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Sister Act

The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism
By Megan Marshall
(Houghton Mifflin, 602 pp., $28)

“I am determined on distinction,” the teenaged Margaret Fuller vowed in 1825, as she made her first forays into Boston society. Elizabeth and Sophia Peabody, whom Fuller would soon meet, came of age in the same place and time with similar convictions. They were slightly older than Fuller, and much poorer, but they were determined to cultivate “genius.” For the first time in the Republic’s history, such hopes in a woman seemed dreamy, not mad. When he traveled through the country six years later, Tocqueville thought that democracy gave girls a temporary reprieve from their fate as wives, essentially bound to the rules of a cloister.

Along with their sister Mary, the Peabodys were the first female recruits to Boston’s second revolution, the “more interior revolution” of Transcendentalist thought and radical social reform in the 1830s. A rising generation of men “born with knives in their brains,” as Emerson described himself and his peers, pitted untrammeled spirit against religious orthodoxy and opposed the democratic seer’s wisdom to the minister’s doctrine. Inspired by European romanticism, they described an unfettered mind— self-reliant, self-expressive— capable of aligning itself with a capacity for wonder and the sense of wholeness that authentic religion promoted. The city’s golden age enveloped gifted outsiders of many kinds—abolitionists (William Lloyd Garrison), utopians (Bronson Alcott), and artists (Nathaniel Hawthorne). Elizabeth was a Transcendentalist intellectual and Sophia a serious painter, while Mary wanted only to marry. But although they were very different, each transposed the proffers of vibrant, high-minded Boston into a vision of a grander life than women normally expected. Megan Marshall’s fine book is about how they tried and came up short.

The sisters’ background was unhappily modest. Their mother, Eliza Palmer Peabody, came from a once-wealthy Massachusetts family that was ruined by the American Revolution. The paternal grandfather, a distinguished patriot, was tapped to command a major military expedition but disastrously botched his first battle. Afterward, he and his son (who served under him) were scapegoated for the mess. Like many of the Massachusetts gentry, he was deeply in debt. Neither man ever recovered honor or credit.

We think of patriot leaders as coming out of the Revolution intact, flushed with success and bound for distinction. But Eliza Peabody grew up with patriarchal failure and depression. Sexual predation exacerbated the general male collapse. Illegitimate births, incest, and adultery shadowed the household: a welter of shameful secrets involving Eliza’s credulous mother and sisters, a wealthy cad who could have stepped from the pages of Richardson’s Pamela, and a clueless father. Eliza was determined to find a way out of poverty and shameful dependency by setting herself up in a “trade,” which was no easy matter for a woman in the early nineteenth century. There were three options for work: a ladies’ companion, a governess, or a teacher. In the years after she left home, Eliza combined them with enough success to make herself vaguely independent. She dreamed of marriage to a vigorous Christian helpmate who would redeem her early experience of men’s failings.

Nathaniel Peabody, whom she married in 1800, was an unfortunate choice; and his three daughters grew into adulthood with a strong desire not to make a similar mistake. The oldest son of a backwoods New Hampshire farm family, he was, when Eliza met him, a Dartmouth graduate with a promising future. But a constitutional timidity cursed him, a fatal mixture of bull-headed determination and excess of caution. He was no match for his bride, already a published poet of Christian verse, and he proved no match for life. Having trained as a doctor—a sketchy, cutthroat vocation at a time when medical education had yet to be formalized—he set up an office in Salem in 1808, just as the congressional embargo on foreign trade threw the port into depression. His bad luck never lifted. The medical practice fizzled; he turned to the last- ditch option of dentistry; and muddled along by depending on his wife’s earnings and, later, his children’s.

ELIZA PLOUGHED HER FRUSTRATIONS into raising her three girls. Elizabeth was born in 1804, Mary in 1806, and Sophia in 1809. There were sons, too, but they were ancillary to her highest hopes. She framed the daughters’ lives from the very beginning as ventures in fortitude and independence. The first step was to give them a serious education, an exceedingly rare opportunity in a society where girls’ education was still rudimentary. The high female illiteracy rate (much higher than men’s) only began to dissolve after 1800; and white women born after the century’s turn would be the first on the continent to reach near- universal literacy. Even so, the finest female academies aimed only to polish off students with a little French and music for parlor entertaining. The universities were entirely closed to women.

Mrs. Peabody’s pedagogy was in line with that of a few Enlightenment-minded gentlemen who were trying something different with their daughters, inspired by the rationalist argument—first advanced by Mary Wollstonecraft in 1792—that the mind had no sex. Timothy Fuller, for instance, taught Latin to small Margaret almost as soon as she could talk. Mrs. Peabody, working with far more limited means than the well-to-do Fuller, gave her daughters a steady, strenuous education.

Elizabeth, the oldest, was the first to flower in the Boston hothouse. Intensely religious, she was caught up in the excitement around the charismatic minister William Ellery Channing, with his liberal teachings about the personhood of Christ and humanity’s freedom from original sin. At twelve, Elizabeth taught herself Hebrew in order to read the Bible in the original: despite her orthodox mother’s abhorrence for the new doctrines, she insisted she would “find out the truth.” Her deliberations led her to the circle around Channing himself, where she became a favorite acolyte, commuting from Salem to Boston to the great man’s study, where she borrowed books and discussed the same course of reading he assigned his divinity students.

By the time she was seventeen and teaching in her first school, she already had the refined mental appetites of a star university student to reconcile with the limited fare doled out to a schoolteacher. In the country towns where she taught, the problem took shape that would burden the rest of her life: “struggling to manage her own outsized intellect” in a place and time that accorded little space for women’s brains. A more fanciful woman might have turned her love of books into writing novels, a vocation which was just cracking open to female writers. But Elizabeth’s passions were philosophy and metaphysics—”male” subjects—not art, poetry, or fiction.

There were no models for female intellectuals. Mary Wollstonecraft, Catharine Macaulay, and Mercy Otis Warren were dead. The only available female exemplar was the French eminence Madame de Stael, and she was too distant and aristocratic to be much use to a down-at-the-heels schoolteacher. So anticipating by several years Emerson’s precepts of self-reliance, Elizabeth turned herself into a university of one, creating her own courses and finding the teachers, turning the men’s studies into her lending libraries.

In 1822, she studied Greek with a young tutor from Harvard, Ralph Waldo Emerson; they became fast friends. In the late 1820s she renewed her attachment to Channing and copied his sermons for publication, making herself not so much his amanuensis as interlocutor and editor. She tried novel techniques of teaching and learning in her classrooms and, in 1834, joined Bronson Alcott at his experimental (and eventually scandalous) Temple School in Boston, where the pedagogy turned on Transcendentalist principles. As she grounded herself in philosophy, theology, and languages, she changed from an eager autodidact to an accomplished and prolific writer, translator and, eventually, an explicator of Transcendentalism to the public.

SHE WANTED TO BE A PROTAGONIST, not a disciple; but her friends and teachers made it clear, at critical junctures, that her place was as a supplicant and a seeker. Channing, usually tender and encouraging, cautioned her against an unfeminine love of recognition: “devote your powers to the service of your fellow creatures, and not use them to make yourself distinguished.” Emerson was certain that genius “dangerously narrows the career of a woman.” Marshall notes the insidious effects on Elizabeth’s writing, which seldom achieved the ease of her letters and journals; she knotted herself up in abstractions, learned references, and difficult syntax, as if to prove her worth to a committee of men who were peering over her shoulder (Virginia Woolf’s famous image of the plight of the woman writer). She found a way through the force field of buried antagonism by deflecting her own longings into their careers. If she could not be a person of genius, she could nonetheless nurture genius.

Yet she was too disciplined and serious to fade into the background. Being an outlier, she had to improvise. She had long been dismayed by how the most learned women in Boston fell silent when the men talked. Beginning in 1830, she held “reading parties” and “conversations” to teach women to speak their own minds. In 1840, fed up with teaching, she established a bookshop, soon to become legendary, which sold and lent books, attracted the best minds in the region, published Transcendental writing, and imported the latest work from Europe: a considerable achievement that consolidated and made visible the city’s new intellectual riches.

Lacking cultural capital and always self-supporting once she left home, Elizabeth was a striver infected with the “go-ahead” spirit of the times. “Young men come down from the back woods ... [to] fill our first rank of society,” she rhapsodized about the American scene in 1829 in a letter to Wordsworth (a fan letter turned him briefly into a correspondent); and she would keep up with the best of them. In a family of male “losers”—great- grandfather, grandfather, father, and feckless brothers failed at one scheme after another—she would make something of herself: “that favorite of fortune— our Liz,” the family called her.

Some young men who were her friends in the shabby boarding houses they shared would become Harvard professors and she would always be a schoolteacher. The wealthy, accomplished daughters of the Cambridge intelligentsia, friends such as Sophia Dana, could look forward to marrying Harvard luminaries and reigning over well-appointed salons. Elizabeth was not oblivious to the differences that breeding, money, and sex made. “I never performed the promise of my childhood,” she wrote in one pained interlude. She had been “thrown too early” into earning a living; had looked too much to men for “assurances”; seen her own ideas swept away in their writings. But go ahead she would: to another rented room and school, another article or translation, another idea or friendship into which she poured her exceedingly busy spirit.

AS ELIZABETH LAUNCHED HERSELF in the 1820s, Sophia was turning into a tireless invalid, a pain-wracked and paradoxically vivid presence to be tended. Assaulted by terrible headaches—Marshall judges them to have been migraines— Sophia took to her bed for long intervals, reigning from the sickroom as the treasured child. Invalidism was a socially sanctioned role for middle-class women, and Sophia’s retreats wore a familiar groove in the family moral economy. Pain was an instructor in character—her mother thought it had made her all the lovelier and more noble—and it emulated Christ’s martyrdom.

The stance, which developed over time, was costly. As a child Sophia was the most spirited and rebellious of the girls, despite her bad health. The headaches worsened as she struggled to find a place in the world for herself as a painter, an almost inconceivable possibility for a woman. No professional would ever train her. Even if she could have found nude images in straitlaced Boston, she could not have sketched from them; the day when female artists in Europe or America could sit in life drawing classes was more than fifty years away. She would never have the money to travel to Italy or the Alps to see the scenery that set the conventions of landscape painting.

So Sophia made a small reputation on the border between gifted amateurs and professionals. She cultivated established artists as patrons and well-wishers and took friends’ commissions to “copy” works, usually etchings or engravings of renowned European paintings. She also sketched from nature and, in bursts of imagination between headaches, painted imaginary romantic landscapes. A few of these were shown at the Boston Athenaeum when it opened as the city’s first art gallery. But so severe were the limitations that, after several years of slender repute, her happiest experience of a public was the warm reception given miniatures she painted on ladies’ baskets sold at a charity auction.

Sophia could not help but understand that she could never be a distinguished painter. Marshall argues that sickness was a way to channel the disappointment and fend off the defeats her sister endured. She would not subject herself to the humiliation of expressing frank ambition only to see it driven back and punished. Her invalid state allowed her to maintain the scanty but trustworthy satisfactions of being ever the girl of promise. She darted out into the world of accomplishments, snatched accolades, and then fell back into the sickroom. She was, in other words, the very opposite of her go-ahead sister—a holding- back kind of girl, who learned to parcel out her gestures toward the world as precious rarities.

MARY WAS THE ONE commandeered into self-abnegation, the middle child assigned to be helpmate of more insistently needy family members. Mary followed Elizabeth into teaching, assisting her in various school ventures and going out on her own as well to aid the family finances. She was not a writer, theologian, or artist in the Boston manner, but she was a serious reader, especially of fiction, and in her own manner—less spectacular than her sisters—she harbored impulses of social reform to which the others were tone deaf. In 1833, when Sophia went to Cuba for an extended rest cure with a physician there, Mary went along to pay for the stay by working as his children’s governess. Sophia blossomed and enjoyed herself enormously, her headaches banished. While she roamed the huge plantation on horseback and foot to sketch, oblivious to the slaves, Mary toiled in the schoolroom and brooded over the misery that surrounded them.

An inveterate reader of novels, Mary wanted to inhabit her own plot, but lacking her own creative drive, she could not invent a viable story line. So all the worse that she had to cope so much with Elizabeth, whose brilliant saga did not flag. Even in repose, Elizabeth was dramatic, and watching her was discouraging and irritating. “She sits with a ream of paper at her elbow,” Mary wrote in 1826 when they were living and teaching together, and “looks for all the world as if she was going to write up all the thoughts there are about, and leave nothing for her contemporaries or posterity to do.” She burned with embarrassment—and jealousy, one presumes—as Elizabeth, ever the center of attention, shanghaied conversations and, in the manner of any voluble talker, fudged the details to make her stories more vivid.

MARSHALL’S PORTRAIT OF the sisters’ emotional history seriously complicates any tendencies to imagine a nineteenth-century “woman’s sphere” as a domain of mutual support, kindly socializing, and resistance to patriarchy. The Peabodys depended on and encouraged one another, but they also undermined and attacked one another. Their relations with other women, as Marshall portrays them, were circumstantial and dispensable. Mary and Elizabeth, in particular, suffered meanness and snobbery from the female relatives and patrons with whom they often lived to save money. Elizabeth constantly fell afoul of female gossip for her open platonic intimacies with men.

Actually, what is remarkable about the Peabody sisters is how closely the women’s stories were bound up with men’s. Each of the sisters, in her own way, hoped to escape woman’s fate by linking her fortunes to an enlightened, liberal man. Elizabeth had her teachers and interlocutors. Sophia, unsuccessful in finding mentors among artists, dreamed of marrying a creative spirit who would support her while she painted. And Mary, the novel reader, yearned for a husband of passion and noble aims, a Romantic reformer, to sweep her into his story and make her a heroine.

Qualified candidates seldom appeared, so there was rivalry for the obvious choices. Elizabeth and Mary rejected run-of-the-mill suitors, each holding out for years for a soul’s companion. It was romantic triangles that magnetized their desires. Elizabeth vied first with Mary for Horace Mann, the Whig educational reformer. Later she struggled with Sophia over Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom Elizabeth was engaged; he and Sophia ended up marrying.

THE CONTEST FOR MANN took up years. Mary and Elizabeth first met him in 1833 in a Boston boarding house, when he was another young man who had come from the back woods, dirt poor and in deep mourning over his young wife’s death from tuberculosis. Now we would probably say that Mann suffered from depression; but in those days debilitating grief was the one permissible male form of invalidism. The mourner could not retreat to the sickroom—that was for women— but he could absent himself from normal human intercourse. Mann, a truly annoying character, held fast to tragedy for years, using Elizabeth and Mary alternately as his comforters. His melancholy was so histrionic that in some sense it neutered him, and made it possible especially for Elizabeth to stretch the bonds of permissible behavior with a single man. The two were fond of tète- a-tètes alone in the boarding house parlor. Once Mary found them on a sofa, Mann’s head in Elizabeth’s lap, Elizabeth stroking his hair.

Mann, whose grief did not slow down his reform career one jot, finally came round to marrying Mary ten years later, reluctantly giving up his conviction that he would never “pass thro’ the human again.” Elizabeth had grown bored and dropped out of the competition earlier, when Hawthorne, the as-yet undiscovered genius of American letters, entered her life in 1837, appearing unannounced one day to visit, stunningly goodlooking and enticingly shy. They were the same age, but temperamental opposites. Hawthorne had invested much in reclusiveness, years holed up in his family home in Salem writing little-noticed stories. He was drawn to Elizabeth’s energy, connections, and worldliness. Elizabeth fell in love with the handsome man, his enchanting stories, and his eccentric family mythology. Over time, they reached a private understanding that they would marry.

Sophia was upstairs, bedridden with a renewed attack of migraines and interestingly remote to the man who visited for months but never saw her. At some point in the spring, she appeared, floating down to the parlor in “a simple white wrapper” to meet the suitor. Soon she was coming downstairs regularly, even when Elizabeth was absent, activating an excruciating rivalry played out on the tiny stage of the house—Sophia was still too ill to go out— and inflamed by Hawthorne’s evasion of any frank accounting to Elizabeth. He apparently never explicitly withdrew from their “understanding,” but simply transferred his intentions to Sophia. They married in 1842.

THE BOOK STOPS HERE, before middle-aged decline set in: cultural demotion for Elizabeth, a fizzling marital story for Mary, family tragedy for Sophia. Marshall wants us to see the trio as extraordinary, but the outlines of the story are quite familiar, known from many biographies of other intellectual and artistic women born before 1900: gifts that dwindled for lack of use, promise that petered out, marriages that could not support the hopes that the women invested in them. Sophia and Mary zealously embraced their hard-won domestic positions as mothers and distinguished men’s wives. Sophia, the more ambitious of those two, subsumed her own aspirations in Nathaniel’s career with ideological fervor and enfolded her children into a claustrophic family scenario that left them badly damaged. Neither marriage was happy. Elizabeth, on the other hand, did remain a vigorous public figure, respected although never revered. Her bookshop failed, Transcendental Boston dispersed, and she returned to teaching. But her later life was absorbing: she became a champion of kindergartens, a reform import from Germany. She was given a long, active, and useful life, although it was not the one she hoped for when she devoured philosophy at the age of thirteen.

In Marshall’s account, the men with knives in their brains look more like muggers than surgeons. The facts of their unhappy relations with women are known from other biographies, intellectual histories, and literary criticism; but Marshall combines three women’s stories, and so a commonality emerges that has not been so stark when the discussions focus on individual figures. The pattern is this: repeatedly, the Peabody’s friends, patrons, and lovers tendered the offer of sexual equality, only to snatch it back when the woman sought to make good on the offer. You can say that they were only falling back on cultural conventions—that in matters pertaining to women they could not stay on the edge of change. Or you can wonder if the men with knives liked to cut the women down to size.

Marshall makes no such judgments, though she does provide the material that provokes the question. She wants to draw back from conclusions that cloud her generally sunny assessment of 1820s and 1830s Boston as a place where “women moved freely in intellectual circles” and “freethinking men and women alike had little use for bastions of male privilege.” She shrewdly structures the material and lets readers draw their own conclusions about the emotional complexities that thrived among people living at the edge of cultural possibility. In that sense she encourages our generosity, and our own readerly self-reliance. Skillfully paced and richly observed, The Peabody Sisters is a fascinating, sprawling story that its author commands with finesse. But the material is so extraordinary, and at its far reaches so grim, that sometimes one longs for a more powerful feminist discernment, something on the order of what Hermione Lee offers in her biography of Virginia Woolf and Charles Capper provides in his book on Margaret Fuller.

Marshall wants the Peabody sisters to be more than minor characters, but unlike Fuller, who became Elizabeth’s friend, that was, alas, their destiny. What makes this book compelling is that at times they, and those around them, believed that something different and wonderful was in store. If you look at Transcendentalist Boston in terms of what came before, the evaluation is more convincing: the Peabodys had aunts, after all, who could not read. In the end, however, the opening into the “center of all things”—the place that Elizabeth felt she occupied when she conversed with Emerson—seems evanescent, chiefly because the experiment with women was of little account to the men involved. Education, income, position, confidence, colossal self-esteem made the major characters a privileged caste even as they fulminated on democracy. When Margaret Fuller, who knew the scene well, wrote her first feminist essay on the position of contemporary women, an image of antagonism, not affinity, came to mind. The title that she gave to her essays in The Dial was “The Great Lawsuit. Man vs. Men and Woman vs. Women.”

This article originally ran in the October 10, 2005 issue of the magazine.