Catherine Maria Sedgewick’s book Hope Leslie depicts a story of historical context, romance, and social issues. A very prevalent theme throughout the narrative consists of the author’s interpretation and representation of Native Americans. Sedgwick can subvert several dishonest stereotypes that were widespread before and at the time of the book’s publishing in 1827. However, she is unable to navigate and avoid certain preconceived ideas concerning traditions, lifestyles, ideologies, and other components of the many cultures of Native Americans. Sedgwick’s understanding of rituals and culture-specific items is likely based on generalized stories she may have heard from secondary sources, such as in the case of her depiction of the sacrifice of Everell and the herbal tea. Similarly, she falls into the trope of depicting Native Americans as violent during the attack on Fletcher’s home and the kidnapping of the children. The novel also tends to treat Native American characters as either antagonists or plot devices, such as Nelema’s significant input to illustrate Hope’s kindness and Magawisca intervening to stop Everell’s death and reunite the sisters. Despite this, the novel consisted of themes of equity and fairness towards Native Americans in a time where such sentiments were unpopular and are considered significant in terms of approaching history between white settlers and Native Americans.
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The novel consists of both ‘comedy of manners and ‘comedy of errors’ as forms of storytelling. The comedy of manners is met much less frequently within the narrative than in other works of the same period, possibly due to the unusual, non-English settings and the more action-oriented pacing of the story. The comedy of manners is most prevalent among the settler characters, such as with Hope being ignorant of Everell’s feelings towards her as she approves of the marriage between him and Esther. Sedgwick can subvert the trope of eventual marriage to some extent, as Hope is not specified to be married and Esther returns to England with the decision to remain unmarried. The comedy of errors component is prevalent through mistaken identities, such as Rosa posing as a male page, and a sailor perceiving Hope as Virgin Mary during her escape. Hope is also able to disguise Cradock, an old man, in a way that the guard does not recognize him.
The tone of Hope Leslie towards matters of women’s and Native American rights and portrayal is not perfect but is largely forward-thinking compared to the ideologies and works of her time. The core message of the novel can be determined by its themes such as tolerance and interracial relationships. Sedgewick portrays both romantic, platonic, and familial relationships between white settlers and Native American characters, often from both perspectives. She does not ignore the social backlash these relationships would often face in wider society. She can illustrate the inherent normality of such bonds forming by depicting the characters growing closer from a younger age, but also shows the conflict these relationships are driven to due to exterior forces, such as religion, loyalties, and other factors. Essentially, the piece strives to portray these conflicts as unnecessary, detrimental, and in need of overcoming. Despite this, the story ends with an ambivalent mark as both the Native American and settler characters are in disadvantaged positions by the end of the narrative. This may also be a part of the story’s message, as the taboo of interracial relationships was still prevalent in Sedgewick’s time.
Sedgwick, Catherine M. Hope Leslie: or, Early Times in the Massachusetts. Colburn and R. Bentley, 1827.