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The Scarlet Letter: A Good Read?

In our house we have more paintings and pictures than wall space. We have nothing valuable in money terms but all valuable in what each picture means to us; I could say the same about books. I put some of my favourite books on the bookshelves in the barns for our guests to enjoy and many of them tell us how much they do. We have bookshelves in every room in the house, with books lined two deep and in untidy piles everywhere. And they keep coming in as we buy them, get given them and the Parwich Five book club that four friends and I have belonged to for over 20 years means there has been at least one more new book every month which makes over 240 in all.

There are many joys about our book club. It is small so we all get a voice in; we all read voraciously and we all come at the books from a different angle. One of us is American, I was born and brought up (and educated) in central Africa, two of us had very strict convent type eductions, the youngest is the same age as the oldest’s daughter. We have very lively – fun and interesting – discussions and agree to disagree without hurt or reproach although funnily enough on the whole we seem to be in general agreement; the best discussions are when we don’t!

Usually, we all find that even if a book doesn’t appeal at first, after a certain number of pages (there’s meant to be a magical number) often to one’s surprise one begins to enjoy it and sometime by the end one is completely won over. Our latest read, chosen by American Deb in response to our request for an American classic, was the Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. To our shame the rest of us had not read it and knew little about the background whereas to Debbie it was a familiar, well-loved classic, taught in every school and part of everyone’s background. Just as she had struggled with Trollope so well-known and familiar to us, so we all struggled with Hawthorne, and only partly because The Scarlet Letter was a deceptively tiny book with print as minute as a Bible’s so not relaxing to read at the end of a long day.

However, after our discussion and Debbie’s surprised reaction that we had not enjoyed it at all, at least two of us have decided we ought to read it again, trying to get beyond the ponderous style and very depressing 17C Puritanism and think more about the (equally depressing) underlying themes of guilt, remorse and redemption. On a more positive note, Hester Prynne, the heroine, is a very strong and courageous woman, and her daughter Pearl an almost alarmingly free ‘free spirit’ presumably because they had been set apart from society so did not have to obey its conventions. Pearl having been born out of wedlock her mother Hester narrowly escaped being executed for the social crime but instead had to live as an outcast, with a scarlet letter A pinned to her chest to mark her out as an adultress.

Our next book will be a complete change: ‘Call the Midwife’ by Jennifer Worth, which has recently been serialised very successfully on telly.

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