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  • Writer's pictureN.J. Mastro

Sophia Peabody Hawthorne: Artist and Muse


Nothing pleases me more than running across an author who is new to me and has a backlist of novels that I am likely to enjoy. Such is the case with Erika Robuck, whom I discovered recently. Biographical novels — stories of real people from the past — are my preferred genre and seem to be her specialty.


I started with The House of Hawthorne, Robuck’s story of Sophia Peabody. You may not have heard of Sophia, but when I tell you she married Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of America’s most revered nineteenth-century authors, you’ll quickly place her in time.


“Spanning the years from the 1830s to the Civil War, and moving from Massachusetts to England, Portugal, and Italy,” reads the back cover, “The House of Hawthorne explores the story of a woman, forgotten by history, who inspired one of the greatest writers of American literature.”



The novel is fact-based, a must for me when I read biographical fiction. Robuck does a superb job blending interesting details about Sophia Peabody and Nathaniel Hawthorne in a way that captures readers from the start. The title seems to be a nod to Nathanial Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables. Is there a curse on the Hawthorne’s like that which is featured in his 1851 novel?


One begins to wonder as the novel unfolds.


Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem. One of his paternal ancestors had been a judge who sentenced various women to death in the infamous Salem witch trials. He worried his entire life that his family was cursed for his ancestor’s role, so much that he changes the spelling of his last name to avoid being associated with him. This reveals Nathaniel's superstitious side, which starts to bleed into Sophia.


But I'm getting ahead of myself.


Before we meet Nathaniel Hawthorne, readers are given a look at Sophia Peabody, for the book is really about her. What I especially appreciated in The House of Hawthorne is how well Robuck captured what I’ve always envisioned as Sophia Peabody’s voice. Written in first person, with Sophia as the narrator, Robuck’s prose is soft, delicate, almost sugary at times, but not to the degree that it detracts from the story. The prose reflects how Sophia really spoke and wrote, and hers and the other sentiments expressed throughout the book are consistent with voices of the era. I love this sort of authenticity.



Sophia Peabody - Photo source: History of American Women



The House of Hawthorne opens during the winter of 1833 with Sophia and her sister Mary arriving in Cuba at La Recompensa, a plantation owned by family friends. While in Cuba Mary is to teach the owners’ children as compensation for their stay. If she feels well enough, Sophia will teach drawing. Sophia’s mother and father hope the warmer weather will be restorative for Sophia.

Severe headaches, which we can assume to be migraines, have plagued Sophia her entire life, leaving her with a fragile constitution. She’s been bedridden most of the time. Doctors have been treating her with leeches, morphine, and arsenic. (Yeah, wow.) Sophia’s future has always been uncertain. Her family has discouraged her from an early age to never marry. A pregnancy, they warn, could result in her demise.



Mary Peabody - Photo Source: Susan B. Anthony Museum on Facebook



From the moment Sophia and Mary set foot on Cuban soil, they are at odds with their values. La Recompensa is a slave plantation. The Peabody sisters are opposed to slavery in all its horrid forms, so they struggle with what surrounds them. The island also exposes them to Spanish culture, however. The sights and sounds and smells are as intruguing as the slavery is reprehensible.


After a two-year stay, Sophia and Mary return to Salem, where Elizabeth publishes Sophia’s letters in what she titles The Cuba Journal, which she shares with friends and family. In her letters, Sophia described Cuba and its people with poetic flair and included various drawings. The journal is a hit.


Not long after Sophia’s return, in 1837, at the insistence of her older sister, Elizabeth, Sophia meets Nathaniel Hawthorne, the wildly handsome and reclusive wanna be writer. Yes, wanna be, because it took a while for Nathaniel Hawthorne to achieve the kind of fame which we associate with him. When Nathaniel meets Sophia, he has only one novel to his name, which he self-published, a handful of stories published in an assortment of periodicals, and short stories which were published in Twice-Told Tales. The book sold for one dollar.


As with Sophia, Robuck beautifully portrays a side of Nathaniel even his contemporaries did not know. He is painfully shy, brooding, and searching for his voice as an author. Throughout the course of the novel, we see what a troubled soul he was in many respects. But Nathaniel catches the lady’s eye. The Peabody sisters refer to him as “handsomer than [Lord] Byron.”



Nathaniel Hawthorne - Photo Source: New England Historical Society



Robuck’s physical description of Hawthorne is consistent with his early images. “He is tall, and his top hat makes him seem more so. He walks with a strange, hesitant gait, almost as if he must coerce his feet to do his bidding. An impressive black cloak moves around him, and he looks like he would be more at home in the night than in the brightness of day.” [1]


Hawthorne is first friends with Sophia’s older sister, Elizabeth, who meets Hawthorne within the intellectual circle they both travel. Elizabeth was one of two founding women of the famous Transcendental Club. Nathaniel comes to call with regularity, accompanied by his two sisters. Elizabeth fancies herself in love with Nathaniel. At her insistence, he reads The Cuba Journal. He is charmed. The author’s tender sensitivities speak to him in a way he cannot describe.


Elizabeth introduces Sophia and Nathaniel, and they are both immediately smitten. Readers soon accompany them on their very lengthy — and secret — courtship, all the while getting to know these two people through Sophia’s observant and insightful lens.


Of course, we know Sophia and Nathaniel marry, but the novel goes into so much more. Because we learn first who Sophia is before she meets Nathaniel, we already know what drives and motivates her. As Robuck introduces Nathaniel into the story, we become apprised of him as well, and they are both fascinating creatures. We see what haunts each of them.


Sophia and Nathaniel are, in many ways, a modern couple grappling with the same things couples must wrestle with today — earning enough money to fend off poverty, whose career to follow, where to live. As they strive toward the happy ending they set out to find, life gets in the way. Their vision of a “union of holy artists” proves difficult to achieve. They have children, travel together, and suffer life’s losses, all of which leaves Sophia struggling to balance her duties as a wife and mother with her own intense desire to create while deeply caring for and protecting the person whom she feels placed on this earth to love.


So who was Sophia Peabody?


Sophia Peabody was born in 1809 and lived until 1871. Long before she married, Sophia was an artist in her own right, a painter, who earned compensation for her creative endeavors when it was exceptional for a woman to be paid for anything, much less her art. Beyond being an artist she was a writer, an educator, and an illustrator.


One can attribute her accomplishments to the good fortune of being born into a family that valued girls’ education, a rarity for the era in which she was raised. Her mother in particular instilled in Sophia and her sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, to aspire to something beyond being a wife. Their father supported his wife’s vision for their daughters.


Sophia was exposed to progressive thinking outside the family as well. The Peabody sisters, especially the eldest sister, Elizabeth, were on close terms with prominent transcendentalists, America’s thought leaders at the time, including Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. Sophia’s affiliation with them further shaped her.


Sophia found her talent in art and embraced it with gusto, a retaliation against her infirmities, a sign of her determination. The public took notice of Sophia’s art. She sold various pieces. Even the Boston Athenaeum displayed a painting of hers. She eventually started drawing illustrations for books.


In 1837 Sophia met Nathaniel Hawthorne through her sister Elizabeth, who as in the novel really was in love with Nathaniel, setting up for hurt feelings between the sisters. Sophia and Nathaniel courted for five long years. Hawthorne was too poor to support a wife. He hadn’t made his mark yet, so he took on a day job to earn enough for them to set up housekeeping together, writing at night. Sophia and Nathaniel married on July 9, 1842, in her family’s parlor in Boston and the couple immediately traveled to Concord, where Ralph Waldo Emerson had agreed to rent them the Old Manse.


Sophia and Nathaniel kept a joint diary, which I found delightful. You can read an excerpt from it here. You can easily see how well-matched Sophia and Nathaniel were. It almost feels as if they lived a life apart from the rest of us mortals. They spoke in poetic terms. Their language reflects their era, which I find endearing, and their utter devotion to one another is evident in every line. Below is an excerpt of the first entry by Nathaniel:


1842 August 5th. Friday “A rainy day—a rainy day—and I do verily believe there is no sunshine in this world, except what beams from my wife's eyes. At present, she has laid her strict command on me to take pen in hand; and, to ensure my obedience has banished me to the little ten-foot-square apartment, misnamed my study; but she must not be surprised, if the dismalness of the day, and the dulness [sic] of my solitude, should be the prominent characteristics of what I write. And what is there to write about at all? Happiness has no succession of events; because it is a part of eternity, and we have been living in eternity, ever since we came to this old Manse.” [2]

Many years later the private journal became known as the Old Manse Journal. It was first published after Nathaniel’s death. Sophia rewrote the entire journal by hand and took out their most private pages. She also took out almost all of what she had written. But there are glimpses of her that remained. In the passage below, it seems that Sophia had followed a path Nathaniel did not want her to take, and she defied him and went on without him.

“I could not comprehend why. When I came to him, he told me I had transgressed the law of right in trampling down the unmown grass, & he tried to induce me to come back, that he might not have to violate his conscience by doing the same thing. And I was very naughty & would not obey, & therefore he punished me by staying behind. This I did not like very well, & and I climbed the hill alone. We penetrated the pleasant gloom & sat down upon the carpet of dried pine leaves. Then I clasped him in my arms in the lovely shade, & we laid down a few moments on the bosom of dear mother Earth. Oh how sweet it was! And I told him I would not be so naughty again, & there was a very slight diamond shower without any thunder or lightening, & we were happiest.” [3]

In 1852 the Hawthornes bought a house from Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott’s father, which they called the Wayside. They had three children: Una, Julian, and Rose.


Unfortunately, Sophia’s marriage essentially ended her career as an artist. She continued to dabble, even trying sculpture when she grew older, but once married, her husband and children dominated her time and attention. Nathaniel died after only twenty-two years of marriage. The larger-than-life reputation of her husband overshadowed the public’s understanding of Sophia, leaving her largely unremembered. She spent the rest of her life promoting Nathaniel’s works and building his legacy.

As I look upon Sophia’s story, however, it cannot be told without telling Nathaniel’s story. Their souls are deeply intertwined. It becomes hard to envision either of them having lived the same life had they never met. Theirs was a perfect love match, making it the ultimate love story.


The Peabody Sisters


About a decade ago, I was fortunate to run across The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism, a biography of Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia Peabody, which opened my eyes to their fascinating histories. I’d heard of Elizabeth Peabody during college when I studied to become an elementary school teacher, but I knew nothing about Mary or Sophia.


These three extremely prodigious women lived remarkable lives when one thinks about the famous people they interacted with and the ways in which they navigated early America. Today we would call the Peabody sisters influencers. As Megan Marshall points out in the title of her book, they ignited American romanticism. If alive, they’d each have millions of followers on Instagram.



In The Peabody Sisters, Megan Marshall deftly weaves together their stories while giving attention to each, allowing them their individual moment to shine. They had unbreakable bonds between them, and also the inevitable rivalries that exist in families. Among the most educated women in the Northeast, all three ended up living trailblazing lives at a time when career options for women were almost nonexistent.


It’s hard for Elizabeth not to overshadow Mary and Sophia in the annals of history. She is by far the most well-known for her contributions to the transcendental movement and later to early childhood education in America. Elizabeth Peabody broke the glass ceilings of her time. She was the first woman to own a bookshop in Boston, the first woman publisher in Boston, and the individual who introduced kindergarten to America.


Elizabeth Peabody - Photo Source: New England Historical Society



Elizabeth was also a writer, author, and translator. But her true calling was teaching. It was her first and last job. In 1856 she became acquainted with the kindergarten movement in Germany. Taken with the idea that a “kindergarten pupil should be encouraged to grow organically, both physically, through play, and spiritually, through music and art,”[4] she opened her own kindergarten in Boston a year later, making it the first kindergarten in America. She later traveled throughout Europe to learn more about kindergarten practices and became one of America’s earliest advocates for early childhood education. Her impact goes without saying.


Mary is perhaps the least known among the three sisters. Like Elizabeth, Mary was an accomplished educator who often taught alongside Elizabeth. She wrote at least one children’s book and co-authored a book about kindergarten with Elizabeth. But like Sophia, Mary is largely remembered for who she married. Mary’s husband was the famed educational reformer Horace Mann, who promoted a free public education for all. He’s known today as the father of public education in America. From behind the scenes, Mary helped him introduce sweeping changes to America’s evolving educational system.


Sophia, the youngest and the talented artist we meet in The House of Hawthorne, produced a mass of drawings and paintings. Had she not married Nathaniel Hawthorne, she might very well have gone on to become famous as an artist in her own right. She was selling her work at a young age, putting her on the leading edge of women being paid for their art. But many of the medicines used to treat her headaches ended up destroying her central nervous system.


For more reading on these three sisters, I suggest this excellent article about Elizabeth.

Regarding Mary, you might find this post of interest, which also provides information about Horace Mann. And last, I suggest you read this article from ThoughtCo. about Sophia after you read The House of Hawthorne, so the article doesn’t spoil the novel for you. As mentioned earlier, the novel is very accurate from a historical perspective. And of course, Nathaniel Hawthorne cannot go unmentioned. Here is terrific article about him from the New England Historical Society where we learn that he was holed up in his attic bedroom that he called Castle Dismal for twelve years until he fell in love with you know who.


Many thanks to Erika Robuck for bringing Sophia Peabody’s story to light in The House of Hawthorne. This was the first book of hers that I’ve read; she has seven others. I like her writing style and especially appreciate the way she handles the factual details. Her research is solid, and she stays true to the period and individuals about whom she is writing. I’ve already ordered another of her books and look forward to her becoming one of my go to authors. For more on her books, click here.


Nathaniel Hawthorne's stories are haunting me now. The classics are calling. I think I'll read or listen to The House of Seven Gables again and The Blithedale Romance, which I've never read. Maybe I'll even reread The Scarlett Letter.


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Thanks for reading. I’m glad you’re here.


Nancy




[1] Robuck, E. (2015). The House of Hawthorne, p. 81, paperback copy.

[2] Diary of a Marriage: Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Taken from The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives. Morgan Library. Retrieved from https://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/online/TheDiary/Sophia-and-Nathaniel-Hawthorne [3] Ordinary Mysteries: The Common Journal of Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne, 1842-1843. Edited by Nicholas R. Lawrence and Marta L. Werner, 2005. Retrieved online from https://www.google.com/books/edition/Ordinary_Mysteries/wgMNAAAAIAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1 [4] Emily Scrementi. "Home of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody." Clio: Your Guide to History. October 4, 2018. Accessed July 25, 2023. https://theclio.com/entry/66900

2 Comments


Daryl Byklum
Daryl Byklum
Jul 29, 2023

I can honestly say that I previously knew nothing of the Peabody sisters - although I am now quite taken with their tale. What I find most fascinating is that these stories behind the stories (literally in this case) promote the human qualities of men like Hawthorne. You, Ms. Mastro, are to be commended for championing the unsung. Bravo.

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N.J. Mastro
N.J. Mastro
Jul 30, 2023
Replying to

Thank you for your compliment! How kind of you. I hope you'll look more into the Peabody sisters. They really were quite interesting women. In Sophia's case, one can only imagine the ultimate impact she had on Nathaniel Hawthorne. The more I read about the two of them, the more I think she very well might have saved him from a very sad life.

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