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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
On the morning after their first night in the Old Manse, Hawthorne wrote to his younger sister, Louisa, the one who was quite like everybody else. “Dear Louse,” he said affectionately, “The execution took place yesterday. We made a Christian end, and came straight to Paradise, where we abide at the present writing.” Sophia had the same message for her mother, although she expressed it more ecstatically. “It is a perfect Eden round us,” she said. “Everything is as fresh as in first June. We are Adam and Eve and see no persons round! The birds saluted us this morning with such gushes of rapture, that I thought they must know us and our happiness.” The Hawthornes at 38 and 33 were like children again—like children exploring a desert island that every day revealed new marvels. Their only fear was that a ship might come to rescue them. Once the great Margaret Fuller wrote them and suggested that another newly married couple, her sister Ellen and Ellery Channing, might board with them at the Manse. Hawthorne sent her a tactful letter of refusal. “Had it been proposed to Adam and Eve,” he said, “to receive two angels into their Paradise, as boarders , I doubt whether they would have been altogether pleased to consent.” The Hawthornes were left happily alone with Sarah the maid and Pigwiggin the kitten.
They were exercising a talent that most New Englanders never acquire, that of living not in the past or in dreams of the future, but in the moment itself, as if they were already in heaven. Sophia wrote letters each morning or painted in her studio, while Hawthorne worked meditatively in the garden that Henry Thoreau had planted for them. In the afternoon they explored the countryside together or rowed on the quiet river, picking waterlilies. Hawthorne wrote in his journal, My life, at this time, is more like that of a boy, externally, than it has been since I was really a boy. It is usually supposed that the cares of life come with matrimony; but I seem to have cast off all care, and live with as much easy trust in Providence, as Adam could possibly have felt, before he had learned that there was a world beyond his Paradise.
Sometimes they ran footraces down the lane, which Sophia grandly called “the avenue.” Sometimes in the evening she wound the music box and, forgetting her Puritan training, danced wildly for her lover. “You deserve John the Baptist’s head,” he teased her. In the records of that time—there are many of them, and all a delight to read—there is only one hint of anything like a quarrel. It arose when one of their walks led them to an unmown hayfield. Hawthorne, who had learned about haying at Brook Farm, told Sophia not to cross it and trample the grass. “This I did not like very well and I climbed the hill alone,” Sophia wrote in the journal they were keeping together.
We penetrated the pleasant gloom and sat down upon a carpet of dried pine leaves. Then I clasped him in my arms in the lovely shade, and we laid down a few moments on the bosom of dear Mother Earth. Oh, how sweet it wasl And I told him I would not be so naughty again, and there was a very slight diamond shower without any thunder or lightning and we were happiest.
There was some thunder and lightning even during those three sunny years at the Old Manse. Sophia’s mother and her sister Elizabeth had insisted that she must never bear children, but she longed for them ardently. One day in the first February she fell on the ice—where she had been sliding while Hawthorne skated round her in flashing circles—and suffered a miscarriage. When her first baby was born in March, 1844, it lingered, as Hawthorne said, “ten dreadful hours on the threshold of life.” It lived and the parents rejoiced, but now they had financial worries: O’Sullivan took years to pay for the stories he printed, and Ripley hadn’t returned the money advanced to Brook Farm. There were weeks when Hawthorne was afraid to walk into Concord for the mail, lest he meet too many of his creditors. Sophia’s love did not waver, then or for the rest of her life, nor did her trust in the wisdom and mercy of Providence. It had snatched her from invalidism and spinsterhood and transported her to Paradise. It had made her “as strong as a lion,” she wrote to her sister Mary, “as elastic as India rubber, light as a bird, as happy as a queen might be,” and it had given her a husband whose ardent love was as unwavering as her own. She was expressing in five words all her faith in Providence, and indeed all her experience of life, when she stood at the window in Hawthorne’s study one April evening at sunset and wrote with her diamond ring on one of the tiny panes —for him to see, for the world to remember: