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H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by H-SHEAR@h-net.msu.edu (April 2007) Timothy Kenslea. _The Sedgwicks in Love: Courtship, Engagement, and Marriage in the Early Republic_. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, for Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2006. 269 pp. Appendix, notes, index. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 1-58465-503-8; $19.95 (paper), ISBN 1-55553-660-3. Reviewed for H-SHEAR by Bridgett Williams-Searle, Department of History and Political Science, Residential Fellow - Center for Citizenship, Race, and Ethnicity Studies, College of St. Rose The Marriage Plot Timothy Kenslea's work seeks to illuminate changes in the affective economy of the early republic through a close reading of the Sedgwick family's letters. The Sedgwicks, a well-known western New England family, provide Kenslea with ample material from which to recount the post-Revolutionary generation's experiences with love, courtship, engagement, and marriage. His deft and insightful look at five marriages, four courtships, and one prolonged engagement draws back the curtain on the emotional life of northern elites. While this is not pathbreaking work in a theoretical sense--his argument that virtue was relocated from public politics to the domestic realm in the post-Revolutionary era will strike women's historians as a familiar one--Kenslea provides a narrative that vividly illustrates the shifts in marital ideologies and their significance for couples in the early nineteenth century. Compulsively literary, the Sedgwicks occasionally even wrote each other letters when resident in the same house; this perhaps is why the eight related collections of Sedgwick family papers (held by the Massachusetts Historical Society) span a whopping 176 archival boxes. Although the collections as a whole form one of the largest family paper sets in the United States, this resource has been rarely used for biographical treatments. Kenslea's exhaustively researched study of the marital fortunes of the seven sons and daughters of Theodore and Pamela Sedgwick serves both as an insightful collective biography and an introduction to the riches contained in this under-utilized source. Kenslea generously blazes a path through these papers for future researchers. The Sedgwick family grappled with business failure and experienced the domestic effects of straitened circumstances. The younger Sedgwicks struggled with reduced social prestige, worrying that they did not measure up to the virtuous accomplishment of their Revolutionary father. They wrote with feeling about the enduring impact of mental illness within their circle of friends and relations. As they moved from the Berkshires to Boston to New York and back again, they discussed transportation and business, law and morality, agriculture and architecture as well as their romances and marriages. Kenslea offers a taste of each of these topics as he draws us into the Sedgwicks' private lives, just enough to whet the scholarly curiosity of those working in the fields of disability history, business history, legal history, and certainly gender and masculinity studies. Kenslea's main interest, however, is in locating the shifting boundaries between public and private in the early nineteenth century, especially as it concerns changing courtship and marital ideologies and practice. He cannily notes that even as parents lost a measure of their influence over marital choices, brothers and sisters continued to comment relentlessly on each other's romantic entanglements. His work suggests that even as couples embraced companionate ideals and individual choice, family influence remained robust. One of the strengths of _The Sedgwicks in Love_ is Kenslea's close attention to the Sedgwicks' insular epistolary world. Kenslea treats his subjects with affection, allowing readers to share the Sedgwicks' easy intimacy and deliciously snide remarks. Because the family was restrained in their emotional displays, Kenslea has to probe each letter for both sense and sentiment. This serves readers well as the author conducts them through a thrilling world of courtship and its flirtations, "excitements,'' miscommunications, and disappointments. His work on female middle-class sociability and courtship rules in practice, most notably in the chapters about a set of Boston women collectively known as "the friendlies,'' is especially good. By detailing Robert and Henry Sedgwick's comically disastrous courtships--an excess of clever badinage had stranded them between metaphor and matrimony--Kenslea reveals the strategies by which young men and women contrived to marry and the painful embarrassment visited on those who bungled the intricate social script. Kenslea is also successful when discussing the _idea_ of marriage rather than the thing itself. He captures both the imaginative speculations of betrothed couples and the poignant ruminations of long-distance spouses. Unfortunately, however, the quotidian lives of men and women at work and at rest elude him. One learns what the Sedgwicks thought that marriages should be, but comparatively little about what their marriages actually were. At times, one wishes Kenslea would have broken free of the spell cast by the Sedgwicks and moved more broadly into conventional social history sources to push past the family code of silence. In a chapter on the unhappy and perhaps violent marriage of Frances Sedgwick Watson and failed businessman Ebenezer Watson, for example, Kenslea notes that the family characterized Watson's treatment of their sister as "brutal." What were the "terrible passions" that Watson did not subdue, however? The legal definition of cruelty was rapidly changing even as marital expectations changed; a man's intemperance, infidelity, emotional indifference, rage, unreasonable stubbornness, or economic profligacy could be constructed as cruel or brutal, at least in the court of familial affection. Kenslea does what he can to make obdurate correspondents reveal their concerns, but without broader examination of public records (did no official in Albany notice or comment when Watson kicked his family to the curb for three days in December 1828? What did the neighbors write?), he leaves his readers with more questions than answers. Moreover, Kenslea's close focus on the marriage plot robs him of things to say about men and women who remained either uncourted or unwed. Readers seeking to learn about the emotionally complicated life of Catharine Maria Sedgwick will be disappointed. Kenslea notes when Catherine reacted to other peoples' domestic joys and disappointments but addresses her choice to remain single in a scanty six-page epilogue. This is puzzling, as there is no lack of source material on her views on marriage. As one of the best known and most prolific American writers of her time, Sedgwick offered spirited heroines who playfully worked havoc with the marriage plot. In her work _Married or Single_ (1857), moreover, Sedgwick argued that women must retain their self-respect at any cost, even if it meant foregoing whatever pleasures marriage offered. Given Kenslea's sensitive reading of the mixed blessings of marital life and his copious research in the Sedgwick Papers, one can only regret that he gave such little attention to one of nineteenth century's foremost advocates of single bliss. Timothy Kenslea's deeply researched and gracefully written book will be of interest to those working in the fields of family history, the history of intimacy, and New England history. Readers outside of academia also will enjoy his strong narrative style and finely drawn characters. Notes . A recent surge of scholarly interest in Catharine Maria Sedgwick makes this volume particularly timely. See, for example, Victoria Clements and Lucinda Damon-Bach, eds., _Catharine Maria Sedgwick: Critical Perspectives_ (Lebanon: University Press of New England, 2002). . Catharine Maria Sedgwick's fictional characters often grappled with marital violence, leaving a tantalizing set of clues that Kenslea might explore further. See Barbara Ann Baumgartner, _Reading and Writing Bodily Violence in Nineteenth-Century American Women's Writing_ (Ph.D. diss., Northwestern University, 1998). Copyright (c) 2007 by H-Net, all rights reserved. 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