Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789-1867)

    Contributing Editors:
    Barbara A. Bardes and Suzanne Gossett

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    There may be some difficulty in helping students compare early nineteenth-century attitudes toward Indians, who are here referred to as savages, to Sedgwick's treatment of Native Americans, which is so different from that of her contemporaries. Be sure students know the legend of Pocahontas. The tradition of sympathy for Native American culture should be traced back to the period of Spanish arrival and to the literature of the early Puritan colonies. The selections from Cabeza de Vaca and Roger Williams are helpful in this context. It may also be useful to discuss conflicting attitudes toward the primitive: as dangerous savage and as nature's noble soul. The capture of Faith Leslie (and her eventual marriage to Oneco) should be compared to Mary Rowlandson's "Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration. . . ." Mention that according to legend, one of Sedgwick's female ancestors experienced a similar abduction.

    Students need to understand Sedgwick's complex attitude toward the early Puritan colonies, which combines patriotism with objections to Puritan oppressiveness. At this point they will need some biographical and historical background, first on Sedgwick and then on the Puritans. They may be referred to the writings of John Winthrop, who appears in the novel. It is also important to note the place of women in the early American republic as teachers of the political culture yet subordinate within the home. Emphasize that Sedgwick occupied an unusual position as an important woman writer, and discuss why she shows so much sympathy for those without power in the society. Some thought should be given to the "ventriloquization" of Native American culture as a way for Sedgwick to express questions about women's culture.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    1. Sedgwick's picture of solidarity between women (Hope and Magawisca).

    2. Sedgwick's sympathy for the Indians who are being destroyed by the English settlers. The Indian massacre repeats an English one; students can be asked to read the "Speech of Chief Seattle" and to compare its rhetoric to the speech of Mononotto in the first selection from Hope Leslie. Sedgwick's sympathy is also shown in the discussion of the marriage of Faith Leslie to an Indian.

    3. The political significance of Hope and Magawisca's defiance of the Puritan magistrates: the way in which both Indians and women are excluded from the political system. The emphasis throughout on the political and personal need for liberty and independence. Contrast Magawisca's defiance of the English with the historical Pocahontas's marriage to an Englishman. Discuss the conflicting ideas of natural law and patriarchal law that underly Magawisca's and Winthrop's positions.

    4. The place of the family in the political order and the place of women within the family. The family is seen as the primary unit in politics and each family is represented by its male adult members. The interests of wives and children (who have no public voice in political decisions) are represented by the men.

    5. "To my dying mother thou didst promise kindness to her children. In her name I demand of thee death or liberty." If time permits, discuss the nineteenth century "cult of the mother" and its manifestations in this novel.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Sedgwick is important for her participation in the creation of a national literature. Both the extensive descriptions of nature and the subject matter of the novel are specifically American. Hope Leslie shows formal development from earlier American women's novels, though it includes, characteristically, a heroine who is to some extent deprived of parental support and creates her own success before marriage. It avoids, however, the "seduced and abandoned" plot found in The Coquette and Charlotte Temple, as well as excessive sentiment. Sedgwick allows her heroine to defy female norms conventional both in life and literature. She also deploys the power of public oratory within a novelistic context, and has more "public" scenes than would be expected in a "woman's" novel.

    Original Audience

    The blend of historical fact and adventure made Hope Leslie acceptable reading for young women. The novel was very popular, partly because it fit into a tradition that was established by Sir Walter Scott.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    The novel should be compared with The Last of the Mohicans, published one year earlier. Sedgwick even refers to Cooper's novel in the text. But she countenances marriage between an Indian and a white woman, and she shows sympathy for the motives of the Indian attack on the white settlers. In addition, Sedgwick does not make women merely the means of alliance between men, but she puts them at the center of her novel, rather than on the margins.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    1. (a) Compare the representation of the Indian massacre in Hope Leslie with the massacre that occurs in The Last of the Mohicans.

    (b) Consider how Sedgwick equates her two heroines, Magawisca and Hope Leslie. In what ways is the scene at the mothers' graves a defining moment in the relationship of the two women?

    (c) What is the basis for Magawisca's refusal of Puritan authority? Is it defensible?

    2. (a) Consider the political implications of the parallel judgment scenes in Hope Leslie, when Everell is "tried" by the Indians and Magawisca is tried by the Puritans. Do Governor Winthrop and Mononotto operate out of the same principles?

    (b) Compare Cooper's and Sedgwick's attitudes toward relations between the Indians and the white settlers.

    (c) Compare the sympathy for the Indians' vanishing culture in Hope Leslie with the narrator's sympathy for undisturbed village life in Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." What forces might motivate these two writers to come up with similar attitudes toward vanishing American cultures?

    3. Consider Sedgwick's female characters in this novel: In what ways do they fit female stereotypes of the early nineteenth century, and in what ways do they express Sedgwick's own vision of women in the republic?