Hope Leslie Deserves to be a Household Name

Hope Leslie

Hope Leslie, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, 1826

You know how in certain movies, when someone is so excited about the money they’ve scored, they feel the need to roll around in it, euphorically tossing bills in the air? I want to do that with the pages of Hope Leslie by Catharine Maria Sedgwick.  That’s how much I love it. You know how when a kitty or a puppy is so cute that petting it is not enough and you feel compelled to rub your face directly on its fur? I want to rub my face on this book.

Why? Because the heroine is flawed. I mean, in my eyes she’s pretty much perfect, but by the moral standards at the time the book was set (1643) or written (1826) she is very flawed. In earlier literature women are either villainous hussies or perfect paragons. Authors demonstrated the merit of their female characters by showing how very rigid their morals are and how very strictly they obey the will of their patriarchs. Well, Elizabeth Bennet is an exception to this rule. She’s a bit defiant. Hope Leslie is way more defiant.

Sedgwick picked “Early Times in Massachusetts” as the setting for Hope Leslie, a time that was incredibly oppressive for everyone, but particularly oppressive of women and Native Americans. Yet, her main characters follow their own moral strictures. Previous heroines obey the law and their fathers against their own moral inclinations. Not Hope Leslie. Like Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther King Jr, she believes that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. […] Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” (MLK, Letter from Birmingham Jail).

For example, Hope Leslie convinces her tutor to leave off studying for an afternoon in favor of a hike up a large hill. The tutor gets bitten by a venomous snake. Hope wants to suck the poison out, but the tutor refuses the offer, fearing that she’ll be poisoned. Anxious for the survival of her tutor, Hope asks an old Native American woman, Nelema, to help her; a very sensible idea considering that the locals had been dealing with snake bites for centuries, but Brits had no experience with venomous snakes. Thanks, St. Patrick!

Nelema cures the man. As part of the process she does some witch-doctorish dancing and chanting. Word gets out that Nelema is a witch and she is thrown in jail. We all know what happened to witches in this time period. Hope Leslie, not being a complete fool, does not want Nelema to die for her generous action. After all, she saved the man’s life. So what if her culture’s customs seem weird and heathenish? Hope sneaks away, steals the jailor’s keys and frees Nelema, because it’s the right thing to do.

Later, she frees another Indian woman, Magawisca, to save her from being executed for plotting the extermination of the Pilgrims. Magawisca is guilty, but Hope frees her anyway, because many years earlier Magawisca saved the life of Hope’s beloved. Also, the Pilgrim’s wiped out Magawisca’s village and held her captive as a young girl; so Hope feels that her animosity is justified. Check out the progressive, enlightened concepts of feminism and race relations on Catharine Maria Sedgwick! Dang!

It’s really great to read a book from this era that does not espouse the inherent superiority of white men. Of course, the book was immediately forgotten and nobody reads it anymore, because the English canon is for white guys. But I haven’t forgotten you, Sedgwick! Hope Leslie is balm for my feminist spirit. It’s an uplifting and inspiring piece of literature, not because it ignores the evils in society, but because it allows for triumph over those evils.

I want to give it an affectionate cheek rub. I just wanna lovingly nuzzle Hope Leslie.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Here’s a quote:

Nothing could be more unlike the authentic, “thoroughly educated,” and thoroughly disciplined young ladies of the present day than Hope Leslie—as unlike as a mountain rill to a canal—the one leaping over rocks and precipices, sportive, free, and beautiful, or stealing softly on, in unseen, unpraised loveliness; the other, formed by art, restrained within prescribed and formal limits, and devoted to utility.

You might like Hope Leslie if:

  • you like Anne Shirley, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Jo March and other plucky girls who mature into wonderful women.

You might not like Hope Leslie if:

  • that quote was too old-timey for you.

Final thoughts:

Hey! Shame on generations of literati for not giving Sedgwick her due. Hope Leslie deserves a place alongside Anne Shirley and Jo March as an inspiring, revered heroine of literature.

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