It is extremely hot here today so before I melt into a steaming puddle on the floor, I thought I’d get a quick post in! I think I’ve alluded to the fact I am doing a Masters in English Literature with the Open University before. I am about a third of the way into my dissertation at the moment and the deadline in early January – so in November and December it is unlikely that I will be thinking of little else! The main theme of my Masters has been intertextuality; the subtle and not so subtle links between texts. So far it has shown me that very little is truly original, but in a wonderful stepping stones kind of a way.
My dissertation is focussing on the links between The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I had heard of a fascinating anecdote about a random link between these two authors which I felt I had to pursue! I think it is quite well-known that one of Hawthorne’s ancestors was one of the judges in the Salem witch trials – the only one never to repent in fact. What is less well-known is that one of Atwood’s ancestress was one of the witches! Margaret Webster is one of the dedicatee of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and was convicted as a witch. However, at the point of hanging, wonderfully, her rope broke and she was let free. Unfortunately she returned to her home, the scene of her persecution (just as Hester in The Scarlet Letter does), and was lynched a short time afterwards. I think little snippets of coincidences and anecdotes are a brilliant starting point for deeper investigations.
In the course of my research for this work, I have just finished Brenda Wineapple’s biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne, called Hawthorne: A life. It was surprisingly difficult to get hold of a well-regarded biography of Hawthorne in the UK so amazon.com came to my rescue. The book itself has lots of useful information in for my dissertation so is worth its weight in gold to me for that alone. A portrait of a man who is quite difficult to like emerged – someone who was as much of a contradiction and ambiguity as his books. For a general reader, I probably would not recommend it however – it is not an example of a great biography due to a slightly awkward writing style. I also found it quite confusing in places. It may be that this was because Wineapple assumes the reader has background knowledge in which I was lacking, but I couldn’t entirely put my finger on exactly what it was. Having said that, it is the only modern, impartial biography I could find (unless anyone reading this has any suggestions?) and so if you are interested in finding out more about Hawthorne, it is certainly well-researched.