(I am sooo sorry this is so long—I promise, there is a reason why I let myself go on so, as well as why I don’t include any fiction. Really.)
Often when you begin to write something, it seems so fun and easy. Everything is new, and words and characters and ideas just tumble out from you. If you’re researching nonfiction, it is even more exciting, as you discover new things every day and everywhere. Then eventually, sooner or later, you hit some kind of stumbling block—characters begin to misbehave, your plot suddenly seems too improbable, you are tired of everyone you’re writing about. Some new item in your research leads you to question all you’ve written before. What had once seemed like a quick, easy project can suddenly become a nightmare that drags on forever.
I read that it took Megan Marshall took twenty years to research and write The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism, mostly because of the difficulty in deciphering the spidery 19th century handwritten letters and journals, as well as the late discovery of a trove of material that led to considerable revision of her previous ideas. It must have seemed sometimes as if there would be no end until every minute of the lives of Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia Peabody had been accounted for.
Luckily, Ms. Marshall managed to weave every minute she found into a triple-biography that reads like a cross between a novel and a contemporary account of America in the tempestuous middle years of the 19th century, when questions of religion, education, women’s rights, and slavery were roiling through the still new nation, particularly in a place like literary New England, where learning and analyzing were the sport of the day (well, amongst those who weren’t involved in the other traditional New England sports—fighting and drinking).
Eliza Peabody had seen her family, the Palmers, deteriorate from wealth to genteel poverty and was determined to do better. She worked as a teacher and wrote a little, and then made an unfortunate choice in a husband, Nathaniel Peabody, sometime schoolteacher, doctor, dentist, but mostly unemployed. Eliza kept on teaching and impressed upon her own daughters the value of education. She also seemed to impress upon them, particularly her oldest daughter Elizabeth, a distrust of men, brought on by her horror at catching her own mother carrying on an affair with a boarder while her father was away—an affair that not only produced a child that everyone recognized was not Mr. Peabody’s (the Smith sisters, distant relations that included Abigail Adams, wrote snarkily about the believability of Mrs. Peabody’s claim of giving birth to a large, healthy daughter after five months pregnancy), but also included the boarder, Royall Tyler, making advances on and possibly molesting Eliza (he later married her older sister, Mary, leading to an interesting family dynamic to say the least). Eliza wanted better for her own daughters and was constantly warning them about the propriety of their appearances and any time spent alone with men.
Elizabeth, born in 1804, was a classroom prodigy who learned Latin and Greek and studied endlessly. Very aware of the religious arguments of the day, she spent her time doing things like translating gospels on her own and reading the New Testament multiple times, each time with an eye towards confronting a different doctrinal problem. She fell under the spell of the influential Unitarian preacher William Ellery Channing at around age 14, and spent her life trying to sort out the new views of God and human divinity from the Calvinism that was the standard belief system of her early years. She was amongst the earliest thinkers to apply the term “transcendentalism” to her controversial idea that human beings were not born evil (the Calvinist view) and each had the freedom to choose goodness.
The Peabody Family: Top row from left, parents Eliza and Nathaniel, children Elizabeth and Nathaniel; Bottom row: George and Sophia, Mary and Wellington
At seventeen, Elizabeth was already out on her own as a schoolteacher, and while she was a fine teacher, and an obviously qualified one, with a knowledge of Greek and Latin that most young college men of the day would envy, she often reached points where she got in trouble with too many of her new ideas and would lose pupils. She was also restless and determined to make her mark on the world somehow, jumping to different areas trying to find the best opportunities, trying to start literary magazines a number of times, and constantly trying to reinvent teaching. She tended to seek out talented men, copying Channing’s sermons, working as a teacher in Bronson Alcott’s school and writing a book about his teaching methods. (Her reputation was almost ruined by her association with Alcott; the first book about the school was a success, but Alcott, losing all sense of the morality of the day, insisted on including things in their second book such as his discussions of sex with five year olds. This didn’t go over well.). She later became a confidante of Emerson and Theodore Parker. Elizabeth was reasonably attractive (so it is said; the only portrait of her was destroyed in a fire), but often haphazard in her personal appearance. She was blunt, outspoken, and, well, bossy, typically coming up with new schemes in which she ordered her sisters to take on different roles, not usually bothering to ask if they were happy where they were or with what they were doing.
Mary (b. 1806), the beauty of the family, was a reluctant teacher at first, more interested in reading novels and roaming the outdoors than spending time in the classroom. She eventually found her way and became a good teacher, though she hated being a governess (Elizabeth sent her off to be a governess to a few families when that was attached to another opportunity). She was always aware of her looks and hoped that a good marriage might be her ticket out of drudgery. However, that plan took a peculiar turn when she fell hard for the widowed Horace Mann, whose mourning for his first wife seemed to make it impossible for him to even look at another woman. Mary decided, though, that he was the one and determined to wait for him, turning down other eligible but “mediocre” suitors along the way.
This was made more difficult by the fact that Elizabeth also was deeply involved with Mann, in the kind of complicated way she often got involved with men; she seemed to long to be in love and be loved, yet also feared the loss of her independence and the possibility of being trapped in a millstone-ish marriage as had happened to her mother. Elizabeth seemed to feel that it was all right to be close to Mann, because he so obviously was in such deep mourning that he would never consider remarrying, yet she somehow seemed to hope he thought more of her than just a friend. She sent Mary off to be a governess to a family in Cuba and monopolized Mann, not telling Mary, who eagerly awaited any news about or from Mann, how he came to Elizabeth’s rooms on a regular basis, pouring out his broken heart to her. In Cuba, the unknowing Mary waited and wondered about the man she had determined was her soul mate.
The Cuba job had been part of a two for one deal—Mary was governess to the children of a wealthy coffee planter, while their youngest sister, Sophia (b. 1809), came along to convalesce from her perpetual illnesses in the warm climate. Sophia had been considered sickly since birth; her mother confided later that she never expected her to leave the family home, probably dying without going out to work or to marry. Marshall speculates that some of the harsh medications that doctors of the period used to treat babies undergoing painful teething probably killed many, or in Sophia’s case, left her with compromised health. The casual prescription of daily doses of opium and laudanum, common to the period, didn’t help. Sophia suffered from severe migraines that even today would likely only be able to be controlled through diet and lifestyle, but not cured. For Sophia, however, the cycles of pain and euphoria characteristic of certain migraines, became part of her normal existence, and she wielded her illness as a type of power that allowed her to opt out of a chaotic and difficult world. For women of that time, withdrawing into a semipermanent kind of sickness was one of the ways to exert some kind of control of their lives, and Sophia, in some way, chose to live with her pain over the rough and tumble outside world (I have often argued that the character of Laura in The Glass Menagerie should not be portrayed as a weakling as is common, because her use of her frailty to reject the outside world makes her just as strong-willed as her domineering mother Amanda. I’m apparently alone in this; in the last Broadway production of Menagerie, they decided to make it seem like Laura was mentally retarded. Thanks.).
Sophia was a talented artist who was able to work when no one expected anything of her, and when her escape from the life of her hardscrabble family allowed her to step out of the world of pain she used as a barricade. She excelled at copying paintings, at a time when copying was considered an admirable and important skill (remember, no photographs and prints weren’t really considered as good as a well-copied painting). When she did something that people admired and made them ask for more (or when Elizabeth concocted a scheme for Sophia to paint and sell something or teach painting), she became artistically paralyzed and sick. She didn’t want people to expect anything of her and couldn’t handle the idea of accommodating demands. More interestingly, she struggled to produce original work, sometimes starting her own paintings or drawings, but then giving up, feeling as if she was somehow inadequate; it wasn’t until quite later that she became confident in producing her own illustrations and landscapes.
Some of these came about when she fell in love with Nathaniel Hawthorne. Not yet much of a success of a writer, he had become another of Elizabeth’s close friends, so close that Elizabeth seemed to perceive there was some kind of “understanding” between them, as did others. Then one day, Sophia was well enough to come downstairs during one of the almost-ridiculously handsome Hawthorne’s visits, and it was love at first sight, apparently (I say apparently because I always warn myself to be skeptical of such things). Slowly Elizabeth realized that she had been passed over again. Sophia and Hawthorne married after a long engagement. Mary married Horace Mann a year later. Elizabeth never married; she did refer to her experience with Hawthorne in some of her letters and it’s clear that she was left somewhat embarrassed and puzzled over the whole experience. She must have wondered what it was about her that made people keep passing her over, but that’s the type of question that you never find the answer for.
An illustration Sophia did for Hawthorne's story, "The Gentle Boy"
Elizabeth had carved out a different niche for herself, though, running a bookstore and publishing house that became the center of the Transcendentalist movement. Along with Margaret Fuller, she was considered one of the great female intellectuals of the day. She never lost her interest in education and eventually became the leading force in instituting kindergartens in schools throughout the country.
Marshall only touches on this last piece of information—I found it while looking up additional material myself. Marshall opens the book with Sophia’s wedding it, and ends it basically with Sophia off in wedded bliss and Mary finally marrying Mann. Mary continued to write after her marriage, producing textbooks and a novel. Sophia painted a little more, but also began to write, particularly after Hawthorne’s death (it seemed he may have discouraged this while alive, I found in another note while looking again after reading).
Elizabeth is the center of the story, though, probably because of her forceful personality, or the people whose circle she was part of, or the amount of written material she left. She was a great thinker, but apparently her essay writing was not up to the standard of her easy, free letter writing; her essays were considered dense, difficult, and overwrought (I know, I shouldn’t say a word about anyone’s writing). Her greater skill, Marshall writes, seems to have been finding talents in others and encouraging them, helping those people think their way through problems. Personally, she appears to have been rather controlling of others, particularly her sisters; Elizabeth wanted her sisters to take the place of marriage and children, to be a type of family that would not entrap her the way a traditional marriage to a man would, a family that she could mold to her will. But when they didn’t want to go her way, she didn’t take it well. At one point during the whole difficult “who gets Horace Mann” period, she told Mary that they should speak openly, that people were wrong to hide their feelings and thoughts (a very American Romanticism/Transcendental belief). When Mary did exactly that and told her what she thought about various things, Elizabeth was infuriated to find out that Mary had her own ideas and didn’t think Elizabeth was right about everything. She was the stereotypical bossy older sister taken to the furthest extreme. Elizabeth was undoubtedly brilliant but somehow seemed to have a hard time finding the most productive way to use her intelligence; one gets the impression that she bludgeoned people with her intellectual powers didn’t have much grasp of social skills or what was effective or appropriate. Early in her teaching career, she sent girls off on summer vacation with letters telling them what was wrong with them; at other times she had a tin ear for what was right and wrong for the schoolgirls of the time, not realizing that the schoolroom was not perhaps the best place to introduce radical religious ideas if she wanted to keep the angry parents out and the school open. Maybe she was just born in the wrong time, when there were few outlets for brilliant women to put their talents to use. What would she have been today?
Marshall’s book is a massive achievement in biographical writing (and after all the time she spent writing it, anything less would be heartbreaking). As previously noted (if you can remember back that far), the research is incredible; Marshall seemed to have found every bit of material available, something which is great but can also overwhelm (there are over two hundred pages of end notes, which I think beats out the two previous number-of-note-pages champions on my lists, both of which shall remain unnamed). Yet she still managed to weave it all together into a biography that is easy to read and very entertaining. Probably the biggest quarrel I would have is that, as immense as it is, while the book quotes quite generously from the sisters’ letters, there is very little from their own written work; it would have been helpful, I think, to have some more material from their published material. Mary supposedly wrote influential textbooks, but I don’t get a sense of why. Otherwise, this book is a great read and I recommend it.
And yet…as much as I liked it—and I liked it quite a bit—I am troubled by one thing: why does the book end when it does, after Sophia and Mary’s marriages? It’s not like they never did anything again. Sophia wrote stories and her marriage to Hawthorne must have been of some interest (when they married, he still had not produced his most famous works. Mary wrote, and her marriage to Horace Mann included his stint as president of the nation’s first co-ed college, Antioch College. Elizabeth’s drive for kindergarten’s in schools seems to have been her greatest legacy. I know, each of these topics could be an individual book in itself—maybe Marshall felt that Sophia as Hawthorne’s wife is covered well enough in Hawthorne’s biography and the same for Mary in books about Horace Mann. Maybe there are books solely about Elizabeth that more fully investigate her contributions to education. Did the sisters drift apart so much that including their latter years would have been drifting too far from the mission of writing a joint biography of all three. How far could they have drifted, though? Mary lived with Elizabeth after Mann’s death. I understand that the book is big enough already for publishers to not want it to get any bigger, and I can understand why it would be ended where it is—after all, any movie or TV writer would tell you to end the story with a wedding. But by essentially ending with Sophia and Mary’s weddings, I am left with the uncomfortable feeling that it ended because their lives ended in some way when they became married women, and Elizabeth, now a confirmed spinster, had lost her value. I doubt that was Marshall's intention, but it left me somewhat saddened.
"Moonlit Landscape" by Washington Allstonn, a Peabody friend.