The Peabody Sisters

            If you’re not an American Studies scholar, you’ve likely never heard of the Peabody sisters. Even if you are an American Studies scholar, there’s a good chance you just know of Sophia Peabody as the woman who married Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mary Peabody as the woman who became Horace Mann’s second wife. The Peabody Sisters, by Megan Marshall, seeks to change all that, discussing three women who were at the forefront of intellectual, religious, and educational movements.

            The sisters were born to a formerly prominent Massachusetts family after the family had already its fortune and sunk a few rungs in respectability. There had already been a scandal involving playwright Royall Tyler, the parlor was shabby, and the girls’ mother, Eliza, was running a school to try to make ends meet. Making ends meet would be a running theme throughout the girls’ lives while their father and brothers seemed to flub one commercial venture after another. Elizabeth was the first to open a school, although Mary would eventually be the more involved in educational reform.

            The Peabody sisters came of age in a time when women of brilliance were constrained by social norms. Elizabeth, especially, had difficulty finding outlets for her incredible intelligence, and so she became the intellectual helpmeet of an impressive array of men: Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mann, and Willian Ellery Channing, to name a few. Marshall offers ample evidence that Elizabeth Peabody most likely surpassed several of these men in intellectual capacity, but they rose to prominence while she was relegated to the role of female second-fiddle.

            Then there’s Sophia Peabody, who has so often been portrayed by historians as a neurasthenic invalid who Nathaniel Hawthorne saddled himself with. That she was a talented artist denied opportunities due to her sex never seems to be all that important. Marshall makes a strong case that Sophia Peabody’s medical problems probably had a biological basis in the medication she was given – both as a child and as an adult – in addition to the psychological forces at work on her artistic mind.

            Marshall beautifully walks the line between excellent research and sensible analysis. The book is quite readable and engaging, yet she never reaches beyond fact to make the narrative more compelling, as was the case in The Tin Ticket. I felt convinced because all of Marshall’s analysis was well-grounded in her research and fully documented. This book does much to fill out the picture of American Romanticism with some of the most important women who have been shunted to the sidelines of history. It’s long, very long, but I didn’t begrudge Marshall the months of nighttime reading it took because it was incredibly well-written and interesting.

            I put down the Steve Jobs biography to read this book. It was a far, far better use of my time.


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