Introduction to Zenobia and Priscilla in The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Materials prepared by:
Department of English
North Shore Community College;
Zenobia, illustration from the Essex Institute Historical Collection volume entitled "From Cover to Cover: The Presentation of Hawthorne's Major Romances" (courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA)
Hawthorne’s third major novel, The Blithedale Romance, published in 1852, was inspired by his participation in Brook Farm, a utopian community outside Boston. In the preface to BR, however, Hawthorne refutes any direct connection between his life at Brook Farm and the events of the novel. Also, he asserts that his novel was not meant to stake out a position on socialism. Still, scholars have observed connections between the people in Hawthorne’s life and his fictional characters in BR as well as the reflection of reform movements of the time.
One aspect of social change of the 1830s and 1840s that the novel explores is the changing role of women and especially the women’s rights movement. That movement was connected to the temperance movement, which Hawthorne also refers to in the novel, as women played a prominent role in calling for laws against drinking. These activities were not viewed as radical, however, as their efforts on behalf of families and children were deemed appropriate for their roles as homemakers.
An important leader of the women’s rights movement was Margaret Fuller whom many, though by no means all, scholars believe was Hawthorne’s inspiration for the character of Zenobia, the woman with a mysterious past who is a passionate and radical reformer and voice for women’s rights in the novel. Anti-slavery was another major reform movement of the time, and Fuller argues that the plight of African-Americans highlighted the inequalities of women as well. She examines the way in which a woman can assert herself in a relationship with a man but also depend on him, as indeed he can on her, in her book, Women in the Nineteenth Century. In addition to Fuller’s role in the women’s rights movement, another reason for linking her with Zenobia may be that Fuller was a frequent visitor to Brook Farm when Hawthorne was in residence there. Scholars also point out that, like Zenobia, Fuller also wore exotic flowers in her hair, and, like Zenobia, Fuller died from drowning (though from a shipwreck, not a suicide).
Another source cited as a possible inspiration for the scene of Zenobia’s drowning in the novel is the story of Martha Hunt, a young woman who drowned in the Concord River in the summer of 1845 when Hawthorne and Sophia were living at the Old Manse. Hawthorne was called to help search for the girl, and his notebook descriptions of that event and the newspaper accounts of the time bear some resemblance to Hawthorne’s depiction of the search and discovery of Zenobia’s body. Zenobia’s fate, some scholars argue, may be an expression of Hawthorne’s distaste for Fuller, a woman for whom he seems to have had ambivalent feelings, attracted to her intellect but recoiling at her intensity.
Although most scholars do not cite any one source for Zenobia, they do seem to agree that she is a complicated character, astute and compelling. In her essay “A Radical Reading,” Nina Baym explains that Zenobia “is a depiction of the eternal feminine as earthy, maternal, domestic, natural, sensual, brilliant, loving, and demanding, and is described mainly in images of softness, radiance, warmth, and health, none of which are even slightly ambivalent or ambiguous in their emotional import” (354). At the same time, Baym notes that Zenobia is also a feminist who places an exotic flower in her hair each day. Baym believes that Zenobia is only a “female pamphleteer…[because] it is the best she can do in a society that offers woman no worthy roles at all” (355). As for the flower, Baym argues that its purpose is to announce “that Zenobia’s nature is passionate as well as pastoral” and that “[o]ne may hazard that what Hawthorne is trying to do here is precisely to reinstate sexuality as a legitimate and natural element of femininity…” (355).
Interestingly, Hawthorne mentions Margaret Fuller in the novel, not in connection with Zenobia, but with Priscilla, the seamstress and also the Veiled Lady. Coverdale, the narrator of the novel, asks her if she ever saw Fuller and says, “’you reminded me of her, just now’” (48) and goes on to tell her that he has just received a letter from her. Priscilla, however, is very different from Fuller and from Zenobia. She is beautiful, like Zenobia, but whereas Zenobia is rich, assertive, and strong, Priscilla is poor, submissive, and delicate. Priscilla, who sews purses, may also have been inspired by a real person, though perhaps only to the extent of her appearance. A young girl from Boston who was a seamstress and visited Brook Farm made a distinct impression on him, and he describes her in a journal entry on October 9, 1841. He writes:
For a week past, we have been especially gladdened with a little sempstress from
Boston, about seventeen years old, but of such a petite figure that, at first view one
would take her to be hardly in her teens. She is very vivacious and smart, laughing,
singing, and talking, all the time—talking sensibly, but still taking the view of matters
that a city girl naturally would. If she were larger than she is, and of less pleasing
aspect, I think she might be intolerable; but being so small, and with a white skin,
healthy as a wild flower, she is really very agreeable; and to look at her face is like
being shone upon by a ray of the sun. She never walks, but bounds and dances
along; and this motion, in her small person, does not give the idea of violence. It is
like a bird, hopping form twig to twig, and chirping merrily all the time.
(“Hawthorne’s Use” 246)
It is this reference which some scholars point to as evidence that this young woman was the model for Priscilla. [Scholars have observed that Old Moodie was similarly inspired by a casual encounter. Margaret Moore says, that “the inspiration for Old Moodie's portrayal, most scholars believe, came from Hawthorne's sighting in 1850 of an ‘elderly ragamuffin’ near Parker's Grog Shop in Boston who had a ‘more than shabby general aspect’ and a ‘patch over one eye,’" whom Hawthorne describes in his notebook.]
While few would suggest exact analogues between real life and fictional characters in BR, Hawthorne’s notebooks and letters do provide reason to detect some influence of real life characters in his fictional ones, and, as Robert S. Levine points out, the “pointed denials” of links to real people and settings in Hawthorne’s prefaces both to The House of the Seven Gables and to BR “can be taken as arch signalings of sources and settings” (xi). At the same time, one can also make the case for multiple such influences as well as, of course, for the predominance of his own imaginative development of the character.
Baym, Nina. “A Radical Reading.” The Blithedale Romance. Eds. Seymour Gross and Rosalie Murphy.
NY: W.W. Norton, 1978. 351-368. Print.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Blithedale Romance. Eds. Seymour Gross and Rosalie Murphy.
NY: W.W. Norton, 1978.
---. The Blithedale Romance. Introduction by Robert S. Levine. Cambridge: Belknap of
Harvard UP, 2010.
----. “Hawthorne’s Use of The American Notebooks in The Blithedale Romance.” The
Blithedale Romance. Eds. Seymour Gross and Rosalie Murphy. NY: W.W. Norton,
1978. 245-246. Print.
Moore, Margaret. "The Mystery of Old Moodie," paper delivered at Nathaniel Hawthorne
Society Summer Meeting, Northampton, Massachusetts, June 21-23, 2002.