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H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by H-SHEAR@h-net.msu.edu (April 2007) Megan Marshall. _The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism_. Mariner Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. xx + 602 pp. Illustrations, genealogy, notes, index. $16.95 (paper), ISBN 0-618-71169-4. Reviewed for H-SHEAR by Anne C. Rose, Department of History and Religious Studies Program, Penn State University Revelations from the Private Lives of American Romantics The Peabody sisters are remembered today mainly for their connections with prominent men. Born near Boston at the turn of the nineteenth century, Sophia became the wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mary married Horace Mann, and Elizabeth, a spinster, entered into intense working friendships with such figures as William Ellery Channing and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Megan Marshall offers vivid portraits of the sisters unshadowed by their famous partners. In her detailed and intimate family biography, Marshall explores the social mores that kept even the most determined and talented women from forging careers and instead recommended marriage as a reasonable and satisfying choice. _The Peabody Sisters_ invites readers to enter a society just beginning to permit new liberties for women. The book's great success is Marshall's close attention to manners and to the states of mind and feeling that informed behavior. At the same time, the study's relationship to scholarly work on antebellum America is more problematic. Perhaps it is not surprising that _The Peabody Sisters_ reads like a Jane Austen novel. Austen and the sisters' mother, Eliza, were born just two years apart in the 1770s, and on both sides of the Atlantic a rising bourgeois culture required its members to be able to interpret social gestures. Particularly for women taking unprecedented first steps toward autonomy, discerning the intentions of others and responding appropriately were no simple tasks. We learn, for example, that in one Boston boarding house of a liberal temper it, at least, bordered on acceptability in the 1830s for the widower Horace Mann to collapse tearfully on Elizabeth's breast in a public parlor. Elsewhere in the city, in contrast, scandal erupted after gossip accused a young female artist of entertaining a married man in her rented room. Scandal similarly followed Sophia when she kept up a correspondence with a suitor after declining his marriage proposal. Far from home in Cuba, where she had traveled for the sake of her health, Sophia had the good sense to reject a man of bad character, but insufficient guidance from experienced women who might have advised her to make a clean break. Marshall's blow-by-blow accounts of these social situations, artfully reconstructed from a vast array of private papers, provide exciting insight into a milieu where women seemed suspended between traditional family roles and independence. Coping with ambiguity was not a brief episode between adolescence and marriage, but, at least for the Peabodys, an enduring condition. A decade elapsed, for instance, between the sisters' acquaintance with Mann and his proposal in 1843 to Mary, by then thirty-six years old, and because Elizabeth initially commanded the affections of both Mann and Hawthorne, much interpersonal maneuvering occupied such extended courtships. Marshall masterfully sketches these customs of antebellum drawing rooms. To risk another literary allusion, _The Peabody Sisters_ also calls to mind the psychological intricacy of the fiction of Henry James. In truth, James was born the year of Mary's wedding and grew up in contact with Boston's intellectual class, and his stories center on the exquisite sensitivities of perception and emotion that Marshall, too, finds behind social practices. Like James, she exposes her subjects' psychology. Readers explore the moodiness and resiliency of Elizabeth, as well as the suicide of the only man who proposed to her. We are shown the seeming chasm between the accomplished Peabody sisters and their three wayward younger brothers, a difference that mystified and distressed the children's mother. Perhaps most painfully, we see Sophia trapped between an uncommon artistic talent and her own doubts that a woman could make art a profession. The migraines that afflicted her until she married at age thirty-two seem a consequence of the tension between her imagination and opportunities, and it is fascinating to watch the therapy administered by Dr. Walter Channing. In an era well before an appreciation of psychodynamic treatment and particularly the phenomenon of transference, Channing mainly talked with Sophia. Predictably, she fell in love with him, bringing upon herself alternating waves of healing engagement and hurtful disappointment. In this and many other instances, _The Peabody Sisters_ reminds us that the optimism about human nature taking root in the early republic, and among Boston's religious liberals most especially, invited a new excitement about emotion itself. The psychological nuances Marshall uncovers were to a great extent the products of a unique time and place. To say that _The Peabody Sisters_ resembles the work of acclaimed Anglo-American novelists is genuinely to praise Marshall's command of a historical temperament, an elusive quality sometimes slighted by professional historians. Yet it is unsettling that Marshall understates her reliance on the work of scholars to whom she is clearly indebted. She places the Peabodys in a social and intellectual setting recognizable to informed readers because it has been so effectively described by generations of historians. The hands of previous writers are all but visible in her accounts of medical practices, economic dislocations, and theological controversies. In more than one hundred pages of endnotes, however, secondary works are sparingly mentioned, leaving the impression that Marshall's story has been constructed fresh from primary sources. To be sure, minimal attention to historiography is the style of books intended for a wide audience, and often a welcome relief. But in my view, credit to predecessors should be generous, and Marshall falls short even with reference to scholarship about the Peabodys' immediate milieu. Her preface announces that she replaces a popular narrative, _The Peabody Sisters of Salem_ (1950) by Louise Hall Tharp, and although it is technically true that Tharp's book has been the only family study, a major biography of Elizabeth appeared less than a decade ago. The text about Elizabeth, along with other outstanding recent works about Boston's Unitarian and Transcendentalist circles, seem principally cited by Marshall when she borrows a story. Readers, I think, need to understand that no historian is a solitary genius. By the same token, scholars deserve to have their contributions fully acknowledged. One possible consequence of the oblique relation of _The Peabody Sisters_ to the community of historians is its limited success at breaking new interpretative ground. Even the time frame of Marshall's study casts some doubt on its analytical ambitions. Ending with the two sisters' weddings in the early 1840s, the book adopts the structure of the classic domestic novel. Marshall thereby avoids difficult public and private themes including civil war, widowhood, and old age. Her subtitle nonetheless claims that the Peabodys were "three women who ignited American Romanticism," and readers may fairly judge whether she has made a good case. Although Romanticism as a private mood (a matter of the heart) is amply documented, Romanticism as a cultural movement (an expression of the head) receives far less attention. Perhaps a biography cannot afford to distract itself with broad historical trends. Still, Marshall will not change scholars' view of American Transcendentalism, although she does reveal surprising roots of the Transcendentalists' fascination with intuitive knowledge and dialogical methods in the Unitarianism of William Ellery Channing. Together, the accomplishments and flaws of _The Peabody Sisters_ raise pressing questions about historical writing for both readers and writers of history. Its assets are also its defects. This volume is not just a good read but also a valuable narrative--all of its nearly five hundred pages. We are permitted to step inside the kitchens, schoolrooms, and churches of the early republic and to appreciate the choices made by women and men who, from a distance, have influenced us. Forging such empathy is the achievement of historical study at its best. But does a writer as adept as Marshall at drawing character have to manage the apparatus of scholarship so uncomfortably in order to achieve her effect? The imaginative liveliness of lowbrow history and intellectual precision of highbrow scholarship seem, so to speak, unhappily married in this book. Anyone who cares about the historical craft may well be vexed by the dilemma. Note . Bruce A. Ronda, _Elizabeth Palmer Peabody: A Reformer on Her Own Terms_ (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999). Copyright (c) 2006 by H-Net, all rights reserved. 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