A Trio Transcendent

By Gillian Gill,
whose most recent book is "Nightingales: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale"
Thursday, April 28, 2005


Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism

By Megan Marshall

Houghton Mifflin. 602 pp. $28

"Peter, Peter pumpkin eater, had a wife and couldn't keep her," runs the old English nursery rhyme. Nathaniel Peabody had not only a wife but also six children, and he couldn't keep them, either -- certainly not in the elegant style of his wife's Palmer relatives, who included Abigail Adams. As doctor, dentist, farmer and businessman, Peabody failed with gloomy, taciturn consistency, and the spirited way his wife, Elizabeth, managed to keep creditors from the door did not lift his morale. When three uncommonly bright, attractive Peabody girls (Elizabeth, born in 1804; Mary, 1806; and Sophia, 1809) were succeeded by three nondescript boys, it was plain to the New England elite in which the Palmers held charter membership that in the Nathaniel Peabody family, it was the women who counted.

Mary was both beautiful and able, yet she lived in the shadow of Elizabeth, whose prodigious energy, intellectual curiosity and indifference to social niceties were soon apparent. Sophia was different -- willful, artistic, self-absorbed, elegant, sickly, their mother's cosseted darling. By her early teens, when her sisters were already earning the family bread, Sophia retired to her bedroom, a martyr to headaches that held the family in thrall and defied the curative efforts of calomel, emetics, leeches, homeopathy, hypnotism and opiates. Elizabeth and Mary joined their mother in teaching girls and letting rooms while engaging in rigorous programs of self-education. It was hard, depressing work, but it went toward paying Pa's debts and allowed George to gamble and drop out of Harvard. Desperate for cash, Elizabeth urged Sophia to produce paintings, not just dreams of paintings. When this sisterly pressure gave Sophia headaches that actually seemed to threaten her life, Elizabeth arranged for her to recover in Cuba, with Mary as companion and breadwinner. Sophia flirted with young men and sat in the shade, writing exotic letters while a slave girl kept the flies off. Mary, meanwhile, labored for two thankless years as a governess and then became an abolitionist.

When young, all three sisters received proposals of marriage, which they rejected without hesitation. The men they could have they could not like, and the men they liked -- poor, brilliant, ambitious men like the Channings and the Emersons -- found cultured, agreeable brides with the money to fund their husbands' careers. Elizabeth took readily to the single life, always more interested in men's arguments than their embraces. But Mary and Sophia nourished secret fantasies of meeting some great and wondrous man, whom they might cleave to in an orgy of worshipful self-abnegation.

In her thirties, Elizabeth launched the family on the publishing, editing, essay-writing and book-selling enterprises that sadly earned less than teaching and keeping boarders. Bossy and unkempt, Elizabeth still had the gift of winkling out men of talent, with whom she formed intense intellectual friendships. Thus Mary and Sophia found their hero-husbands in two of Elizabeth's closest and most delectable male friends, Horace Mann and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In educational reformer Mann, Mary quickly recognized her soul mate, but she hid her love obsessively, from him and above all from Elizabeth. Mary waited 11 years before Mann could find the time and courage to propose. Sophia and Hawthorne, in contrast, came quickly to rapturous vows and married after a mere three-year engagement. Yet Megan Marshall tells us that Hawthorne was the only man Elizabeth fell in love with and wished to marry.

Marshall begins and ends her book with the Hawthorne wedding and, except for a brief envoi, leaves her three subjects in mid-life. After 20 years of meticulous, dedicated research, Marshall has uncovered a raft of new information, correcting the record on many points. She expertly weaves the family's life into the fabric of their times, and there is a lovely consonance of style and sensibility between her and the Peabody women. Those, like myself, who loved Louise Hall Tharp's 1950 biography "The Peabody Sisters of Salem" will devour this book and long for more. Nonetheless, Marshall and her editors did well to concentrate on the early years, allowing Elizabeth to emerge as heroine and showing Mary and Sophia as more than wives to famous men.

Marshall's book is a grand story but also a key contribution to the debate on New England transcendentalism already engaged by such books as Phyllis Cole's "Mary Moody Emerson and the Origins of Transcendentalism" and Joan W. Goodwin's "The Remarkable Mrs. Ripley: The Life of Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley." Marshall is not a polemicist. She makes no claims that her three Peabodys were major literary figures like George Eliot or the Brontes. She honors the greatness of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Hawthorne. But Marshall and her fellow historians quietly document that the American romantics and transcendentalists were fortunate to live in a society where women were allowed literary expression and metaphysical speculation, and where male and female minds and sensibilities were in free, fruitful communion, even if men could exploit this cultural richness far more easily than women.

In human history, many women of distinction and originality have given their thoughts and perceptions to the men they loved without thought of reward. Elizabeth, Mary and Sophia Peabody differ in that so many of their letters and diaries have come down to us. (Hawthorne, however, burned Sophia's letters.) Through Marshall's beautiful book, we can taste the flavor of three remarkable lives and pay tribute.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company