The Peabody Sisters
“When I decided to write the Peabody sisters’ story,” Megan Marshall comments in the introduction to The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism, “I set out to read everything they ever wrote in letters and diaries and in print, along with most of the books they read and cared about. I wanted to know who they were in the inside, who they wanted to be, and who they became.” Marshall’s magisterial biography of Elizabeth (1804-1894), Mary (1806-1887), and Sophia (1809-1871) succeeds in illuminating the private world and the public personas of the remarkable siblings. At the heart of Marshall’s account are entries from the sisters’ diaries, plus hundreds of handwritten letters they exchanged with one another and with illustrious contemporaries such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Ellery Channing, Horace Mann, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller. The result of twenty years of research, Marshall’s biography offers an intricate profile of the often complicated relationship the women shared as well as a fresh look at the era known as the American Renaissance.
Marshall’s interest in the Peabody sisters began as a result of her reading of Louise Hall Tharp’s The Peabody Sisters of Salem, written in 1950. Tharp also drew on the women’s private papers for her well-received biography but did not have access to the newly discovered sources Marshall enjoyed. The result of Tharp’s efforts was an interesting but limited portrait of the women. Marshall was determined to go beyond Tharp’s stereotyping of Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia as “the brain,” “the beauty,” and “the invalid” to create an intimate portrait of the sisters who were so influential in the religious, social, political, philosophical, and literary debates of their day. Her discovery of previously unknown letters and journal entries ten years into her research, in her words, “dramatically altered the way I viewed these women,” and provided information that not only revealed the identity of Elizabeth’s relationship to a mysterious suitor (a man whom Tharp tried, and failed, to identify) but also shed new light on the triangular love relationship of Elizabeth, Sophia, and writer Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The book begins and ends with an account of the wedding of Sophia Peabody and Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1842. Sandwiched in between is a detailed chronological narrative of the sisters’ struggle to live outside the social constraints that bound women of their time and, in Elizabeth’s words, to “be myself and act.” Although liberal-thinking men and women viewed each other as intellectual and social equals, it was difficult for women to live independently because few professions were open to them. The girls, however, had a magnificent role model in their mother, the indomitable Eliza Palmer Peabody.
Born into an old, and at one time prosperous New England family, Eliza discovered early on the allure of learning, as she devoured the volumes in her grandfather’s extensive library. Under the pseudonym Belinda, she wrote and published feminist poetry which was admired by a wide audience, including President John Adams. Her disappointing marriage to Dr. Nathaniel Peabody, who was variously a physician, dentist, farmer, and businessman, thwarted her literary ambitions and taught her the importance of self-reliance. The family, which included three ne’er-do-well sons in addition to the brilliant sisters, relocated often in search of fresh opportunities to escape their genteel poverty. In each place they lived, which included Salem, Lancaster, and Boston, Massachusetts, Mrs. Peabody kept the family afloat financially by opening a school for children of the local elite. Prefiguring twentieth century feminist ideals, she encouraged her daughters to establish their own identities and develop their talents so that they would never have to depend on the dubious support of men. She believed it was more important for her to girls reach “a decent independence” rather than “learn to sew a shirt or bake a pudding.”
Although the three sisters were heavily influenced by their mother’s progressive views, as well as by the rigorous classical education she provided them, Elizabeth was perhaps the one most to embody Eliza’s feminist philosophy. Brilliant, bossy, and controlling, Elizabeth was a precocious young woman who sparred with and learned from the Boston intelligentsia. At thirteen, she debated theology with eminent Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing. Her friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson blossomed when, as a young theology student at Harvard, he tutored her in Greek. Her voracious intellect led her to attain the equivalent of a college education in spite of the fact that she was barred from the university because of her gender.
Following in Mrs. Peabody’s footsteps, she became an accomplished and innovative educator and later pioneered the kindergarten movement in the...
(The entire section is 2031 words.)