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Issue Date:  February 17, 2006

By Megan Marshall
Houghton Mifflin, 624 pages, $28
Sister at the forefront of an era


There is an aspect of this delightful biography of three 19th-century sisters that brings to mind Forrest Gump and the hapless way he managed to be present (or responsible) for every historic event of the late 20th century. Name a key event in early America and one of the Peabody sisters was there: attending Transcendentalist Club meetings, editing The Dial, helping to organize the utopian Brook Farm, walking with Henry David Thoreau, discoursing on religion and abolition with William Ellery Channing, reforming schools with Horace Mann, hosting Margaret Fuller’s Conversations, enjoying nature with Ralph Waldo Emerson, lending her name to Louisa May Alcott’s little sister, “Beth” of Little Women, getting Nathaniel Hawthorne the customs inspector position that frames The Scarlet Letter, and inspiring his complex heroines. Neither fictional nor hapless, Elizabeth, Mary and Sophia Peabody can be credited with so much influence on the unfolding of their century that I am frankly surprised they are so little known.

This impressive and entertaining book will go a long way toward correcting our historical shortsightedness. If nothing else, it should place Elizabeth, the eldest and most engaging of the sisters, next to Margaret Fuller as an important early voice for women’s intellectual equality. Elizabeth, whose life spans the century (1804-94), was a precocious teenager, a serious student of religion, whose voracious intelligence led her to devour all the important texts of her day, in German, French, Greek and Hebrew. Her published translations of European works later became source texts for Emerson and other transcendentalists.

To complete the education she had begun in books, Elizabeth seized every opportunity to draw others into conversation -- divinity students, professors and ministers, poets and artists. Her eager curiosity enhanced her perceptions, and she developed an uncanny sense for identifying and then investing her considerable energy in the leading intellects of her day. Sometimes they responded. Other times, they retreated toward less complicated relationships. As Marshall writes:

Elizabeth was slim and small, fair and blue-eyed, pretty in all the standard ways. And she had magnetism: the aura of intellectual and spiritual vitality. ... Yet there was something off-putting about Elizabeth to a young man ... Hers was an attractive force not easily reckoned with, even by men whose ideas on other matters were less than conventional. Men could, and did, fall in love with Elizabeth. But whether they could stay in love, and whether Elizabeth wanted them to, were quite different questions.

Strikingly relevant to discussions of feminism today (lately led by Maureen Dowd’s Are Men Necessary?), Elizabeth’s life is revealing. Though it seems apparent that both Horace Mann and Nathaniel Hawthorne loved her, both men ended up favoring Elizabeth’s less assertive younger sisters. Though Mary was a writer and an influential educational reformer, if she is known at all today it is as the supportive wife of Horace Mann. As Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife, Sophia, a successful artist as a young woman, but perhaps the least impressive intellectually, has been the subject of more writing than either of her sisters. Devoted to Hawthorne’s career, she gave up her art to raise their children. Equality, as Elizabeth’s life suggests (and Ms. Dowd argues), is possible for women so long as they are willing to forego romance.

Twenty years in the making, this 452-page biography is clearly Megan Marshall’s tour de force. Perhaps because of her extended effort, Ms. Marshall sometimes gets bogged down with contextual information and historical details, briefly losing the keen sense of narrative that distinguishes her excellent writing. But she quickly recovers her footing, returning to the intrigues and intimacies of the intertwined stories of the three sisters. Though Elizabeth certainly stands out, Ms. Marshall was wise to write about all three, contrasting their decisions and desires. In the best tradition of stories of our past, the story of these sisters is full of ideas that speak to America’s future.

Cecilia Konchar Farr is a professor of English at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn.

National Catholic Reporter, February 17, 2006

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