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    How Hester was Like Jesus

    April 7, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    [dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen Siah and I finished Diane Setterfield’s novel a few years ago, his parting word was, “Bravo.” It really is that well done. After all, if I rarely read fiction, Si reads it even less. Both of us agree that there is a lack of good writing out there*.

    Setterfield is an oasis in the desert of modern writing if I’ve ever met one.

    So now I’m going to try and discuss a tiny bit of The Thirteenth Tale without spoiling it for anyone.

    How Hester was like Jesus: Hester might look like a potato, but she's a force to be reckoned with.

    Setterfield is strong on character development, and one of my favorite characters from the book is the governess, Hester Barrow. Hester is all that a proper governess should be, from her neat, clean attire, to her prim and proper modes of expression, to her tidy and meticulous methods, to her perfect unadorned handwriting. Hester, though she has her downfall before the book is over, is, not unlike Setterfield herself, an oasis, only she is order in the midst of chaos.

    Hester is spiritual, even though her effects on the Angelfield home are physically observable. She has a contagious goodness about her:

    The grubbiness of the house did not transfer itself to our pristine governess the way one might have expected. Instead it was the other way around. The few rays of light, drained and dusty, that managed to penetrate the uncleaned windows and the heavy curtains seemed always to fall on Hester. She gathered them to herself and reflected them back into the gloom, refreshed and vitalized by their contact with her. Little by little the gleam extended from Hester herself to the house. On the first full day it was just her own room that was affected. She took the curtains down and plunged them into a tub of soapy water. She pegged them on the line where the sun and wind woke up the unsuspected pattern of pink and yellow roses. While they were drying, she cleaned the window with newspaper and vinegar to let the light in, and when she could see what she was doing, she scrubbed the room from floor to ceiling. By nightfall she had created a little haven on cleanliness within those four walls. And that was just the beginning.

    With soap and with bleach, with energy and with determination, she imposed hygiene on that house. Where for generations the inhabitants had lumbered half-seeing and purposeless, circling after nothing but their own squalid obsessions, Hester came as a spring-cleaning miracle…

    After cleanliness came order, and the house was first to feel the changes.


    Within a few days there were mealtimes, bedtimes, getting-up times. A few days more and there were clean shoes for indoors, clean boots for out.


    Hester had triumphed. She might have looked like a potato, but there was nothing that girl couldn’t do, once she put her mind to it.

    It seems like a list of simple tasks that require a relatively unskilled worker to perform them. Cleaning, ordering, and the like. She was supposed to be the governess, a source of knowledge for the children, and there she was, doing the work of a common maid.

    And doing it well.

    And doing it cheerfully.

    And doing it like Jesus.

    I don’t mean this in a work-with-all-your-might sort of way, even though that is, also, precisely what she did. I mean this in a light-banishing-the-darkness sort of way.

    Hester was glowing within and without {despite her plain appearance}, and that glow radiated to even the darkest corners of the house.

    This is one of the things I love about Jesus. We see Him walking the pages of the New Testament with a contagious cleanness. While others, upon touching a leper, would contract the disease, He, upon touching a leper, caused the leper to contract His healthiness. While others, upon touching a hemorraging woman, would become ritually unclean {if not literally unclean}, He, upon touching such a woman, caused the woman to contract His cleanness.

    Contagious. Catching. These words are usually used in threatening terms because they imply that someone else’s presence could be a threat to our own health and well-being.

    And yet, in regard to Jesus and Hester, that is what we want: to catch the light, the health, the cleanness. We want to stand there and become better and more simply because we caught whatever it was they had.

    And this is how the Christian should be. In this initial picture, Hester depicts the ideal Christian. Sure, she is simply banishing dust and grime. But we all know it is hard to teach a hungry person about God’s love while the stomach lies empty. The same goes in this situation. How could Hester teach young minds to think well when their environment encouraged nothing but chaos and disorderliness?

    No, Hester took care of the small things, knowing that this would pave the way for the larger things. And, in doing so, became symbolic of the Christian life: light, cleanliness, brilliance, order, wholeness, goodness, and health flowing forth from her to others.

    I will lead the blind by ways they have not known,
    along unfamiliar paths I will guide them;
    I will turn the darkness into light before them
    and make the rough places smooth.
    These are the things I will do;
    I will not forsake them.


    *I have since changed my opinion.

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  • Reply Nelleke Plouffe January 5, 2016 at 8:45 am

    I just reserved this at the library…it seems I need it. 🙂

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 5, 2016 at 10:05 am

      Okay, I have to warn you that some people hate this book because it is so dark. I adore Hester’s character, but it’s definitely a gothic novel a la Brontë… 🙂

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts April 7, 2011 at 8:12 pm

    Jennifer, I hope you like the book if you get it! It has a very gothic British feel, is very well written, and reminds me of something the Bronte sisters would have written…

  • Reply Jennifer in OR April 7, 2011 at 7:42 pm

    Okay, wow, that was a really neat review and now I want this book! Thank you. And I’m even inspired to get things in order over here…I love how you noted that it paves the way for bigger things.

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