The title of a book is so much more than a collection of words, or a witty reference to a plot point. In one word, or a few words, a title must manage to encompass some of the meaning of a work— some of the underlying themes, or at least catch your attention. Choosing a title can be a picky and risky business and in naming her book Hope Leslie, Catherine Maria Sedgwick certainly showcases that.
Of course, the assumption is that an author titles their own work, independent of outside influences. However, choosing a title can mean choosing what will best attract your target audience, or choosing what message you want to convey to your readers. Even in titling these blog posts, we’ve all faced the dilemma of picking a catchy phrase. I believe that, though books already have titles, the readers sometimes rename them— for personal use or convenience, because they didn’t like the title, because they felt the title didn’t do the book justice, for all manner of reasons, really. Titles are, in my opinion, somewhat of a constant work in progress, something to be revisited in different times and places and by different people. In this case I, as a reader, rename Hope Leslie, Magawisca.
I believe that Sedgwick should have titled her novel as such for many reasons, one of them being that Magawisca is the first Native American we come into contact with via the novel. She is our first impression of them, and, arguably, what Sedgwick thinks about them. Not only is she a plot device, her character can be used to glean information about the author. Not only that, but the descriptions of Magawisca are extremely detailed, and because of that provide us with a lot of information. In describing Magawisca, Sedgwick writes, “Her form was slender, flexible, and graceful; and there was a freedom and loftinesss in her movement in her movement which, though tempered with modesty, expressed a consciousness of high birth” (Sedgwick, 23). This gives us a description of Magawisca that is better in some ways than we could have expected for the time in which Hope Leslie was written. Not only was this Native American girl seen as graceful, there was a measure of “modesty” she seemed to carry with her, a trait of an acceptable woman. Furthermore, there is a mention of “high birth,” of a kind of regality that is scarcely designated to what many referred to at the time as “savages.”
Magawisca is also written as a character that has many components to her personality. Sedgwick writes, “…an expression of dignity, thoughtfulness, an deep dejections that made the eye linger on Magawisca’s face…the moccasin, neatly fitted to a delicate foot and ankle…” (Sedgwick, 23). Here we see a kind of duality in the portrayal of Magawisca’s character. She is depicted as a woman who deeply ponders things, and who is mentally strong and able— something that wasn’t typically “feminine” at the time, but were traits designated to men. However, there is a clear image of Magawisca’s “womanhood” in that Sedgwick specifically notes her “delicate” feet and ankles— the mark of a woman. At the point where Magawisca tries to defend Everell in the forest, she loses her arm. Sedgwick writes, “…Magawisca, springing from the precipitous side of the rock, screamed— ‘Forbear!’ and interposed her arm. It was too late. The blow was leveled— force and direction given— the stroke aimed at Everell’s neck, severed his defender’s arm, and left him unharmed. The lopped quivering member dropped over the precipice” (Sedgwick, 93). Here we see Magawisca being given the typical role of a man. She acts as the defender, the savior, and the martyr in giving up her arm trying to save Everell.
Although many of the characters in Hope Leslie are useful in gleaning information, the character of Magawisca in particular is a treasure trove of duality, instances of feminism, and so much more. For that, I believe that my working title for Hope Leslie, and what I think Sedgwick herself should have titled the novel, is Magawisca.