“Here is one of the truest points of melancholy interest that occur in ordinary life. It was the final throe of what called itself old gentility. A lady—who had fed herself from childhood with the shadowy food of aristocratic reminiscences, and whose religion it was that a lady’s hand soils itself irremediably by doing aught for bread—this born lady, after sixty years of narrowing means, is fain to step down from her pedestal of imaginary rank. Poverty, treading closely at her heels for a lifetime, had come up with her at last. She must earn her own food, or starve! And we have stolen upon Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon, too irreverently, at the instant of time when the patrician lady is to be transformed into the plebeian woman.”
Each month, The House of the Seven Gables will be focusing on a unique character who makes up the plot to our historic site. While most are non-fictional, we would be remiss not to mention Hepzibah Pyncheon – the matriarch in Hawthorne’s famed novel for who our site is named.
Hawthorne’s reclusive character is a dark cloud that brings weight to The House of the Seven Gables. Hepzibah is the last in a lineage of a colonial New England family. The Pyncheons were characterized by their wealth and power – a force in Salem and beyond. “How the mighty have fallen” seems to be the quote that would best represent the resentment that Hepzibah feels towards her past.
To keep the ancestral home with “seven acutely peaked Gables,” Hepzibah opens a cent shop. She sells small wares to the neighborhood but her disposition doesn’t help her business to thrive. We see glimmers of kindness in the novel from the lady of the house when she interacts with regular customers but that is where the heart-warming ends.
As Hepzibah ages and cannot manage the shop as she once did, her niece Pheobe comes to stay at the house and support the enterprise. She brings back warmth and light to an otherwise darkened story and mood and provides Hepzibah with help and moments of cheer. Together, they are able to maintain the shop. Hepzibah’s brother, Clifford, is another glimmer of love in Hepzibah’s life. His devotion to his sister and the kindness he knows is within continues to brighten the storyline.
In 2020, Hepzibah seems to be an even more relevant character. Reclusive. Protective of her family. Will do anything to ensure her family’s security. Proud. We’ve have seen so many stories of perseverance and resilience and even redemption. An “enterprising woman” and character like Hepzibah proves Hawthornes’ relevance continues today. Do you see a little bit of Hepzibah’s story in you?
To learn more about Hepzibah and Hawthorne, we’d recommend the Hawthorne in Salem article about the novel’s female characters.
* To honor the 100th anniversary of the passing of the 19th amendment, granting women the right to vote, The House of the Seven Gables will celebrate the enterprising spirit of women and their continuing impact with a year of special events.
This post was written by Julie Arrison-Bishop