Sophia Peabody Hawthorne Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Sophia Peabody Hawthorne 1809-1871

(Born Sophia Amelia Peabody) American travel writer and diarist.

Sophia Hawthorne, generally remembered as the wife of the celebrated nineteenth-century American author Nathaniel Hawthorne, is regarded by modern commentators as an accomplished writer of travel sketches, descriptive letters, and journals. The only original work of Hawthorne's to be published during her lifetime was the journal she kept during her European travels, Notes in England and Italy (1869). Since that time, as her letters and diaries have become available to the general public, scholars have come to recognize Hawthorne's exceptional writing talents. Collections of her letters have been reproduced in literary journals, and contemporary scholars consider her compositions as irreplaceable primary sources for the study of Nathaniel Hawthorne's home life, periods of creativity, and personality, as well as valuing them for the firsthand view they provide of the Victorian era both in America and abroad.

Biographical Information

Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts, into a prominent family, the female members of which would rise to the forefront of the nineteenth-century movement for the equal rights of women. Her mother Eliza was a teacher and supported her children with the income she received from a series of schools run from her home. The elder of Sophia's two sisters, Elizabeth, was an active member of the New England Transcendentalists, a group that included such well-known and influential writers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller. Sophia's other older sister, Mary, was also a writer and wife of educational reformer Horace Mann. Hawthorne's place in this dynamic family was that of youngest daughter and invalid. From the age of nine she suffered violent, debilitating headaches that often confined her to her room for days at a time. She was nonetheless well educated at home by her mother, father, and sister Elizabeth. In her youth, Hawthorne learned to read Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, German, and Italian and studied a broad range of academic disciplines from natural science to religion. A woman of high intellect and learning, she was also a skilled painter. In 1833, Hawthorne accompanied her sister Mary to Cuba in the hopes that the subtropical climate would lessen the pain of her headaches. The sisters remained there for two and a half years, and during that time Sophia wrote long, descriptive letters to her family. These letters were passed from hand to hand among family, friends, and acquaintances and form the body of The Cuba Journal. Passages from these letters enchanted a Peabody family friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and he later used some of them as the basis for his own stories. Elizabeth had discovered that the young writer was a near neighbor and struck up an acquaintance with him. When he finally met Sophia, he found that she had illustrated one of his short stories in its magazine appearance and was immediately taken with this talented young woman. Their courtship lasted from 1837 until 1842 and included a voluminous exchange of letters. (Nathaniel Hawthorne burned his wife's letters to him in 1853, but Sophia preserved all of his correspondence.) According to the letters that Hawthorne wrote after her wedding, her marriage was blissful, and she dedicated herself to being the perfect wife to a gifted genius. The Hawthornes had three children, Una, Julian, and Rose, to whom Hawthorne was as passionately devoted as to her husband. During these years, Nathaniel supported the family through his position as surveyor of the Salem Custom House, a government appointment. He lost that job in 1849 after a change of political administration, and afterward Sophia helped support the family by hand-painting lampshades and fire screens while her husband wrote, in quick succession, The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, and The Blithedale Romance in the early 1850s. In 1853, Nathaniel was appointed U.S. Consul to Liverpool, and the family moved to England. He resigned in 1857, and the family subsequently settled in Italy for a year before returning to England, where they lived for another year. While in Italy, Hawthorne, delighted to finally be in the presence of great artistic masterpieces, was at pains to introduce her husband to the glory of art. For the first time, she was able to see and study the originals of many works that she had copied and knew only from reproductions. She concluded that her own artistic skills were only mediocre, though her husband was inspired by her drawings to write The Marble Faun. The Hawthornes returned to America in 1860 and moved into the Wayside in Concord, Massachusetts, which they had purchased from Bronson Alcott before they left. The next four years were difficult for them. Una had been so ill in Rome that she had nearly died, and she experienced repeated relapses after returning home. The Civil War had begun, and in 1864, after a protracted period of poor health, Nathaniel died. Hawthorne was left in difficult financial straits and began a lengthy and frustrating correspondence with Nathaniel Hawthorne's publisher, James Fields, about the royalties due her from the money earned by her husband's books. Fields suggested that she could make some money by releasing his journals, and she at last agreed on the condition that she could edit them. In an effort to reduce her expenses, Hawthorne moved her family to Dresden, Germany, in 1868. While living in Dresden, she copied and edited her own journal, which was published as Notes in England and Italy in 1869. A year later, she and her daughters Una and Rose moved to London. Hawthorne died there of pneumonia in 1871.

Major Works

Hawthorne was a devoted diarist and letter-writer throughout her life. Her letters from Cuba, which sometimes extend to the length of twenty pages or more, describe the country and its people as well as documenting unfolding social and political events. These letters make up The Cuba Journal, kept as private correspondence until they were edited and published in 1985. In addition to compelling accounts of Caribbean plantation life, Spanish colonialism, and the vigorous mercantile and slave trades in Havana, Hawthorne's overseas correspondence contains samples of the writing that her husband undoubtedly read before they actually met, which later was used as inspiration for several of his short stories. Hawthorne's first and only publication during her lifetime, Notes in England and Italy, is a combination of letters she wrote in England, while her husband served as U.S. Consul to Liverpool, and extracts from journals she kept during the succeeding years when the family lived as tourists in Italy. The text offers reflections on the landscape and, especially in Italy, on renowned masterpieces of classical and Renaissance art. In the years after her husband's death, Hawthorne, edited Nathaniel's notebooks for publication. These include three of Nathaniel Hawthorne's journals: Passages from the American Notebooks (1868), Passages from the English Notebooks (1870), and Passages from the French and Italian Notebooks (1872). In editing these works, Hawthorne made extensive alterations according to her taste and the custom of the time, freely deleting many passages, including any mention of herself or her children, and emending numerous portions of the text she thought offensive to Victorian sensibility.

Critical Reception

Unwilling to make her writings public, Hawthorne made only one exception, publishing her Notes in England and Italy in direct response to mounting financial pressures in the late 1860s. Despite the vogue for travel literature at that time, Hawthorne remained one of only very few women who published book-length travel accounts during this period. The collection was well received, and eight editions were printed within thirteen years of its first appearance. At the time of her death, a family friend, Henry Bright, wrote to Hawthorne's son Julian, “No one has yet done justice to your mother. Of course, she was overshadowed by him,—but she was a singularly accomplished woman, with a great gift of expression … she was, too, an artist of no mean quality.” In the contemporary era, critics have come to recognize Hawthorne's contributions as a travel-writer and diarist. Her editorial acumen, however, remains controversial. Regarding Hawthorne's editing of her husband's journals for publication, her substantial excisions and changes have generally been viewed with contempt by twentieth-century scholars. This opinion has since been tempered as commentators have come to understand that Hawthorne's editing style was common to the era.