Click here to read reviewer Elisha Darville's take on Angel and Apostle.
This novel offers an unusual take on the fate of the daughter of Hester Prynne from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. In a tale mirroring the arcane language of Hawthorne’s classic, Pearl is a child of about seven years, half fairy sprite and half human, taking her cues from the righteous adults around her, their behavior determined by the severe constraints of Puritanism. The adults are not above stoning sinners, or putting them in stocks to be ridiculed by passersby.
In this incarnation, Hester is a shadow of her former self, living in an isolated cottage with her small daughter, doing needlework for her betters and rushing to and fro to comfort the sick. Thoroughly chastened by her own experiences, rather than teach Pearl to be an independent spirit, Hester begs her daughter to remain pious and keep to her place. This is mostly impossible for a curious child with many questions about the world she inhabits.
It is hard to imagine that Hester, faded as a country mouse, ever had the passion to confront her own desires. In fact, Noyes’ treatment of Prynne’s predicament offers another plausible explanation for the pregnancy and subsequent birth of an illegitimate child.
Pearl develops an attachment to a blind boy, Simon Milton, whose dying mother is attended to by Hester. As their friendship develops, Pearl grows ever more attached to Simon. Due to this connection and the machinations of Doctor Devlin, mother and daughter sail to England with the Milton family, where Hester indentures herself for seven years.
In England, Hester is freed from the badge, but it is emblazoned on her soul and she never recovers from her shame. Pearl is another matter entirely, curious about her father’s true identity and about Doctor Devlin’s interest in mother and daughter’s welfare. It suits Pearl, finally, to marry Simon’s older brother Nehemiah, but her life is complicated by a need to please her husband and a growing affection for Simon.
Although the young Pearl seems far too precocious for her years, with maturity her thoughts turn to less maudlin preoccupations. At last perception meets reality and the character matches her sophisticated vocabulary. As an adult, Pearl’s actions are still dictated by the prevailing religious intolerance, but she has more control of her own fate, making her own willful mistakes. But Pearl is forever tangled in her mother's past, haunted by her father's identity and bound to the ghostly remnants of life in New England, a victim of the religious fanaticism originally penned by Hawthorne.
Noyes perfectly captures time and place, but in Angel and Apostle, Hester Prynne is robbed of her spirit and iconic status, overshadowed by her daughter. Perhaps that is Prynne's inevitable fate. Even more frightening is Noyes prescience in crafting a modern morality tale couched in Puritan New England that fits just as well in the confusing moral stew of modern society. For this reason alone, Angel and Apostle is chilling.