The Hearth and Eagle

March 13, 2010 at 3:45 pm (Historical fiction, Romance) (, , , , , )

The Hearth and Eagle by Anya Seton

The Hearth and Eagle
originally published 1948
Chicago Review Press, 1st edition, 2008
377 pages
Genre: Historical fiction, romance, family saga

Book Report: Hesper Honeywood is the sole scion of one of Marblehead, Massachusetts’ oldest families. Phebe and Mark Honeywood came over from England with John Winthrop, but left the Salem settlement to help found Marblehead, contrary from its very beginnings. Hesper has been raised on tales of their bravery and strength, as well as those of many other Honeywood and Marblehead folk. Young and passionate, Hesper is also heedless, caring more for love and romance than quiet strength or courage. But it is the vigor inherited from her forebears that will carry Hesper through the tragedy and fulfillment in her very long life, one that spans from the tumultuous antebellum years, through the rise and fall of Marblehead’s various industries, to gentrification and the Great War. Hesper will know love and passion, hatred and despair, and she, like her people before her, will endure.

Are all of Anya Seton’s books back in print now? When I first started reading her in 2005, it seemed like there there were just a couple, so I had to scour libraries and used bookshops looking for antiquated hardcover books and pulp paperbacks. But now there are all these sleek trade paperbacks with lovely covers! (It’s kind of funny, because in Olivia Goldsmith’s The Bestseller, there’s a lonely, half-senile old woman who wrote blockbuster historical fiction in the Forties and Fifties, only to be long out of print when the novel was written, and an editor at one of the publishing houses has to keep soothing her. I have a feeling Goldsmith based Anna Morrison on Anya Seton, but who had the last laugh there? Ooh, burn!) Unusually this edition of The Hearth and Eagle features only a short Author’s Note prefacing the novel, rather than the Forwards that have accompanied most of the others I’ve read form the Chicago Review Press. Is that because it was a less popular work, or have they just gotten lazy in the Windy City?

Like Devil Water (which I love), The Hearth and Eagle is based at least in part upon an actual ancestor of Seton’s—but I’m not sure whether that’s Phebe or Hesper. After an introductory chapter setting the story with tragedy and fortitude in the deep-rooted fishing community, Seton whisks us back to the seventeenth century, and Phebe and Mark Honeywood’s journey with John Winthrop’s expedition (we met him in The Winthrop Woman) to the New World in 1630. The Honeywoods are not Puritans, which makes them stand out from the rest of the company, prompting their removal to Marblehead and relative freedom. After an unfortunate accident that threatens their livelihood and ability to stay in the New World, however, Phebe establishes their home as an ordinary, or tavern, setting a precedent for generations of Honeywoods. This sixty page chapter is the only flashback in The Heart and Eagle, a startling departure for Seton, who often writes novels positively RIDDLED with flashbacks—or, she sticks to the principal narrative. I was half expecting the novel to follow Hesper’s life with a series of flashbacks to prominent events in history form the perspective of her ancestors, but I guess that once Seton has established Marblehead’s antecedents, she felt no need to return to the deeper past.

Hesper’s story is an odd one, with few triumphant highs, some deep lows, and many long plateaus; I cannot decide whether that is a stylistic device of Seton’s or it reflects a contemporary style from the early twentieth century. Like Avalon, The Turquoise, The Winthrop Woman, and My Theodosia, there is no overtly happy ending, only a sense of rightness and belonging after a lifetime of struggle. The themes of acceptance and compromise in her work may appeal less to readers used to a more traditional happy ending, but I like Seton’s endings. They resonate and have an honesty not found in most historical romantic fiction.

I must say, I am fond of a good novel about early American colonial settlement. I know it’s a tricky subject these days, now that we’ve acknowledged a few centuries of genocide and generally awful treatment of North America’s indigenous peoples and whatnot, and recognized the Evils of Manifest Destiny etcetera, but when reading a well-written treatment of those early years, I can’t help but feel a sense of wonder and awe at the fortitude of those who survived. Seton really brings the frightened misery experienced by early settlers into a stark contrast with the bowlderized elementary school mythology so many of us took in as children, which makes the experience of reading it so much the richer.

Though the prose may sometimes seem somewhat stilted due to its age, Seton has a remarkable knack for making her settings and characters come alive. Old Marblehead and its raffish inhabitants will seem real; you can almost smell the woodsmoke and salt tang of the air. Hesper is not Seton’s most interesting or lively protagonist, but the Phebe chapter and richly imagined setting make The Hearth and Eagle a good read even for non-devotees.

Read also: Devil Water, Green Darkness, Dragonwyck, Avalon, The Turquoise, The Winthrop Woman, My Theodosia, and of course Katherine by Anya Seton (can you tell that I like her?); Through a Glass Darkly by Karleen Koen, The Bearkeeper’s Daughter by Gillian Bradshaw, Brief Gaudy Hour by Margaret Campbell Barnes, The Concubine by Norah Lofts, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

Cover: At first glance it seems like a lovely cover, but then you realize that a) it’s a portrait superimposed over a ‘Shopped photograph of a colonial house and b) the portrait is neither seventeenth or nineteenth century, so it can be neither Phebe nor Hesper. What the dilly-o, Chicago Press Review? Were you phoning it in, or what? The composition is really good, but it looks like a mock-up.

Phebe gladly complied, but as she trudged up the path ahead of them her heart was troubled. They did not expect a castle, but did they expect the hardships and the actual hunger which already Phebe had discovered in Salem. This morning when filling a pot with water for the cleansing of their garments, she had talked with a gaunt middle-aged woman near the spring. Goodwife Allan acted half-crazed as she told of the previous winter; the wolves, the savages, the bitter bitter cold, the hunger and the sickness and fear. Her high thin voice whined through her drawn lips as though against its will. She had no pity, nor desire to frighten, either. It seemed she could not stop from touching again and again like a festering tooth the horror of her memories. And Phebe could not get away, for the woman followed her about until another woman came and spoke sharply.
“Hold your tongue, Goody. ‘Tis cruel to so frighten the young mistress here,” and turning to Phebe she spoke lower. “Her two babes died this winter. She returns to England when the fleet goes—and so do I.”
Home to England–! Phebe had clamped her mind down hard against he great leap of longing and envy she had felt, and hope too. Surely Mark would soon see how different all was from his expectation.
Yet now, watching the Lady Arbella and her husband, she felt some shame for her own faint heart. They would never falter, thought Phebe, nor turn back home in fear and failure.

22 February – 24 February

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1 Comment

  1. The Runaway Princess « the stacks my destination said,

    […] instead: Anya Seton, Karleen Koen, Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor, Jude […]

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