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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
The evening at Miss Burley’s marked a change in their relations. From that time Sophia began taking long walks with Mr. Hawthorne in spite of the winter gales. Elizabeth was busy with her affairs in Boston, and Mary, the quiet sister, looked on benevolently. Sophia never IeIt tired so long as she could hold Mr. Hawthorne’s arm. It was during one of their walks, on a snowy day just before or alter New Year’s, 1839, that they confessed their love for each other. Clinging together like children frightened of being so happy, they exchanged promises that neither of them would break. They were married now “in the sight of God,” as old-fashioned people used to say, and as Hawthorne soon told Sophia in slightly different words, but that was a secret they would keep to themselves lor a long time to come.
In the middle of January Hawthorne went to work as a weigher and gauger for the Boston Custom House. It was a political appointment made by the collector of the port, who was George Bancroft, the historian. Hawthorne had been recommended to him by several influential persons, including Miss Peabody, who may have hoped to get him out of Salem. Bancroft justified the appointment to Washington by writing that Hawthorne was “the biographer of Cilley,” and thus a deserving Democrat. Cilley again. … It was as if the college friend for whose death Hawthorne felt responsible had reached out of the grave to help him. Many other deserving Democrats had sought for the post, but it was not a sinecure, and he worked as hard as Jacob did for Rachel, while saving half his salary of $1,500 a year. Every other Saturday he took the cars to Salem and spent an evening with Sophia. On the Saturdays in Boston he sent her a long letter, sometimes written in daily installments.
“What a year the last has been!” he wrote on January i, 1840. ”… It has been the year of years —the year in which the flower of our life has bloomed out—the flower of our life and of our love, which we are to wear in our bosoms forever.” Three days later he added, Dearest, I hope you have not found it impracticable to walk, though the atmosphere be so wintry. Did we walk together in any such weather, last winter? I believe we did. How strange, that such a flower as our affection should have blossomed amid snow and wintry winds—accompaniments which no poet or novelist, that I know of, has ever introduced into a love-tale. Nothing like our story was ever written—or ever will be—for we shall not feel inclined to make the public our confidant; but if it could be told, methinks it would be such as the angels might delight to hear.
As a matter of fact, Hawthorne wrote the story from day to day, in that series of heartfelt letters to Sophia, and the New England angels would delight to read them. It is true that the tone of them is sometimes too reverent for the worldly taste of our century. “I always feel,” Hawthorne says in July, 1839, “as if your letters were too sacred to be read in the midst of people, and (you will smile) I never read them without first washing my hands.” We also smile, but in a different spirit from Sophia’s. We feel a little uncomfortable on hearing the pet names with which he addresses her, almost all superlatives: “Dearissima,” “mine ownest love,” “Blessedest,” “ownest Dove,” “best, beautifullest, belovedest, blessingest of wives.” It is confusing to find that he calls her “mine own wife,” and himself “your husband” or “thy husband,” for three years before the actual marriage. His use of “thee” and “thou” in all the letters written after March, 1840, though it reveals his need for deeper intimacy of expression, still gives an archaic look to the writing. But the feelings expressed are not in the least archaic; they are those of a restrained but passionate man, truly in love for the first and last time, and gifted with an extraordinary talent for self-awareness.
Long afterward Sophia, then a widow, tried to delete the passion before she permitted the letters to be read by others. She scissored out some of the dangerous passages, and these are gone forever. Others she inked out carefully, and most of these have been restored by the efforts of Randall Stewart—the most trustworthy biographer of Hawthorne—and the staff of the Huntington Library. They show that Hawthorne was less of an other-worldly creature than Miss Peabody pictured him as being. “Mine own wife,” he says in one of the inked-out passages (November, 1839), “what a cold night this is going to bel How I am to keep warm, unless you nestle close, close into my bosom, I do not by any means understand—not but what I have clothes enough on my mattress—but a husband cannot be comfortably warm without his wife.” There is so much talk of beds and bosoms that some have inferred, after reading the restored text, that Hawthorne and Sophia were lovers for a long time before their marriage—and most of these readers thought no worse of them. But the records show that this romantic notion has to be dismissed. Much as Hawthorne wanted Sophia, he also wanted to observe the scriptural laws of love. “Mr. Hawthorne’s passions were under his feet,” Miss Peabody quoted Sophia as saying. If he had made Sophia his mistress, he would have revered her less, and he would have despised himself.