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The Hawthornes In Paradise
Nathaniel was poor and sunk in his solitude; Sophia seemed a hopeless invalid, but a late-flower love gave them at last“a perfect Eden”
December 1958 | Volume 10, Issue 1
Sophia had been cast by her family in a role from which it seemed unlikely that she would ever escape. Just as Elizabeth Peabody was the intellectual sister, already famous as an educational reformer, and Mary was the quiet sister who did most of the household chores, Sophia was the invalid sister, petted like a child and kept in an upstairs room. There were also three brothers, one of them married, but the Peabodys were a matriarchy and a sorority; nobody paid much attention to the Peabody men. It was written that when the mother died, Sophia would become the invalid aunt of her brother’s children; she would support herself by painting lampshades and firescreens, while enduring her headaches with a brave smile. As for Hawthorne, his fate was written too; he would become the cranky New England bachelor, living in solitude and writing more and more nebulous stories about other lonely souls. But they saved each other, those two unhappy children. Each was the other’s refuge, and they groped their way into each other’s arms, where both found strength to face the world.
It was Elizabeth, the intellectual sister, who first brought them together, unthinkingly, in a moment of triumph for herself. She had long admired a group of stories, obviously by one author, that had been appearing anonymously in the annual editions of a gift book, The Token , and in the New England Magazine . Now she learned that the author was a Salem neighbor. Always eager to inspire a new genius, she made patient efforts to inveigle him into the Peabody house on Charter Street, with its square windows looking over an old burying ground where Peabodys and Hathornes—as the name used to be spelled-were sleeping almost side by side. She even took the bold step of paying several visits to the Hawthorne house on Herbert Street, known as “Castle Dismal,” where nobody outside the family had dared to come for years.
Usually she was received by Hawthorne’s younger sister, Louisa, who, Miss Peabody said disappointedly, was “quite like everybody else.” The older sister, Elizabeth—usually tailed Ebe—was known with good reason as “the hcrmitess,” but she finally consented to take a walk with her enterprising neighbor. Madam Hawthorne, the mother, stayed in her room as always, and Nathaniel was nowhere to be seen. He did, however, send Miss Peabody a presentation copy of his book, and she replied by suggesting some journalistic work that he had no intention of doing. Then, on the evening of November 11, 1837, came her moment of triumph. Elizabeth was sitting in the parlor, looking at a five-volume set of Flaxman’s classical engravings that she had just been given by Professor FeIton of Harvard, when she heard a great ring at the front door.
“There stood your father,” she said half a century later in a letter to her nephew Julian Hawthorne, “in all the splendor of his young beauty, and a hooded figure hanging on each arm.” The figures were Louisa and Ebe. Miss Peabody bustled them into the parlor and set them to looking at Flaxman’s illustrations for The Iliad . Then she ran upstairs to the invalid’s room and said, “Oh, Sophia, Mr. Hawthorne and his sisters have come, and you never saw anything so splendidhe is handsomer than Lord Byron! You must get up and dress and come down. We have Flaxman too.”
Sophia laughed and said, “I think it would be rather ridiculous to get up. If he has come once he will come again.”
A few days later he came again, this time in the afternoon. “I summoned your mother,” Miss Peabody said in the same letter, and she came down in her simple white wrapper, and glided in at the back door and sat down on the sofa. As I said, “My sister, Sophia—Mr. Hawthorne,” he rose and looked at her—he did not realize how intently, and afterwards, as we went on talking, she would interpose frequently a remark in her low sweet voice. Every time she did so, he looked at her with the same intentness of interest. I was struck with it, and painfully. I thought, what if he should fall in love with her. …
Miss Peabody explained why that was a painful thought; it was because “I had heard her so often say, nothing would ever tempt her to marry, and inflict upon a husband the care of such a sufferer.” But there was an unspoken reason too, lor it is clear from other letters that Elizabeth Peabody wanted Nathaniel Hawthorne for herself. Whether she hoped to marry him we cannot be sure, but there is no question that she planned to become his spiritual guide, his literary counselor, his muse and Egeria.
Sophia had no such clear intentions. She told her children long afterward that Hawthorne’s presence exerted a magnetic attraction on her from the beginning, and that she instinctively drew back in self-defense. The power she felt in him alarmed her; she did not understand what it meant. By degrees her resistance was overcome, and she came to realize that they had loved each other at first sight. … That was Sophia’s story, and Hawthorne did not contradict her. There is some doubt, however, whether he told her about everything that happened during the early months of their acquaintance.