Sophia Peabody Hawthorne: A Life, Volume 2, 1848-1871, by Patricia Dunlavy Valenti
Q. Your much-anticipated second volume of Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, A Life, has now been published. Who are the intended readers for your book?
A. I think my biography of Sophia will appeal to the general reader, and it will be accessible even to someone who has not read volume I. It’s clear why contemporary novels such as Z, or The Paris Wife, or Mrs. Poe have gained such popularity. The public craves access to the lives of women kept in the shadows by their famous author-husbands. But my book also presents really new scholarship in the areas of American history, gender and literary studies, and what I like to call the domestic politics of authorship, that complex influence of one spouse upon the other in the production of art. Scholars who have already reviewed Volume II attest to its contribution to these areas.
Q. Did your research and writing of this volume uncover anything completely unexpected?
A. I knew the issues that would dominate Sophia’s life between 1848 and 1871, when she died in England, but I had been unaware of the scope and significance of some of them. In terms of specifics, I had no idea that The Marble Faun, the last novel Nathaniel published, required so much of Sophia’s effort. Her life was entwined with his for nearly twenty-six years, and after his death, she lived another seven years with the burden of his bad financial decisions and failures as a writer during last decade of his life. Looking at Nathaniel Hawthorne from Sophia’s perspective reveals a side to him that was entirely ignored by his biographers.
Q. Are you saying that Sophia saw her husband in an unflattering light?
A. No, I’m not. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote to Sophia that she had “a beauty making eye.” He was referring to her artistic talent, but he coined a phrase that serves us well in understanding her character. She was optimistic to the core. She persisted in seeing Nathaniel, their children, and her marriage as the epitome of domestic bliss. Among her surviving thousands of pages of letters and journals, not one word criticizing her husband can be found. But actions tell a different story than words.
Q. What do you mean?
A. Sophia’s emotional appetite was not satisfied by marriage and motherhood. She and Nathaniel spent a good deal of time apart. Their lack of money sometimes forced them to live separately, and when they had money to spare, Nathaniel took regular summer vacations without her. While the Hawthornes were living in England, Sophia developed a pulmonary problem and went to sunny, warmer Portugal to live in the home of John Louis O’Sullivan. She became alarmingly fond—from her husband’s point of view--of this vexing figure in America history. Then, when the Hawthornes lived in Italy, Nathaniel frequently remained in their apartment while Sophia enjoyed Rome’s museums and historic sites with a group of women who were part of a thriving lesbian community. When Nathaniel’s health was failing, Sophia urged him to take one after another trip, claiming that a change of scene would restore his health. During this same period, she developed intense feelings for Annie Fields, the young, beautiful wife of Nathaniel’s publisher. Sophia also became deeply attached to General Ethan Allen Hitchcock, who had been appointed by President Lincoln to oversee the return of prisoners during the Civil War.
Q. You make her sound like a scarlet woman, or like Hawthorne’s character who wore the scarlet letter.
A.That would be a huge over-simplification of Sophia’s very complex and nuanced relationships. But there is no doubt that Nathaniel Hawthorne incorporated many of her traits into his female characters, particularly into one of the best-known female characters in American literature. Like Hester Prynne--who wished that her timid, secret lover would proclaim his love publicly--Sophia bristled at the secrecy Nathaniel imposed upon their lengthy engagement. While Nathaniel was writing The Scarlet Letter, Sophia was the breadwinner, earning money for their household expenses by selling her decorative arts, a prototype for Hester’s ability to support herself and her child with needlework. And among other parallels, Sophia’s tenacious protection of her children suggests Hester’s behavior with Pearl.
Q. Why did Sophia need to protect her children?
A. All mothers need to protect their children, but at Sophia’s particular moment in history, medicine did little to prevent childhood mortality. Religious belief in the afterlife was waning and no longer provided mothers like Sophia with consolation when a child died. Sophia attempted to stave off illness and other harm through diet and hygiene; she wanted her children to develop moral character without the scare tactics of Calvinism. She refused to use any form of corporal punishment. In many ways, her story as a mother is a very contemporary one. She was a helicopter mother before helicopters were invented. The sad truth is, that even with the best intentions, there are unfortunate consequences.
Q. How so?
A. You’ll have to read both volumes of Sophia Peabody Hawthorne: A Life for the full answer. But I’ll say here that Sophia’s children came of age during the Civil War, when many of their counterparts were sacrificing their lives for the abolition of slavery. Sarah Shaw, the mother of Robert Gould Shaw, who was slaughtered in battle with his African American soldiers, was Sophia’s good friend. The Alcotts were Sophia’s longtime neighbors, and Louisa May suffered lasting effects from the disease she contracted while she nursed Union soldiers. Examining Sophia’s attitudes as a mother—and one opposed to the Civil War—helps us better understand the sacrifices of others who were, or no longer could be, her friends.
You can read about Volume 1 at the earlier Author Spotlight for Patricia Dunlavy Valenti.