Sophia Peabody Hawthorne: A Life, Volume 2, 1848-1871.
Patricia Valenti's well-researched and deeply sympathetic Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, a Life, Volume 2, 1848-1871 actually opens in the summer of 1845, when the Hawthornes were facing eviction from the Old Manse in Concord for non-payment of rent. To explain why Sophia nonetheless rejoiced in her domestic life, Valenti appropriates Emerson's tribute to Sophia's artistic talents: she had a "beauty making eye." The phrase recurs during Valenti's anatomizations of Sophia's achievements and travails as wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, editor, widow and artist. Not all of Valenti's assessments are laudatory. But she provides an admirably full understanding of a remarkably complex woman.
Though the Hawthornes' financial problems remain central during the first chapter and recur throughout the narrative, the spotlight soon shifts to Sophia's self-confident parenting. Her children's primary foods were rice and potatoes, they drank water and milk, never had meat, sweets, or fats, had regular "airbaths," never experienced corporal punishment, were assumed to be morally good, and (like their parents) received only homeopathic treatments for illnesses. So certain was Sophia about the correctness of her regimen that she tried to convince her sister Mary to emulate it. More objectionably, she tried to force her own racism on Mary, who was then housing a free young black girl who was a student at a nearby school.
As Valenti nonetheless shows, the two sisters overcame their recurrent differences (as they had done before and would do again) to offer one another emotional support and practical help. That was also true of Sophia's many disagreements with her sister Elizabeth. Moreover, if Sophia could be morally imperious, she could also be remarkably selfless. A clear example occurred near the end of the Hawthornes' years in Salem when they were sharing a house with Nathaniel's mother and two sisters. When her mother-in-law became mortally ill and no one else could nurse her, Sophia devotedly accepted the task.
During this grief-filled period, Julian Hawthorne was born. Hawthorne published the collection of stories entitled Mosses from an Old Manse and, while he was coping with his devastating ouster as surveyor of the Salem Custom House, he was also striving to complete what would become his first novel--The Scarlet Letter. Meantime his devoted wife could pride herself on helping to pay the family's bills. Not only had she managed to save some of her husband's custom house earnings, but she diligently used her artistic skills to produce beautifully decorated lampshades, handscreens, and illustrated books. The work was exhausting, and commissions soon lapsed. By then, however, The Scarlet Letter was published, to wide critical acclaim.
The Hawthornes' subsequent search for a suitable residence outside Salem ended when they were offered a small farmhouse in Lenox, owned by Sophia's old friend, Caroline Tappan. With impressive narrative skill, Valenti expatiates on the Hawthornes' numerous like-minded but much wealthier neighbors in the Berkshires, many of them linked by marriage or consanguinity. That skill is also evident in her summaries of the entwined lives of many of the women artists the Hawthornes met in Rome, and in her delineations of the ties of friendship and family among the many abolitionists who were the Hawthornes' Concord neighbors.
The Hawthornes' relative ease during their Lenox years was both cause and consequence of Hawthorne's steady literary productivity and the income it produced. Fields happily published The House of the Seven Gables as well as three volumes of his stories, two of them collections of stories for children. Meanwhile, friends and family members were frequent house guests, and Rose Hawthorne was born. Arguably, their most welcome guest was a young writer Hawthorne had met soon after they moved to Lenox--Herman Melville. For well over a year, he would be on remarkably close terms with the entire family.
Nathaniel and Sophia had actually encountered him before they met, in the form of his laudatory pseudonymous review of Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse. Their delight in that review soon extended to its author, and it was soon magnified by the enthusiastic and discerning review of The House of the Seven Gables that Melville masked as a personal letter. Valenti is not alone in postulating a homoerotic attraction between the two men; she thinks Sophia and Melville "shared an appreciation for each other's androgynous qualities." Even those who disagree must grant that Melville's fulsome dedication of Moby-Dick to Hawthorne "in admiration of his genius" is extraordinary, as is his subsequent statement that Hawthorne's grateful response to that dedication had generated "an infinite fraternity of feeling."
Nevertheless, becoming dissatisfied with Lenox, Hawthorne was again ready to move, this time pragmatically choosing the West Newton house that Mary and Horace Mann were abandoning for their newly built one. During the next five months, Hawthorne completed his third novel--The Blithedale Romance--and Fields's sale of the copyright to an English publisher made Hawthorne conclude that he could now afford a house of his own. The one he chose in Concord and called the Wayside would be the only house he and Sophia would ever own.
By then he had agreed to write the campaign biography for his college friend, Franklin Pierce, whose undistinguished service in the Mexican War and sympathy for slave states made him heartily disliked. Both Hawthornes were distraught by Louisa Hawthorne's accidental drowning, and by the long illness of Sophia's beloved mother, which ended in her death. At this point, when Pierce had won the presidential election and Hawthorne was struggling to pay the bills at the Wayside, he decided to accept Pierce's offer of the purportedly lucrative post of United States Consul in Liverpool.
With over two thirds of her biography yet to come, Valenti resumes the narrative of the Hawthornes' lives in England and Italy and their return to America, marked by Sophia's recurring bouts of illness and (in the Italian section) by Una's nearly fatal malaria, culminating in the sad saga of Sophia's widowhood and death. At each stage, Valenti incorporates several relatively unfamiliar individuals and experiences, all in the context of important period events.
Soon after arriving in England, the Hawthornes rented a large house in Rock Ferry from which Hawthorne could easily commute to the Liverpool consulate. It required a larger staff than they had ever employed, and Sophia soon purchased fine dinnerware, silverware, and linens (presumably similar to what she had encountered when visiting Liverpool notables). Surely they were all in use when John L. O'Sullivan arrived with his large family, and unexpectedly stayed for over seven weeks. O'Sullivan's financial entanglements with Hawthorne evade full comprehension. Regardless, by the time he had left for Lisbon, where he was serving as Minister to Portugal, Sophia and the girls had agreed to a long visit, hoping that a salubrious climate would alleviate Sophia's recurrent ailments. Although the Hawthornes delighted in O'Sullivan's luxurious residence and glamorous entertainments, the weather turned foul, as again occurred when they sought better weather in Madeira. Valenti is surely right in identifying an erotic element in Sophia's fondness for O'Sullivan, and (more importantly) in identifying O'Sullivan as an adroit financial predator of her husband.
Continuing her chronological narrative, Valenti summarizes Hawthorne's completion of his term as Consul with less money than he had initially anticipated. The family then headed for Italy, with Sophia impatient to fulfill her lifelong dream of seeing the art treasures of Italy. In Rome as in Florence, she delighted in the world-famed paintings and statues she encountered in museums, galleries, and churches, and delighted in her many friendships with scores of expatriate painters and sculptors. Valenti identifies a lesbian component in the lives of many of the women artists--Sophia's "sisters," she calls them. She also points to but cannot solve one of the period's tantalizing mysteries--the unspecified sexual scandal that destroyed the reputation of the young sculptor Louisa Lander (who had recently completed a portrait bust of Hawthorne).
More curious is Valenti's detailed attention to Ada Shepherd, the young American college graduate hired to be Una's governess who became extremely close to Sophia. Soon after Ada and Una visited the Coliseum and remained later than was considered safe, Una became mortally ill with malaria and then typhoid. Not surprisingly, the Hawthornes were griefstricken. But at that point Valenti turns her attention to Ada's correspondence with her fiance, in which she accused Una's doctor of making sexual advances on herself. Although it is easy to understand why Valenti included this lively and fresh material, not all of it seems warranted by her study of Sophia.
At Fields's suggestion, the Hawthornes soon headed from Italy to England to secure the copyright for the romance he had already begun writing--The Marble Faun. Their chief requirements were a study for Hawthorne and a climate that would be salutary for Sophia. In summarizing this novel as she had done with his prior ones, Valenti points to what she perceives to be connections with the Hawthornes' lives and evidence of Sophias presence in the texts.
When the family returned to Concord, their problems continued to be financial, though there were also problems with the townspeople's prevailing abolitionism, and with the onset of war. Both Una and her father were repeatedly if not continually ill. Meantime, the need for money spurred Hawthorne to produce texts that Fields could publish in his magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, including essays about English life drawn from his English notebooks (which would eventuate in the volume called Our Old Home), and an account of his recent visits to wartime battlefields. Despite the spur of short trips with old friends, Hawthorne's recurrent exhaustion and depression impeded serious work on any of the romances he had begun.
Valenti's account of Sophia's brief but ecstatic friendship with General Ethan Hitchcock poignantly defines her yearning for him. In addition to his distinguished military career, his numerous achievements included esoteric volumes that Sophia claimed echoed her own thoughts. But after Hitchcock remarried and did not even acknowledge her congratulations, he was lost to her.
So was her beloved friend Annie Fields, the wife of Hawthorne's publisher, who had brightened her life with invitations to her Boston home that often included the Hawthorne children. Annie's invitations, however, were radically curtailed during the last months of Hawthorne's life and after his death, and the Fieldses' lavish gifts to the children ceased. Sophia had lost control of her children, Annie complained, and she was not far wrong.
The Hawthornes' financial problems before and during Sophia's widowhood can be partly--but only partly--attributed to ignorance of how Fields calculated royalties and indeed changed them without notification. After Elizabeth Peabody investigated Sophia's complaints, she concluded that Sophia had been treated justly but not generously. Sophia now heroically took on the task of mining her husband's notebooks and then her own for book publication, not all of it for Fields's firm. That huge task of copying and editing continued even after she left Concord for Dresden, where she assumed she could live cheaply and Julian might at last complete an advanced degree. Although that did not occur, Sophia rejoiced when he found a congenial mate. The Franco Prussian War impelled her to move to England. There she died at the age of sixty-one, her daughters nearby. Hers is a long story of admixed accomplishment and disappointment. But despite a few factual errors, and despite her frequent dismay at Nathaniel Hawthorne's perceived inadequacies as husband and provider, Valenti tells Sophias story well.
Rita K. Gollin
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|Author:||Gollin, Rita K.|
|Publication:||Nathaniel Hawthorne Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2016|
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