblehead historical novel and one realizes that this book is one of distinct and diverse contrasts.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the events described in this novel were true. The tragic loss of 65 men and boys at sea during the storm of September of 1846 really did happen. Marblehead truly was settled by a Dolliber, and likewise, the men from Marblehead Massachusetts did aid George Washington at the battle of Trenton, ferrying the men across the Delaware River. The community that began as a small fishing village did eventually grow and their economy was greatly helped by the shoe factories where Hesper finds work.
Certainly this area is rich in history and characters, and there is enough material for more than just one novel like Seton’s “The Hearth and the Eagle”.
At times the novel is almost maudlin and over sentimental (one can get a bit weary of the too-oft-doom-and-gloom warning of approaching misfortune). But as with all of Seton’s writing, the story sweeps the reader into a time period and setting that is often tragic and never simplistic. The theme of this novel seems to be endurance.
“The girl was silent a minute; then she burst out. “But why? It doesn’t seem fair. You can see she was a wonderful person. Why couldn’t she be happy too? Why can’t we all stay happy!”
Ah, I forget how young she is, thought Hesper. Why do we all have to start with rebellion, and frantic strivings? How long it takes to get over the sentimental delusion of “fairness.”
Hesper finds to her surprise as she looks back, that her life was not so bad after all. Her heritage was uniquely significant and to be valued, not disdained. Hearth and home were to be prized not solely because they were always there, but also (and this is a light-bulb moment of revelation for Hesper), ultimately where she found contentment and satisfaction. Home in the small coastal village of Marblehead is where Hesper eventually finds she truly wants to be.
According to this article, Anya Seton did not classify her novels as historical romance. “It is sufficient to pick a congenial period, then read a couple of books in order to properly clothe and feed the characters, who are invented by the author. And since love and conflict are common to all ages, the historical background can be negligible. My own works are very, very different in approach. I have a passion for facts, for dates, for places. I love to recreate the past and to do so with all the accuracy possible. This means an enormous amount of research, which is no hardship because I love it.”
The article also mentions that she influenced writers such as Gabaldon (who wrote the popular “Outlander” series) and Sharon Kay Penman.
After I finished this book (not her best writing; reviewers seem to agree that distinction belongs to her novel “Katherine”), I came to one conclusion. The more I read of Seton, the more I want to read her. And perhaps that is the best one can say of any author.
This biography explores Seton’s home and family: According to some reviewers, “The Hearth and the Eagle” is about Seton’s own ancestors from Marblehead.