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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
Nathaniel Hawthorne called again, this time alone. Here was the way Elizabeth recorded the first meeting of the couple: “...she came down, in her simple white wrapper, and sat on the sofa. As I said ‘My sister, Sophia,’ he rose and looked at her intently,—he did not realize how intently. As we went on talking, she would frequently interpose a remark, in her low, sweet voice. Every time she did so, he would look at her again, with the same piercing, indrawing gaze. I was struck with it, and thought, ‘What if he should fall in love with her!’ and the thought troubled me; for she had often told me that nothing would ever tempt her to marry, and inflict on a husband the care of an invalid.”
A more crucial encounter, for Sophia at least, came not long after, when she showed Nathaniel a drawing she had made of a character from his story “The Gentle Boy.” She asked him, Elizabeth recalled, “‘if this looks like your Ilbrahim.’ He sat down and looked at it and then looked up and said, ‘He will never look otherwise to me.’”
“She is a flower to be worn in no man’s bosom,” Nathaniel told Elizabeth a year later, “but was lent from Heaven to show the possibilities of the human soul.” Soon Sophia and Nathaniel were taking walks together, and Sophia’s strength gradually returned. Privately the couple began to hope that Sophia would one day be well enough to marry. But like her sister Mary’s romance, Sophia’s, too, would be a long, secret courtship. Hawthorne’s mother and sisters opposed any marriage, fearing that family life would prevent him from pursuing his career as a novelist. Indeed, Nathaniel himself worried that he earned too little from his writing to support Sophia. He took a job in the Boston customhouse; then he joined the Transcendentalists’ commune, Brook Farm. With each experiment he hoped to put aside enough savings to set up housekeeping with the woman to whom he was now writing almost daily as “Mine own Dove,” “Infinitely Belovedest,” “Blessedest wife” and signing himself “Your ownest Husband.”
By 1842, after four years of courtship, the couple could wait no longer. They scheduled a June wedding, and Hawthorne rented for their new home the vacant Emerson family house in Concord, which he soon dubbed “The Old Manse.” Then Sophia fell sick with a fever that lasted several weeks. Was she having second thoughts about making such a radical change in her thirty-third year? But by July she was better, her pulse elevated on her wedding day, the doctor said, only by the excitement. After a short service in the Peabody parlor, the Hawthorne women conspicuously absent, Sophia and Nathaniel rode by carriage to Concord.
Mary put forth a radical educational view: very young children could learn science by observing the natural world.
After her long-delayed wedding, Sophia wrote her mother: “It seemed miraculous that I was so well.”
The next day she wrote to her mother that “every step the horses took, I felt better and not the least tired. My husband looked upon me as upon a mirage which would suddenly disappear. It seemed miraculous that I was so well.”
Concord was, to the newlyweds, an Eden in which they played Adam and Eve. Sophia set up her studio on the first floor; Hawthorne, his study on the second. The two took long walks through the meadows and forests gathering wild flowers, and they bought a rowboat from their neighbor Thoreau for outings on the lazy Concord River. But Sophia would never again paint as much as she had before the marriage. Love, not art, had replaced her illness. And for Sophia love was more than enough. To the new Mrs. Hawthorne the world seemed a different place. By the next spring she was recording in her journal: “I feel new as the Earth which is just born again. I rejoice that I am, because I am his, wholly, unreservedly his. Therefore is my life beautiful & gracious. Therefore is the world pleasant as roses.”
Like Mary, Sophia bore three children and educated them at home. But for Sophia the love that restored her to health remained the center of her life. When she thought about herself and her sisters now, it was in these terms. At the time of Mary’s marriage, she wrote in her journal: “Now Mary has shot into her orbit, having found the other half of her globe.”
And what of Elizabeth Peabody? Was she less happy than her married sisters? Rumors circulated for years after the weddings that Elizabeth, because of her close attachments to both Horace Mann and Nathaniel Hawthorne, had been engaged to each man but then been thrown over in favor of her more conventionally feminine sisters. Had she been jilted?