Hope Leslie

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Hope Leslie; or, Early Times in the Massachusetts (1827) is the third novel of Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789–1867), following her early domestic novels A New-England Tale (1822) and Redwood (1824). A writer of juvenile fiction, moral tales, and domestic literature as well as numerous novels, Sedgwick was a well-respected literary figure in New England before the appearance of Hope Leslie. But this novel is important to any critical assessment of her work because of its skillful use of historical materials and its ability to offer cultural criticism about the United States in the 1820s through the literary medium of revisionary history. Although the novel was only a modest commercial and critical success, it did help Sedgwick's literary career, and it did further legitimate the role of the professional woman writer in America.


Hope Leslie is a historical novel about Puritan New England that manages to address important social and cultural issues facing early-nineteenth-century America. Sedgwick turned to Puritan history during a period of great cultural interest in colonial history. During the 1820s, after all, New Englanders were celebrating the bicentennial commemorations of the founding of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies. Sedgwick makes use of Puritan and early national histories as well as cultural myths of the period (for example, the heroic Puritan founding of New England and the Pocahontas legend) to reconstruct the meaning of New England's colonial past for contemporary American readers. Hope Leslie is thus a novel highly self-conscious about the nature—and politics—of historical truth.

The plot of Hope Leslie is characteristically complex for early American historical novels that were influenced by the literary models provided by Sir Walter Scott (discussed below). The novel begins by putting Puritanism in a transatlantic context, exposing the mixture of religious and worldly motives behind the Puritan migration in the character of William Fletcher, who loses both his financial inheritance and his chance for true love in leaving England for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Once there, he soon escapes to the Massachusetts frontier and establishes a homestead aptly named (after the biblical Israelites) "Bethel." Set in this locale during the 1630s and 1640s, the rest of the novel creates an entangled romance plot that involves Fletcher's son, Everell, with three young women: Hope Leslie, Magawisca, and another Puritan girl (more pristine and dutiful than Hope) named Esther Downing. This complicated romance plot is set within the historical context of the violent conflict between English settlers and Algonquian Indians. In the novel, this culminates with Magawisca's own eyewitness account—a revisionary history of sorts—of the infamous Pequot War (1637), in which Puritan forces annihilated two Native American settlements in Connecticut. The Native American reprisal for this act sets the plot into motion: it leads to Everell's captivity, Magawisca's effort to free him (where she loses her arm), and the captivity of Hope's sister Faith, who becomes culturally assimilated and marries a Pequot warrior.

Part 2 sustains the novel's general pattern of cultural crossing, masculine violence, and captivity. However, Sedgwick complicates the plot even further by introducing the villain Sir Philip Gardiner (a character based upon a real person mentioned in the Puritan historian William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation). Gardiner is a closet Catholic, a sexual rake, and a political conspirator against the Bay Colony; he is accompanied by his "page"—a concubine disguised in male dress. The novel later describes Magawisca's furtive reentry into Puritan settlements, her help in enabling Hope to see her "captive" sister, Magawisca's subsequent imprisonment and trial by the Puritan authorities, Hope's successful liberation of Magawisca, the failed kidnapping of Hope, and the exposure of Gardiner's duplicity. Throughout, Sedgwick employs the Shakespearean convention of disguises and mistaken identities—mainly to call into question the essential nature of women and men—as well as such features of popular romantic fiction as secret plots, chase scenes, and explosions. The romance plot is consummated by the betrothal of Hope and Everell, while Esther Downing decides upon the life of a single woman and Magawisca relinquishes her affections for Everell and retreats into the American wilderness. So the novel both predictably and strangely concludes.

Hope Leslie makes use of such established literary genres as historical romance, frontier romance, and the Indian captivity narrative. Indeed its overall plot is structured according to the importance—and transgression—of "borders" in these three literary genres: between English and Native American racial identities, between "civilization" and "savagery," between the norms for masculine and feminine behavior, and between Old World and New World societies. The novel is structured upon repeating cycles of captivity and liberation in order to question these borders—those, the novel suggests, that all forms of patriarchal social and political authority are founded upon. The novel's emphasis on female heroism ultimately asks its readers to consider important questions about the social and political identities of women and the political consequences of women acting out the virtue of benevolent feeling in both private and public settings.


Beginning in the 1820s, American novelists like Sedgwick and James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) borrowed from the model for historical fiction that Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) had popularized for Anglo-American audiences in novels like Waverly (1814). This model was based on eighteenth-century theories about the nature of social and historical progress. It fictively dramatized the central conflict between supposedly traditional and modern societies—in Scott's case, Scottish Highlanders and the English nation. The protagonist (like Hope, Everell, or Magawisca) typically "wavers" between these two competing allegiances until the forces of progress ultimately prevail. Scott's formula contains important literary and ideological features that American writers like Sedgwick adapted to their own purposes and design: characters embody and symbolize larger historical forces; they maintain "romantic," or larger-than-life, stature as they move upon a historical stage; the novel itself rationalizes the historical process and the dominance of the modern nation-state; and the marriage plot becomes the literary convention of romance that enables and symbolizes the reconciliation of these conflicting historical forces—that is, marriage signals the absorption of tradition into progress associated with nationalism and modernity.

Scott's formula for historical fiction was both an attractive and a limited one for Sedgwick. Written during a time when the federal government was considering the removal of many Native American tribes to lands west of the Mississippi River (a policy that would culminate during the ensuing presidency of Andrew Jackson), Hope Leslie takes up the "Indian Question" as a way of addressing contemporary dilemmas about racial difference in the United States. On the one hand, the model was complex and flexible enough to produce the kind of nostalgic and sentimental feeling for what in the 1820s and 1830s Americans were calling "the vanishing American." This kind of feeling was crucial to the literary medium of historical fiction. On the other, Scott's model insufficiently characterized the historical conflict between Puritans and Native Americans. While Sedgwick's Puritans represent the beginnings of the progressive and enlightened American nation—a view that many Americans held in the 1820s—the novel just as vigorously exposes their repressive and barbaric qualities. During one scene, for example, Sedgwick shows that the Puritan authorities were offering money for Native American scalps. One of the major themes of Hope Leslie concerns the moral terms of community as the Puritans define it and as Hope and Magawisca defy it.

Historical novels like Hope Leslie and Lydia Maria Child's Hobomok (1824) adapted British literary models to original designs. Women's historical fiction about Puritan New England thus developed its own literary conventions—the tyrannical father figure, the rebellious daughter, the possibility of interracial love, and the idealized, progressive marriage, like the one between Hope Leslie and Everell Fletcher, that signals the enlightened escape from Puritan authoritarian control. The thematic emphasis in Hope Leslie is upon the moral and political value of feeling as a new kind of authority for contemporary America. In this sense, then, Hope Leslie's tendency to show the political efficacy of feeling, as characters follow their benevolent impulses rather than the dictates of patriarchal authority, is typical of a great deal of women's antebellum fiction. Thus "Puritanism" in Hope Leslie is more of an ideological abstraction than a historical "reality." The novel asks its readers to reconsider colonial history as a way of distancing themselves from what Sedgwick perceives to be a heroic and yet dangerously intolerant worldview. Moreover, if the final union of Hope and Everell represents the promise of the early American Republic, the failure of that promise—the fact of Indian removal in the 1820s, racial slavery, and the political disenfranchisement of American women—provides the novel's implicit cultural critique.


The more overt representations of this critique occur largely through the motif of captivity. Hope Leslie shows important literary and historical connections between the Indian captivity narrative and the early American novel. The captivity narrative dates back to early modern writers like Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (c. 1490–c. 1560) and John Smith (c. 1580–1631), and it flourished in Puritan New England as a preeminent genre that combined elements of spiritual autobiography and cultural ethnography. (Mary Rowlandson is only the most famous exemplar of this literary form in colonial American literature). During the late eighteenth century, however, the captivity narrative became increasingly secular, sensational-ist, violent, and overtly racist. Hope Leslie both reveals and resists this trend. Sedgwick obviously employed captivity as a way of enhancing the popular appeal of frontier romance. Yet Everell's captivity among the Pequot allows Sedgwick to redeploy the legendary rescue of John Smith by the Native American girl Pocahontas that originally came from John Smith. Magawisca's sacrifice of her arm while saving Everell suggests the viability of cross-cultural acts of benevolence—though skeptical readers may see it as perpetuating the myth of Indian sacrifice for the sake of American civilization. Similarly, the captivity of Faith Leslie and her romance with Oneco, the Native American warrior and son of the Pequot sachem Mononoto, represent a strong argument for the reality of cultural—rather than simply racial—formation of identity.

The motif of captivity, however, unfolds on multiple levels in the novel. One of its striking characteristics is its inversion of the very premises of the Indian captivity narrative. It dramatizes, for example, the Puritan captivity of Native Americans—notably Nelema (accused of witchcraft by the superstitious Puritans while she was saving the life of Cradock) and Magawisca (put in jail on Gardiner's testimony that she is guilty of conspiracy against the colony). These instances of Puritan captivity suggest how the patriarchal commonwealth keeps all of its female "citizens" in a kind of social and political bondage. One can push this idea even further and say that Hope Leslie reveals the pervasiveness of captivity in this kind of social and political organization. That is, all, men and women alike, are asked to suppress what the novel calls the "natural" feelings of sympathy and benevolence in the name of community, the rule of law, or even "God." Hence Hope liberates both herself and imprisoned Native American women when she follows through on her best impulses and helps them escape from Puritan prison, which (as in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter) is one of the most poignant symbols of Puritan authority, or perhaps of any authority bent upon utopian dreams.


The thematic premium the novel places on benevolence, however, creates striking moments of dissonance between its racial and gendered projects. For much of Hope Leslie, the forms of feeling that connect Hope and Magawisca dominate the novel. Since Hope and Magawisca are each motivated by benevolence and since each wields that virtue to defy patriarchal law, the two characters significantly are "doubled." Much of the novel suggests that sympathy can overcome racial difference—a form of difference that the novel represents ambiguously—and that new communities of feeling can form out of this virtue. Yet the novel's treatment of the romance plot severely complicates its idealistic endorsement of a form of human sympathy that crosses racial and cultural boundaries. This becomes most apparent during the scene where Magawisca arranges to have Hope see her sister. While the very fact of Faith's cultural assimilation—one of the main anxieties of both the captivity narrative and the frontier romance novel—would seem to belie racial categories, the revulsion Hope feels at this moment probably reflects that of most early national readers. What this subplot achieves, then, is the novel's ambivalence toward "miscegenation"—the interracial mixing that produces new kinds of identity. Although this term is somewhat anachronistic (it actually was not coined until the Civil War as part of a Democratic satire on supposedly Republican beliefs), Hope Leslie runs into difficult moments where its racial and gendered themes tend to produce inconsistent meanings of "difference." This was true of many nineteenth-century novels, especially those that directly confronted the proper relations between Anglo-Americans and such groups as Native Americans and African Americans. But in Hope Leslie the power of sympathy—which theoretically dissolves difference—finally cannot overcome other kinds of "difference," be they racial or cultural.

This thematic ambivalence finally comes to a head during the resolution of the romance plot. Whereas Cooper, for example, in The Last of the Mohicans (1826) kills off Uncas and Cora Munro, Sedgwick has her Native American heroine renounce her feelings for Everell. This is significant because for much of the novel Sedgwick allows this love plot between the two to become a fictional possibility. The union of English and Algonquian peoples would suggest a more radical solution for colonial America and, by implication, the modern American nation. Yet at this moment Magawisca transforms from the benevolent child of nature to the natural inheritor of vengeance. When she tells Hope and Everell that the two are naturally meant for each other and that vengeance is written on the Native American heart, the novel effectively recoils from the radical political and racial solutions it has been pursuing, albeit inconsistently, for hundreds of pages. Put another way, Sedgwick must withdraw her investment in Native American sympathy in order to signal the birth of the nation in purely Anglo-American terms. The marriage between Everell and Hope not only has a transatlantic dimension but a generational one as well: by following their "nature" they succeed where their parents back in England had failed. As many critics have noted, the novel fictively performs its own kind of "removal" of Native Americans that parallels—and supports—the political logic of Indian removal. In the end, Magawisca retreats to the western wilderness; the marriage between Faith and Oneco remains real but thematically decontextualized and all but invisible.


Hope Leslie is culturally and biographically significant in other ways as well. As a native of Stockbridge, Sedgwick was completely familiar with that part of western Massachusetts in which the novel takes place. By the 1820s, this area was no longer inhabited by many Native American tribes—indeed recent scholarship suggests that Sedgwick's eighteenth-century ancestors were directly involved in the removal of Native Americans from the Stockbridge area. The colonial setting of the Massachusetts frontier easily facilitated the novel's ongoing description of the natural landscape. The novel displays these rather painterly and philosophical landscapes sometimes as narrative digressions and sometimes as integral parts of the dramatic action—during Everell's captivity, for example. They serve the dual (and sometimes contradictory) purposes of charting historical "progress" in America while celebrating the moral and symbolic value of wild and uncultivated landscape. They "Americanize" the novel in terms of "Nature" long before Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, for example, were writing on this Romantic subject.

The novel also inscribes its author's personal ambivalence toward both marriage and the larger cultural role for American women that has been dubbed the nineteenth-century "cult of true womanhood." If the marriage between Hope and Everell consummates the novel's national and gendered themes, Hope Leslie still gives the last word, so to speak, to Esther Downing, who decides to remain unmarried the rest of her life. For American women at this time, to marry was to become a femme coverte—a woman "covered" by her husband's legal, political, and civil identity. As the novel's narrator finally asserts, "marriage is not essential to the contentment, the dignity, or the happiness of woman" (p. 350). If this represents a more radical departure from social and literary conventions, it also describes the life of Catharine Sedgwick, who refused to (in the words of Hope Leslie) "Give to a party what was meant for mankind" (p. 350). Thus the novel's final message resonates autobiographically for Sedgwick. She spent much of her adult life shuttling between western Massachusetts and New York City, devoting her energies to her writing as well as to her beloved brothers and their families.

Sedgwick's refusal to marry does not necessarily radicalize Hope Leslie's messages about gender ideology and the social and political position of women in the early American Republic. But it does suggest the author's ambivalence, if not complete hostility, toward the codes of "true womanhood," which emphasized the ideals of domesticity, chastity, piety, and submission. As many historians of nineteenth-century women now argue, these norms may not have been a historical reality for all American women (especially those from the urban working classes or women of color), but they did put significant cultural pressure on the behavior of white bourgeois and upper-class women. Hope Leslie pushes at the boundaries of cultural norms and gender roles without completely (or consistently) breaking them. The novel shows how most early American women writers, if they expected to maintain the respect of their audiences, needed to work subtly within accepted cultural conventions in order to change them.

See alsoCaptivity Narratives; Cross-Dressing; Domestic Fiction; English Literature; Ethnology; History; Indians; Indian Wars and Dispossession; Marriage; Miscegenation


Primary Work

Sedgwick, Catharine Maria. Hope Leslie; or, Early Times in the Massachusetts. 1827. Edited by Mary Kelley. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987.

Secondary Works

Baym, Nina. American Women Writers and the Work ofHistory, 1790–1860. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Bell, Michael Davitt. Hawthorne and the Historical Romance of New England. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971.

Buell, Lawrence. New England Literary Culture: FromRevolution through Renaissance. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Castiglia, Christopher. Bound and Determined: Captivity,Culture-Crossing, and White Womanhood from Mary Rowlandson to Patty Hearst. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Fetterley, Judith. "'My Sister! My Sister!': The Rhetoric of Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie." American Literature 70 (1998): 491–516.

Foster, Edward Halsey. Catharine Maria Sedgwick. New York: Twayne, 1974.

Garvey, T. Gregory. "Risking Reprisal: Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie and the Legitimation of Public Action by Women." American Transcendental Quarterly 8 (1994): 287–298.

Gould, Philip. Covenant and Republic: Historical Romance and the Politics of Puritanism. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Insko, Jeffrey. "Anachronistic Imaginings: Hope Leslie's Challenge to Historicism." American Literary History 16 (2004): 179–207.

Kelley, Mary, ed. The Power of Her Sympathy: The Autobiography and Journal of Catharine Maria Sedgwick. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1993.

Maddox, Lucy. Removals: Nineteenth-Century AmericanLiterature and the Politics of Indian Affairs. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Nelson, Dana D. The Word in Black and White: Reading"Race" in American Literature, 1638–1867. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Tawil, Ezra. "Domestic Frontier Romance; or, How the Sentimental Heroine Became White." Novel 32 (1999): 99–124.

Weierman, Karen Woods. "Reading and Writing Hope Leslie: Catharine Maria Sedgwick's Indian 'Connections.'" New England Quarterly 85 (2002): 415–443.

Zagarell, Sandra A. "Expanding 'America': Lydia Sigourney's Sketch of Connecticut, Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 6 (1987): 225–245.

Philip Gould

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