This debut novel from Deborah Noyes is a must for any fan of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne closes his story with Hester Prynne returning to New England’s shores while her daughter, Pearl, remains overseas, with wealth and a child of her own. It is from this moment of possibility that Noyes undertakes her own mission, to remove the ambiguity about Pearl’s character and explore the actuality of that closing scene.
Noyes starts within the time-frame of The Scarlet Letter, picking up the story when Pearl is child living with her mother on the outskirts of Boston. While much in the novel hews to Hawthorne’s romance – the devilish doctor, the saintly minister, the spurned adulteress, and the pixie-like Pearl – within the space of the preface, it is made clear that the author will turn the original story inside out. Thus, while Pearl is still a wild girl who can feel “defiance build in me like the March wind” and Hester is a “bloodless figure carved with infamy,” the secrets that drive the original – the hidden sin of the minister and Hester’s corresponding silence – are absent from this narrative.
Though it takes a while, Hester eventually recedes from Noyes’s story and Pearl emerges as the main character. And this is the moment where the novel truly becomes Noyes’ own creation and not just a reimagining of another author’s work. As Pearl develops her own life in England, becoming, to her astonishment, “a lady – with four new gowns, none made by my hands or mother’s,” so too does Angel and Apostle acquire life and pace of its own, freed from its mother-text. By the middle of the book, Pearl’s own loves, passions, and sins determine the pace and drama.
Noyes does a wonderful job with the time-period. I was taken in almost instantly by the early description of a servant who is cleaning a chimney by means of lowering a goose, tethered to a rope: “the goose echoed in the chimney, honking and flapping inside the brick well,” which is then dropped and quickly shooed from the house, “out waddled the disoriented animal, black and indignant, trailing a soiled rope from its ankle.” The novel sparkles with details such as this that bring the reality of daily life, the setting, and the characters to life. Noyes anchors the narrative with actual history, such as the great London fire of 1666 and reference to the death of Cromwell, among other characters; she has done her research well, yet it does not slow down or interfere with the narrative.
As a long-time admirer of The Scarlet Letter, I was keen to read Noyes’ volume to see if her vision of Pearl’s life accorded with my own. I had always pictured Pearl happy, content, able to be the woman that her mother was not. Noyes provides no such fairy tale conclusion, however, and I was at first disappointed with the darkness that continues to envelop her character. Yet, Noyes does offer some salvation, as Pearl returns to her native New England wilderness with the manuscripts of her story in hand as well as her mother’s “red letter,” which she resolves to “bring…ashore at Salem Town…keep it close…and use it well and often.” In short, she is sowing the seeds of her own literary future and in that there is much hope.
Indeed, as rich as the characters, the setting, and the drama of Noyes’s novel are, it is not a volume that exists solely to tell a story. In Angel and Apostle, Noyes makes a commentary on fiction, on what is the truth, and whether it resides in the events that happened, the memories that hold them, or the emotions that resonate for years. Pearl herself, after years of living in between the real and imagined, declares herself “impatient…weary of fiction,” yet she is also the one who ultimately resolves that the “half-familiar” story of her own life “was neither truth nor a lie.” This is the middle ground that Noyes stakes out in her vision and re-envisioning of this classic novel. In taking on a classic work of fiction, she is challenging what it means for a story to be true, to have a life of its own. And though I wonder whether Hawthorne would appreciate this fate for his “wild child” Pearl, modern readers would do well to pick up this volume and enjoy the rich world Noyes creates.