Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789-1867)
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"
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?