At a symposium on Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables last week, members of Salem State’s English Department offered really interesting insights into the text, its themes, context (and subtext) and characters. One presentation in particular, by the very prolific Nancy Schultz, focused on the connections between the two old characters in the book, the house itself and Hepzibah Pyncheon. This was particularly resonant for me, as I’m always interested in “Olde Salem” and Hawthorne’s description of Hepzibah, as quoted by Professor Schultz, immediately reminded me of a description of another woman, who lived in my house at almost exactly the same time in which The House of the Seven Gables was set: Mrs. Harriet Paine Rose. Let’s look at the descriptions of these two women, one fictional and the other real, but both very much characterized by their turbans.
Hawthorne is not very complimentary towards “Our miserable old Hepzibah”, a “gaunt, sallow, rusty-jointed maiden, in a long-waisted silk gown, and with the strange horror of a turban on her head!” The author of the entry in the Pickering Genealogy obviously holds Mrs. Rose in much higher esteem: she is (or was) beautiful and virtuous but was notably also “the last person in Salem who wore a turban”, implying that she was also a bit out of style. I would love to see the pencil sketch of the turban-wearing Mrs. Rose alluded to above, but haven’t been able to find it anywhere (it’s probably locked away in the Lee papers in the Phillips Library), but of course we have many illustrations of Hepzibah in her turban, as it was identified as such a “horrible” and characteristic feature of her persona. Such a contrast of an (un-)fashionable portrayal with those much more charming depictions of turban-wearing ladies earlier in the nineteenth century.
Mary Ann Wilson, Young Woman Wearing a Turban, c. 1800-1825, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Portrait of a “fashionable” woman, c. 1810, Northeast Auctions; Hepzibah and her turban (or turbans, as they all seem to be different styles) by Maude and Genevieve Cowles (1899), A.A. Dixon (1903) and Helen Mason Grose (1924), and a more recent (1997) Classics Illustrated cover depicting a very grim turban-wearing woman indeed.
Hepzibah’s turban also reminded me of the most famous turban-wearer of all, Dolley Madison, who was photographed and painted wearing her characteristic headpiece in the year before her death in 1849, long after turbans were fashionable. This was her look and she was sticking to it, whether out of necessity or by design. It certainly does not look like a “strange horror”!
Photograph of Dolley Madison by Mathew Brady, 1848, Library of Congress; Painting by William S. Elwell, also 1848, National Portrait Gallery. Dolley descends upon the White House and witnesses her husband’s presidential oath, be-turbaned of course, in two YA books, Dolley Madison, First Lady, by Arden Davis Melick (with illustrations by Ronald Dorfman), 1970 & Dolly Madison, Famous First Lady, by Mary R. Davidson (with illustrations by Erica Merkling), 1992.