Valenti, Patricia Dunlavy. Sophia Peabody Hawthorne: A Life, Volume 1, 1809-1847.
This biographical study provides a fresh and appreciative account of Sophia Peabody Hawthorne's first thirty-eight years of life, concluding with Sophia and Nathaniel's departure from the Old Manse and the publication of Mosses from an Old Manse, which Valenti sees as deeply influenced by Sophia's vision and presence. The Hawthornes' marriage, with its tensions and surprises, receives astute analysis in the second half of this study, whereas in the first half, the parallel lives of Sophia and Nathaniel are neatly sketched in alternating chapters. The five brief chapters devoted to Hawthorne's early life will strike many scholars as familiar because they hark back to the pre-Randall Stewart era and present Hawthorne as struggling with guilt, lack of self-confidence, effeminacy, reclusiveness, and secrecy. This "Nathaniel Hawthorne," who seems an odd bird indeed, contrasts (as clearly intended) with the optimistic, adventuresome, independent, and sociable "Sophia Peabody" whom Valenti constructs in ample parallel chapters.
Chapters six and eight, treating Sophia's eighteen months in Cuba, are groundbreaking and riveting, and they undermine in convincing fashion Nathaniel's fantasy of his fragile, delicate "Dove." Using Sophia's Cuba Journal, the three-volume collection of letters Sophia wrote to her mother during her stay, Valenti shows Sophia's daring engagement with the people, language, and landscape of the island. Valenti makes a persuasive case that Sophia even fell in love in Cuba, with the dashing and cultivated Don Fernando Zayas. Together they conversed about books, played chess, danced the waltz, and went horseback riding. On one occasion, "napping before tea, Fernando roused her, and they entertained the fantasy of being awakened after a night's sleep" (60). A long gap in Sophia's correspondence suggests the intensity of her intimacy with Fernando, but of course we can only speculate what pleasure it involved. Valenti does not elide Sophia's racist disregard of slavery during the stay in Cuba, which Mary Peabody found profoundly disturbing, yet she emphasizes that Sophia's goal was to restore her health, and so she ignored all that might disquiet her. "Her recovery," Valenti argues, "amply demonstrates the influence of pleasure on well-being, for her ill health gradually evaporated amid the abundant natural and social pleasures Cuba offered" (54).
As for Sophia's headaches at home, before and after her trip, Valenti rejects the notion that Sophia cultivated the status of an invalid and attributes the headaches to her family's attempts to constrain her activities and to Sophia's own struggles with various artistic challenges. Sophia's interest in and skill as an artist are central to this study, and Valenti makes the case that Sophia had a promising career underway when Nathaniel met her: "She had benefited from the mentorship of the most renowned American painters of her era, men whose interest and criticism had honed her talent and whetted her desire to become a professional among professionals. She had proudly exhibited her paintings at the Boston Athaeneum, the very word exhibition tellingly characterizing Sophia's professional achievement as well as the essence of her identity. She did not require--nor did she seek--protection, isolation, or concealment" (40). (Thirteen reproductions of Sophia's sketches and paintings illustrate this biography. Her copy of a portrait of Allston is strikingly accomplished.) Before her marriage, Sophia envisioned herself and Nathaniel pursuing parallel artistic careers, but of course this did not transpire. Instead, Valenti argues, Nathaniel denigrated her artistic abilities and discouraged her from selling or exhibiting her art. Thus, after the marriage, he experienced "enormous productivity," due to Sophia's inspiration, whereas "her dreams of an equal artistic partnership quietly evaporated" (172).
This is but one of the many charges levied against Nathaniel in this study. Valenti also faults him for imposing his fantasies upon Sophia, for burning her letters to him, for driving a wedge between her and his own family through his "pathological secrecy" (165), and for stifling Sophia's sexual playfulness and exuberance. Nathaniel's readings in Sophia's Cuba Journal before their marriage and his first-hand knowledge of his wife's sexual nature after marriage proved transformative for him. As Valenti puts it, "Sophia ignited her husband's creativity by her very presence as the female, transcendental other; having been spun into Sophia's orbit, Nathaniel collided with realities that irrevocably altered his imaginative universe" (183). The dark, sensuous, dangerous women in his subsequent fiction are based upon Sophia, according to Valenti, and tales such as "The Birth-mark" and "Rappaccini's Daughter," draw from his shock at the "realities that resided dramatically in the female body" (227). On the positive side, he drew upon Sophia's transcendental idealism and her sense of nature as lush and beneficent when he wrote "The Old Manse." This work, however, Valenti sees as exceptional.
Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, as my account of it suggests, is a somewhat one-sided biography with a sharp polemical edge. Valenti provides a persuasive correction to the condescending treatments Sophia has received over many years, being cast in the roles of superficial, submissive "angel of the house" or manipulative, domineering prude. If Valenti's "Sophia" teems with talent, experience, and robust sensuality, we can surely add this portrait to existing ones and thus enhance our knowledge of her and her husband. I must add, however, that I wish Sophia had not been elevated here at her husband's expense. No deep sense of Hawthorne's genius, integrity, humor, or humanity is conveyed here, and that is a shame. One hopes that in Valenti's second volume of the biography, the man will prove worthy of his wife.
Larry J. Reynolds
Texas A & M University
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Author:||Reynolds, Larry J.|
|Publication:||Nathaniel Hawthorne Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
|Previous Article:||Charles Ives's Hawthorne.|
|Next Article:||Ullen, Magnus. The Half-Vanished Structure: Hawthorne's Allegorical Dialectics.|