Book report: “Esther,” by Henry Adams


When I bought my Nook a few months ago, I discovered that there’s lots of free public-domain content – which means that you can download pretty much any nineteenth-century novel you can think of.



I thought immediately of Henry Adams’s “Democracy,” which I began some years ago and never finished. I finished it this time, and found it pretty good after all.



I then discovered another forgotten Adams novel: “Esther.” I just finished it the other day.






It starts out as traditional nineteenth-century fare, in that it’s a whom-shall-I-marry? story. Lovely intelligent talented rich Esther Dudley is an aspiring artist in 1880s New York City. She is a free-thinker, like her cousin George Strong, a paleontologist. Now let us add three more people to the mix: Mr. Hazard, a charming and persuasive clergyman; Mr. Wharton, a wild but sentimental (and, unlike Esther, successful) artist; and Catherine, Esther’s Colorado cousin, who is always described as “fresh as a prairie breeze.”



Esther and Mr. Hazard become a couple; so do Catherine and Mr. Wharton. The latter relationship falls apart early when it turns out Mr. Wharton is already married – to a French madwoman, no less. Divorce proceedings are undertaken, but, alas, romance between the artist and the Prairie Breeze is out of the question until Mr. Wharton is a free man.



Esther’s relationship with Mr. Hazard is more complex. He proposes to her, and he is so damnably persuasive that she accepts. Having accepted him, she decides to become a good clergyman’s wife. And she quickly discovers that she’s too analytical and skeptical for the job.



If you think you see what’s going to happen here, you are wrong. I am partial to books that surprise me; having read so many, I think of myself as beyond surprise, and am viscerally delighted when someone pulls a switcheroo on me. This book surprised me completely.



It’s a slight book, not a masterpiece, but it has some nice things: some terrific vignettes of New York City in the Gilded Age; a very neat little side-trip to Niagara Falls in the wintertime (no, not a honeymoon); and some clever dialogue.



But the thing that draws me back over and over again to Henry Adams is his intelligence and acuity. If you’d asked me if there were any late-nineteenth-century American novels featuring an atheist heroine engaged to an Episcopal clergyman, I would have giggled and said, “I doubt it.” And what do you know? Henry Adams wrote one. And it is brief, and vivacious, and charming, and well worth a few hours of your time. You can find it, free for nothing, on Project Gutenberg. I recommend it.




About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to

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