Sources For The Scarlet Letter
By Frederick Newberry
The New England Quarterly
1987 -- Pages 256-264
(Reprinted with permission)
While there has been no shortage of studies on Hawthorne's literary borrowings in The Scarlet Letter, little has been found concerning historical sources if the letter A itself and virtually nothing has been uncovered concerning adulterous figures in Puritan history who might have been the prototypes of Hester Prynne and the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. We do know that by 1838, when an early version of Hester appeared in "Endicott and the Red Cross," Hawthorne was aware of the 1694 law enacted in Salem that required a woman convicted of adultery to wear a capital A sewn conspicuously on her garments.1 Although the appearance of this law so late in the century might seem anomalous to the 1634 setting of "Endicott and the Red Cross" or to the 1642-49 setting of The Scarlet Letter, we may easily resolve the discrepancy by assuming either that Hawthorne had been influenced instead by the early seventeenth-century case of Goodwife Mendame, sentenced to wear an AD on her sleeve, or that, contrary to his usual practice, he felt the need in this instance to take liberties with the historical record.2 Yet the burning sensation described by the narrator in "The Custom House" when he places the faded badge on his breast and feels "as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron" and Hester's searing torment when observers fix their eyes on the emblem, cause it to be "branded ... afresh into Hester's soul," may well be based on an actual incident.3 In three separate sources, Hawthorne could have read about a woman who, at a moment very close to the novel's setting, had the letter A branded upon her. Perhaps just as curious, this woman was married to a former Puritan minister who had been previously censured for adulterous behavior. Hawthorne was undoubtedly acquainted with the fall of this Puritan divine, the implication being that the adultery of the Reverend Dimmesdale was not entirely the product of Hawthorne's irreverent imagination after all.4 As the scholarship on Hawthorne's historical works has consistently revealed, the "Actual and the Imaginary" do indeed meet, and "each imbue[s] itself with the nature of the other"
The case of the woman branded for adultery first appeared in the records of York, in what is now Maine. Dated 15 October 1651, the entry reads:
"We do present George Rogers for, & Mary Batchellor the wife of Mr. Steven Batcheller minister for adultery. It is ordered by ye Court yt George Rogers for his adultery with mis Batcheller shall forthwith have fourty stripes save one upon the bare skine given him: It is ordered yt mis Batcheller for her adultery shall receive 40 stroakes save one at ye First Towne meeting held at Kittery, 6 weekes after her delivery & be branded with the letter A."
Beside that entry, written in the same hand, is the notation, "Execution Done."5 It appears that Charles Edward Banks, in his History of York, Maine (1935), recognized the connection between Hawthorne's novel and this case, for he refers to Mary Batchellor's branding in a section titled "The Scarlet Letter."6
Hawthorne did not have to read the original records in order to become acquainted with the punishment of Mary Batchellor. In the first volume of Collections of the Maine Historical Society he could have read an account of the sentence passed on George Rogers and Mary Batchellor.7 We know that Hawthorne had a personal interest in Maine's history. Not only had he attended Bowdoin College during the years immediately following the excitement over Maine's admission to statehood, but his father's family had claims to land there, and his mother's family still lived in Maine.8 It would not be surprising if, in the course of his research, he came across the reference to Mary Batchellor's sentence.
Still another report of the sentence appears in the second edition of Alonzo Lewis's History of Lynn (1844), which also includes a lengthy biographical sketch of Mary's husband, the Reverend Stephen Batchellor.9 Hawthorne, it is true, had read the first edition of Lewis's History (1829), which contains most of the sketch on Stephen Batchellor found in the second edition as well as information on his marital troubles with Mary, but the original does not mention Mary's adultery.10 Nevertheless, Hawthorne may also have consulted the second edition. Having published several volumes of poetry, Alonzo Lewis was both fondly and jokingly known around Boston and Salem as the "Bard of Lynn," and he was a town character frequently subjected to controversy.11 Hawthorne must have been acquainted with Lewis through local gossip, and he may even have known him by sight, since Lewis habitually walked several miles from his home in Lynn throughout the 1820s and 1830s in oder to attend Episcopal services at St. Peter's Church in Salem.12 These circumstances, in addition to specific reports by word or print, might have elicited Hawthorne's interest in the second edition of the History, which was available during the Custom-House period when Hawthorne began rereading historical materials in preparation for writing The Scarlet Letter.
One would prefer a more compelling claim than plausibility for Hawthorne's knowledge of Mary Batchellor's case. Indeed, the similarities between Hester Prynne and Mary Batchellor are so outstanding that is is tempting to argue for a direct source. For example, Mary Batchellor's adultery is the only known case involving a child that can be linked to Hester's plight. By postponing execution of the sentence until six weeks after Mrs. Batchellor's delivery, the officials of York obviously considered the health of the unborn child. Hawthorne suggests a similar delay in the novel, for when Hester and Pearl appear in the opening scaffold scene, Pearl is "some three months old" (p.52). Although Hester is not physically punished, the account of Mary Batchellor might have provided factual warrant for postponing Hester's sentence to stand exposed to public disgrace and ridicule.
The striking feature of Mary Batchellor's case, however, is the form of punishment. Hawthorne certainly knew that adultery was sometimes a capital offense in Massachusetts Bay. In John Winthrop's History of New England, for example, he would have read about James Britton and Mary Latham, who were executed for adultery in 1643. Britton appealed to the General Court for his life, "but they would not grant it, though some of the magistrates spake much for it, and questioned the letter, whether adultery was death by God's law now."13 Accordingly, in the opening scaffold scene, "the ugliest as well as the most pitiless" of the women spectators says that Hester "has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book" (pp.51-52).
Another disgruntled woman in this scene would like to see Hester suffer the punishment of Mary Batchellor: "The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but merciful overmuch . . . . At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne's forehead" (p. 51). Although Hawthorne knew that branding was used to punish diverse crimes in early New England, the association of branding with the letter A in Mrs. Batchellor's punishment is reflected not only in Hester's sense of the scarlet letter as an "ignominious brand" (p. 86) that is "Flaming" (p.79), which of course also suggests the figurative heat of shame or passion, but also in the narrator's description of the letter as a brand in "The Custom-House."
If Hawthorne was aware of Mary Batchellor's marriage to Stephen Batchellor, it could well have inspired the creation not only of Arthur Dimmesdale but also of Roger Chillingworth. Batchellor himself was no stranger of Hawthorne. In the edition of Winthrop's History familiar to him, editor James Savage calls special attention to the "unfortunate" Stephen Batchellor, who arrived in Massachusetts Bay on 5 June 1632 at the age of seventy-one.14 Batchellor was the subject of two controversies in the 1630s concerning his unsanctioned methods of establishing separate churches at Lynn, but these squabbles were insignificant compared to the one at Hampton in 1641, which Winthrop describes at some length:
Mr. Stephen Batchellor, the pastor of the church at Hampton, who had suffered much at the hands of the bishops in England, being about 80 years of age, and having a lusty comely woman to his wife, did solicit the chastity of his neighbour's wife, who acquainted her husband therewith; whereupon he was dealt with, but denied it, as he had told the woman he would do, and complained to the magistrates against the woman and her husband for slandering him. The church likewise dealing with him, he stiffly denied it, but soon after, when the Lord's supper was to be administered, he did voluntarily confess the attempt, and that he did intend to have defiled her, if she would have consented. The church, being moved with his free confession and tears, silently forgave him, and communicated with him: but after, finding how scandalous it was, they took advice of other elders, and after long debate and much pleading and standing upon the church's forgiving and being reconciled to him in communicating with him after he had confessed, they proceeded to cast him out. After this he went on in a variable course, sometimes seeming very penitent, soon after again excusing himself, and casting blame upon others . . . . He was off and on for a long time, and when he had seemed most penitent, so as the church were ready to have received him in again, he would fall back again, and as it were repent of his repentance.15
Hawthorne could have found all but the last sentence and clause of this case quoted from Winthrop in the second edition of Lewis's History.16 In the first edition, however, Hawthorne would have learned only that Batchellor had been "excommunicated" in 1641 for "irregular conduct," although this edition does mention that Batchellor was ninety at the time of his remarriage in 1650 to Mary (the "lusty comely" wife of 1641 having died).17 Their union drew the attention of Bay authorities when Batchellor was "fined ten pounds, for not publishing his intention of marriage, according to law," and again, later in 1650, when the General Court ordered the couple to "lyve together as man and wife," thereby denying both of their petitions for divorce.18 Sometime in 1651, Batchellor returned to England, where he remarried and lived another ten years, his polygamy apparently undetected.19 One cannot determine from either Lewis's first or second edition whether Batchellor left America before or after Mary's trial for adultery. Within the narrow time margins involved, however, he probably knew that Mary was pregnant from an extra-marital union. The would-be adulterer had himself become a cuckold, and his response was to flee
Few details in Batchellor's life invite comparison with Hawthorne's Dimmesdale. Indeed, Batchellor's advanced age, his young and wayward wife, and his incorrigibility attracting public censure are more reminiscent of Chillingworth. But Batchellor's attempt to seduce another man's wife, links his American experience to Dimmesdale's. Moreover, Batchellor's attempted adultery, followed by his repeated confessions and denials, suggests the major dilemma tormenting Dimmesdale throughout The Scarlet Letter. Knowing at the outset that he should confess, yet perhaps fearing that he will be excommunicated (as Batchellor had been for a seemingly lesser offense), Dimmesdale cannot bring himself to reveal his role in Hester's sin until seven years later in the climactic scaffold scene.20 It is also worth considering that Batchellor's return to England might have given Hawthorne the idea of having Hester propose to Dimmesdale that they escape to the Old World. Alternately, knowing that Mary Batchellor was left with the difficulty of providing for a family after her husband's flight, Hawthorne might have seen the need to discover the moral necessity and the future independence of America lying behind Hester's ultimate decision to remain in New England.
Finally, the year of Batchellor's attempted seduction probably influenced Hawthorne's manipulation of the historical time frame of The Scarlet Letter. When that attempt took place in 1641, Richard Bellingham was governor. Bellingham is clearly the governor, "the chief ruler," in the opening scaffold scene of The Scarlet Letter (p.64). And yet, because that scene takes place in June 1642, Hawthorne should have designated Winthrop, who had become governor in May. 21 Hawthorne, who had a high opinion of Winthrop, may have created this anachronism among the otherwise accurate details of the novel's historical setting in order to dissociate Winthrop from the Puritan "sages of rigid aspect" who rule in Hester's case but who are not "capable of sitting in judgment on an erring woman's heart" (p.64). Hawthorne surely knew from his reading in Winthrop, however, that the historical Bellingham would have been as unqualified to judge Hester as he was to rule in Batchellor's case. While governor in 1641, not long before he presided over the General Court's arraignment of Batchellor, Bellingham had won the hand of a woman who had previously pledged herself to his friend. The governor not only circumvented the law by failing to publish the banns but also performed his own marriage ceremony.22 As reported by Winthrop, Bellingham refused to disqualify himself when the General Court convened to take up charges brought against him by the "great inquest." The Court was "unwilling to command him publicly to go off the bench, and yet not thinking it fit he should sit as a judge, when he was by law to answer as an offender.23 That he subsequently sat on the bench when the Reverend Batchellor's case came before the Court would no doubt have pleased Hawthorne's sense of irony and may further have prompted him to allow the unworthy Bellingham to preside over Hester's public humiliation.
One of the more unique aspects of Hawthorne's fiction is how it sends us back to the record books in search of individuals and events that, through the force of his art, he has made us experience as historically real. We do know that Hawthorne did not entirely invent the circumstances and dilemmas of his characters, but we cannot always be sure that he knew what we have discovered in the historical record available to him. While he almost certainly drew upon the life of the Reverend Batchellor, the case of his ill-fated wife is more problematic. Even if, however, we were to dismiss the possibility that Hawthorne knew about Mary Batchellor -- which I do not think we can or should do -- the historical analogy remains tantalizing. Had The Scarlet Letter never been written, many of us would never have been aware that in mid-seventeenth-century New England even Puritan divines were implicated in cases of adultery and that wayward women faced the threat of being physically as well as socially stigmatized by a burning A. One of Hawthorne's particular gifts is that he not only brings such facts to light but also that from them he spins stories of such psychological and moral power that they have fascinated readers for generations and promise to do so for generations to come.
[Frederick Newberry, author of the forthcoming HAWTHORNE'S DIVIDED LOYALTIES: ENGLAND AND AMERICA IN HIS WORKS. teaches at the Honors College at the University of Oregon.]