One of the main reasons I read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The House of the Seven Gables is because I also wanted to watch the 1940 film adaptation, starring George Sanders, Vincent Price, and Margaret Lindsay. I am trying to discipline myself to read more books before rushing off to watch their film adaptations. How do they compare? It’s not easy to compare, since they are both essentially different stories, but I enjoyed both.
The House of Seven Gables: Novel
The House of the Seven Gables was published in 1851 and is a Gothic novel soaked in story layers, ghosts and curses, greed and decaying life and the hope of new life, though it is never made explicit whether or not the supernatural elements are true or merely the fancy of the author.
It is not a conventional story and somewhat difficult to summarize because of its many layers, though the plot is simple. Hawthorne begins the novel by giving us a bit of history. There was land owned by a man named Matthew Maule in the 1600s. Colonel Pyncheon offered to buy it, but when Maule refused, Pyncheon denounced him as a sorcerer and Matthew Maule died during the Salem Witch trials. But before he died, Maule said that God would give the Pyncheon’s blood to drink. And sure enough, not long after Colonel Pyncheon built his great, wood house with the seven gables, he died mysteriously, with blood found on his neck (referred to later as a throat aneurysm). And a number of Pyncheon’s die in this way through successive generations.
Hawthorne then proceeds to give us a bit more history as Pyncheon’s descendants descend into decay, financially and spiritually. One Pyncheon takes it into his head to right the wrong done a long time ago by Colonel Pyncheon to Matthew Maule by returning Seven Gables to the Maule family. But before he can do so, he dies mysteriously. One of his two nephews, Clifford Pyncheon, is accused of the murder and sent to prison. The other, Jaffrey Pyncheon, reforms his wild ways and becomes a model citizen and a judge. But this is all background and disposed of in one chapter, even though it is extremely important to the story.
The bulk of the book begins with Hepzibah Pyncheon, an elderly woman, also the sister of Clifford. She is obliged to open a cent shop inside Seven Gables to support herself and Clifford, who is being released from prison soon. In the dark house comes Phoebe Pyncheon, a young relative whose parents live in the country. She is like a breath of fresh air in the old house and it seems like the house is beginning to come alive again under her influence. Meanwhile, there is a mysterious lodger at Seven Gables named Mr. Holgrave, who is a daguerreotypist. And Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon really wants to see Clifford, though both Hepzibah and Clifford hate him and won’t let him in, despite his reputation for being a good man.
But the events of the story are not that important in the novel. There is a bit of mystery, very little action. Mostly, there are set scenes that Hawthorne describes and then uses to discuss his characters – their past, their present and their association with the overall story. Hepzibah opens a cent shop and as she does so, Hawthorne tells us about her. How she has a scowl, but not because she’s bad tempered, but because she’s nearsighted. She was bred a lady (the Pyncheon’s are the American equivalent of impoverished aristocracy) and is humiliated by being forced to work. But she has a good heart and is loyal to Clifford.
After Phoebe arrives, Hawthorne takes time to discuss the essential sunshine of her nature. She is something fresh and new from the moldy line of Pyncheons and seems to dispel the curse merely by her refreshing presence, even brightening up the ruined life of Clifford, who would have been a somewhat shallow lover of all things beautiful, but now is a sorrowing man who has a dim sense of goodness that Hawthorne suggests he might not have had otherwise.
The way Hawthorne tells his story, the past and the present seem somewhat blurred. His theme are ancestral decay and family legacy (in this case, a legacy of guilt and rapacity) which is handed down the generations, though Hepzibah and Clifford seem more like victims than perpetrators. It’s a bit of a slow read, but Hawthorne’s prose is lovely. He paints word pictures so vividly and the atmosphere of the book is so strong, it almost comes off the page and I enjoyed it much more than I did his most famous novel, The Scarlet Letter.
The House of the Seven Gables – Movie
The movie, on the other hand, is not very like the book. It is a more straightforward Gothic tale of romance and vindication, though it retains the sense of the family legacy of greed and a curse, without the same sense of decay. What makes the movie interesting is its exceptional cast: George Sanders, Vincent Price, and Margaret Lindsay.
The movie begins when Clifford (Vincent Price) and his brother Jaffrey (George Sanders – Jaffrey and Clifford were cousins in the novel) are still young. Hepzibah is transformed into a cousin (Margaret Lindsay) who is in love with Clifford.
Clifford is a musician, eager to leave his moldy family behind and go to New York. He also wants to sell Seven Gables, which appalls his greedy brother, Jaffrey, who believes that there is hidden in the house documents that could make the family very rich (there are echos of this in the novel). When a loud argument between Clifford and his father leads to the latter’s death of a throat aneurysm, George accuses Clifford of his murder and Clifford is sent to jail.
But instead of inheriting the house, Jaffrey is stunned to learn that Hepzibah actually will inherit the house. She forbids Jaffrey to ever enter and closes all the shutters, and cutting herself off from life until years later, when Clifford returns. She also has a lodger, Matthew Maule (Dick Foran), descendant of the original Matthew Maule, and who met Clifford in prison (this Maule is an abolitionist) and is helping him to clear his name. Also Phoebe (Nan Grey) is comes to stay, though she has less to do than she does in the novel, except be a love interest for Matthew Maule and provide contrast with Hepzibah.
Margaret Lindsay is sensational as Hepzibah. As the young Hepzibah, she reminded me of Barbara Stanwyck. The role is actually the kind of thing you could imagine Barbara Stanwyck or Bette Davis sinking their teeth into. She begins as a young girl, with mischievous eyes, hope in her face and a bounce in her step (though not excessively bouncy). But after the years of being alone, her posture changes and grows more severe, her expression hardens, her voice deepens, with a bearing that has a strong resemblance to Olivia de Havilland walking up the stairs at the end of The Heiress.
There is a lovely, touching scene when she and Clifford are reunited after eighteen years of separation. Both have changed so much, ravaged by time, and they are both afraid to see each other again, for fear of what the other will think of them. But their romance is the real romance and heart of the film (Phoebe and Matthew are mostly there for contrast, as the fresh young couple).
Vincent Price is so young in this film. He was about 29 and had only made his film debut two years previously. But he still has that voice and also does an excellent job playing both the younger Clifford, full of energy, and the older Clifford, now with white hair and a stoop in his shoulders.
George Sanders as Jaffrey remains mostly the same when young and older, but George Sanders is always such a perfectly sneering villain, and he’s not supposed to show the affects of time as much as the others.
Overall, it’s a very satisfying film. It’s not well known, only released as a DVD-R, but worthwhile if you are at all a fan of the actors involved. And its not necessary to read the book before viewing, though the book is worthwhile in its own way.