The existence of this story, posthumously published, was not known to any one but Hawthorne himself, until some time after his death, when the manuscript was found among his papers. The preparation and copying of his Note-Books for the press occupied the most of Mrs. Hawthorne's available time during the interval from 1864 to 1870; but in the latter year, having decided to publish the unfinished romance, she began the task of putting together its loose sheets and deciphering the handwriting, which, towards the close of Hawthorne's life, had grown somewhat obscure and uncertain. Her death occurred while she was thus engaged, and the transcription was completed by her daughters. The book was then issued simultaneously in America and England, in 1871.
Although "Septimius Felton" appeared so much later than "The Marble Faun," it was conceived and, in another form, begun before the Italian romance had presented itself to the author's mind. The legend of a bloody foot leaving its imprint where it passed, which figures so prominently in the following fiction, was brought to Hawthorne's notice on a visit to Smithell's Hall, Lancashire, England. [Footnote: See English Note-Books, April 7, and August 25, 1855.] Only five days after hearing of it, he made a note in his journal, referring to "my Romance," which had to do with a plot involving the affairs of a family established both in England and New England; and it seems likely that he had already begun to associate the bloody footstep with this project. What is extraordinary, and must be regarded as an unaccountable coincidence—one of the strange premonitions of genius—is that in 1850, before he had ever been to England and before he knew of the existence of Smithell's Hall, he had jotted down in his Note-Book, written in America, this suggestion: "The print in blood of a naked foot to be traced through the street of a town." The idea of treating in fiction the attempt to renew youth or to attain an earthly immortality had engaged his fancy quite early in his career, as we discover from "Doctor Heidegger's Experiment," in the "Twice-Told Tales." In 1840, also, we find in the journal: "If a man were sure of living forever, he would not care about his offspring." The "Mosses from an Old Manse" supply another link in this train of reflection; for "The Virtuoso's Collection" includes some of the elixir vitae "in an antique sepulchral urn." The narrator there represents himself as refusing to quaff it. "'No; I desire not an earthly immortality,' said I. 'Were man to live longer on earth, the spiritual would die out of him… . There is a celestial something within us that requires, after a certain time, the atmosphere of heaven to preserve it from ruin.'" On the other hand, just before hearing, for the first time, the legend of Smithell's Hall, he wrote in his English journal:—
"God himself cannot compensate us for being born for any period short of eternity. All the misery endured here constitutes a claim for another life, and still more all the happiness; because all true happiness involves something more than the earth owns, and needs something more than a mortal capacity for the enjoyment of it." It is sufficiently clear that he had meditated on the main theme of "Septimius Felton," at intervals, for many years.
When, in August, 1855, Hawthorne went by invitation to Smithell's Hall, the lady of the manor, on his taking leave, asked him "to write a ghost-story for her house;" and he observes in his notes, "the legend is a good one." Three years afterwards, in 1858, on the eve of departure for France and Italy, he began to sketch the outline of a romance laid in England, and having for its hero an American who goes thither to assert his inherited rights in an old manor-house possessing the peculiarity of a supposed bloody foot-print on the threshold-stone. This sketch, which appears in the present edition as "The Ancestral Footstep," was in journal form, the story continuing from day to day, with the dates attached. There remains also the manuscript without elate, recently edited under the title "Dr. Grimshawe's Secret," which bears a resemblance to some particulars in "Septimius Felton."
Nothing further seems to have been done in this direction by the author until he had been to Italy, had written "The Marble Faun," and again returned to The Wayside, his home at Concord. It was then, in 1861, that he took up once more the "Romance of Immortality," as the sub-title of the English edition calls it. "I have not found it possible," he wrote to Mr. Bridge, who remained his confidant, "to occupy my mind with its usual trash and nonsense during these anxious times; but as the autumn advances, I myself sitting down at my desk and blotting successive sheets of paper as of yore." Concerning this place, The Wayside, he had said in a letter to George William Curtis, in 1852: "I know nothing of the history of the house, except Thoreau's telling me that it was inhabited a generation or two ago by a man who believed he should never die." It was this legendary personage whom he now proceeded to revive and embody as Septimius; and the scene of the story was placed at The Wayside itself and the neighboring house, belonging to Mr. Bronson Alcott, both of which stand at the base of a low ridge running beside the Lexington road, in the village of Concord. Rose Garfield is mentioned as living "in a small house, the site of which is still indicated by the cavity of a cellar, in which I this very summer planted some sunflowers." The cellar-site remains at this day distinctly visible near the boundary of the land formerly owned by Hawthorne.
Attention may here perhaps appropriately be called to the fact that some of the ancestors of President Garfield settled at Weston, not many miles from Concord, and that the name is still borne by dwellers in the vicinity. One of the last letters written by the President was an acceptance of an invitation to visit Concord; and it was his intention to journey thither by carriage, incognito, from Boston, passing through the scenes where those ancestors had lived, and entering the village by the old Lexington road, on which The Wayside faces. It is an interesting coincidence that Hawthorne should have chosen for his first heroine's name, either intentionally or through unconscious association, this one which belonged to the region.
The house upon which the story was thus centred, and where it was written, had been a farm-house, bought and for a time occupied by Hawthorne previous to his departure for Europe. On coming back to it, he made some additions to the old wooden structure, and caused to be built a low tower, which rose above the irregular roofs of the older and newer portions, thus supplying him with a study lifted out of reach of noise or interruption, and in a slight degree recalling the tower in which he had taken so much pleasure at the Villa Montauto. The study was extremely simple in its appointments, being finished chiefly in stained wood, with a vaulted plaster ceiling, and containing, besides a few pictures and some plain furniture, a writing-table, and a shelf at which Hawthorne sometimes wrote standing. A story has gone abroad and is widely believed, that, on mounting the steep stairs leading to this study, he passed through a trap-door and afterwards placed upon it the chair in which he sat, so that intrusion or interruption became physically impossible. It is wholly unfounded. There never was any trap-door, and no precaution of the kind described was ever taken. Immediately behind the house the hill rises in artificial terraces, which, during the romancer's residence, were grassy and planted with fruit-trees. He afterwards had evergreens set out there, and directed the planting of other trees, which still attest his preference for thick verdure. The twelve acres running back over the hill were closely covered with light woods, and across the road lay a level tract of eight acres more, which included a garden and orchard. From his study Hawthorne could overlook a good part of his modest domain; the view embraced a stretch of road lined with trees, wide meadows, and the hills across the shallow valley. The branches of trees rose on all sides as if to embower the house, and birds and bees flew about his casement, through which came the fresh perfumes of the woods, in summer.
In this spot "Septimius Felton" was written; but the manuscript, thrown aside, was mentioned in the Dedicatory Preface to "Our Old Home" as an "abortive project." As will be found explained in the Introductory Notes to "The Dolliver Romance" and "The Ancestral Footstep," that phase of the same general design which was developed in the "Dolliver" was intended to take the place of this unfinished sketch, since resuscitated.