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Three Sisters Who Showed The Way
Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia Peabody managed to extend the boundaries that cramped the lives of nineteenth-century women. Elizabeth introduced the kindergarten movement to America, Mary developed a new philosophy of mothering that we now take for granted, and Sophia was liberated from invalidism by her passionate love for her husband.
September/October 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 6
All this time Mary Mann was formulating a philosophy that she was to publish in her popular Christianity in the Kitchen: A Physiological Cookbook. It was the housewife’s duty, Mary believed, to educate herself in the latest scientific knowledge in order to keep her family healthy. Citing the research of the best men of science, she warned her readers against rich and fatty foods and advised moderation in spices and abstinence from alcohol. Some of her notions sound needlessly frugal or old-fashioned today. “Compounds, like wedding cake, suet plum-puddings, and rich turtle soup, are masses of indigestible material, which should never find their way to any Christian table,”she wrote. “It looks ominous to see a bridal party celebrating nuptials by taking poison.” Yet underlying these injunctions is the modern principle of preventive medicine. “A book of reckoning is kept for the offences of the stomach, as well as for those of the heart,” Mary Mann wrote. “If asked why I pronounce these and similar dishes unchristian, I answer, that health is one of the indispensable conditions of the highest morality and beneficence.” Her book was perhaps the first of many cookbooks combining an inspirational message with the latest scientific findings to be published during the second half of the nineteenth century as her brand of domestic feminism took hold. Fannie Farmer founded her cooking school with the same elevated goals.
Mary Mann and her readers were not radicals. They did not believe, as a few ambitious women like her older sister argued, that women should be permitted to leave the home to join men in the professions. Instead, their goal was to professionalize the home. This movement gave women a sense of power and achievement that compensated for their lack of political influence. Indeed, domestic feminism convinced many women that they were above politics. They were the “civilizers of mankind,” just as Emerson had said.
The youngest Peabody sister, Sophia, embodied another special female power that Emerson described. Ironically this power left Sophia an invalid for almost half her life. “Man is the will, and Woman the sentiment,” Emerson had said. As Sophia Peabody neared adulthood, sentiment became her enemy. She was a talented painter, but her sensitivity to beauty was so acute that she often felt too overwhelmed to record her responses on canvas. “My heart never moves to joy or grief without sending out a ministry of pain through all my nerves,” she wrote in a letter to Elizabeth. “This is so sure & fixed a law of my nature...[that] I should go to some far off turret & live in profound solitude—where the interests of humanity & the noise of matter could never reach me—Then I might paint perhaps—tho’ my members would even object to that—because it requires so much soul to paint.”
The result was disabling headaches that lasted days, and then weeks, keeping Sophia from the art she dearly loved. As she spent more time in bed, Sophia suffered lameness, heart palpitations, fevers, and dizziness.
Was Sophia’s illness psychosomatic, rooted in the conflict she must have felt as a female artist in a time when the only painters she knew were men who would rather paint her portrait than aid her career? Perhaps. Yet that was not the way Sophia saw it. As the years passed, she became convinced that suffering was to be her lot. Sophia and her many doctors shared the nineteenth-century view of the body as a closed system, with only so much energy to be expended during a lifetime. For a woman with so excitable an “organization” as Sophia’s, the constant monitoring of one’s feelings, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual (and the three became inseparable), was the only route to health. Paradoxically this preoccupation with self tended to perpetuate the disease.
Some historians have argued that in an era in which selflessness was required of most women as wives and mothers, invalidism was one of the few choices a high-spirited woman could make to preserve her independence of mind. For most it was a tragic choice. But like a growing number of women who later were termed “neurasthenics,” “hysterics,” or simply “bed cases,” Sophia made illness her career. She herself may not have known whether she preferred to be the artist or the work of art.
And that, most likely, is why she fell in love, at last, with Nathaniel Hawthorne, a man who revered her as both. Hawthorne was another of Elizabeth Peabody’s intellectual conquests. Elizabeth had read his early stories, reviewed them favorably, and finally sought out the author in the Salem house where he had lived with his widowed mother and two unmarried sisters for the decade since his graduation from Bowdoin College. Elizabeth invited Hawthorne and his sisters to tea, but on their first visit to the Peabody household, Sophia stayed upstairs in her room, sick with a headache. Elizabeth was so taken by the young writer’s looks, she ran upstairs in the middle of his call to report to Sophia: “You never saw anything so splendid as he is,—he is handsomer than Lord Byron!” Elizabeth had exclaimed. Hawthorne went home, his mind filled with images from the journals and sketchbooks by the unseen Sophia that her older sister had shown him.