Natick, MA; Peabody Sisters; and Missing Books

“What dreadful hot weather we have! It keeps me in a continual state of inelegance.”  ~Jane Austen

Summer has come back with a vengeance here in our part of Texas after a cool, fall respite. Well, it hasn’t spread its 100+ temperatures around again—yet, but that tantalizing taste of gentle, crisp mornings has spoiled me. Today, while feeling particularly inelegant, I am musing about books I have loved and wondering where on earth I have put some of them. I don’t let books I’ve really admired go unless they are dog-eared, ragged wrecks…and sometimes not even then. Likely, they’re in the attic under a huge box that is underneath a tightly wrapped pile of blankets that are underneath our imitation and carefully boxed Christmas tree that is underneath a bag of plastic, colored eggs. As inelegant as I am this afternoon, I am in no mood to climb into the attic.

One book I have been trying to locate for days is The Peabody Sisters of Salem. All my concentration of late on Concord, Massachusetts, and the Transcendentalists has made me think again of a book I read while we were living in Natick, Massachusetts, a few miles away. I am prone to read books that relate in some way to areas where we live or to the places we visit. I particularly love this book I read sometime in 1993 or 1994 (the book was written in the 1950s, but mine was a 1988 edition) after we had settled for a bit in Natick, a suburb of Boston. Natick was a pretty town just off a main artery into Boston. Vehicles on that highway slogged their way morning, noon, and night to Boston along its multiple chockablock lanes, and I had to use it to get to shopping centers, restaurants, and, yes, to Boston, that is, if I didn’t give up and take the train or simply stay home. After all, I could read or do household chores or tend vegetables in my garden spot instead. But I digress. Sorry. My stream of thought often flows into crooked, little tributaries and, sometimes, drops right out of sight into bar ditches along another path.

Anyway—books. The Peabody Sisters of Salem by Louise Hall Tharp is a biography of three remarkable sisters who originally hailed from Salem, Massachusetts—think Brontë sisters, only American and not novelists. They were a part of the Transcendentalist movement I have discussed in previous posts and were closely connected with writers and fellow Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and numerous others of the group. Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia (pronounced with a long ī sound) were highly educated, accomplished, and influential women in Boston, in particular, where they flourished through their numerous intellectual, civic, artistic, and domestic pursuits.

Elizabeth Peabody (May 16, 1804 – January 3, 1894), the oldest sister, was an educator who opened schools of her own and, along with her sisters, fostered modern education for all. She is often heralded as the mother of the kindergarten movement in the United States, having opened the first English-language kindergarten in this country. She became a noted writer, publisher, translator, bookstore proprietor, and abolitionist, to name only a few of her numerous accomplishments.  

Mary Peabody Mann (November 16, 1806 – February 11, 1887), the middle sister, was a governess, an educator, a writer, a mother, and wife of Horace Mann, renowned for his educational theories and reforms.  She worked with Elizabeth in the opening of the first kindergarten in the United States and later helped Mann, her husband, with his work in education, wrote articles on education, and translated other articles. She was also an adamant abolitionist and advocated for home nutrition.  Later Mary became Dean of Women at Antioch College where her husband served as President. After his death, she wrote a biography titled the Life and Works of Horace Mann.

Sophia Peabody Hawthorne (September 21, 1809 – February 26, 1871), the youngest sister, was an accomplished artist, writer, mother, and wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne. She met and fell in love with Hawthorne in 1837. They married in 1842 and moved to Concord, Massachusetts, living as newlyweds in The Old Manse, once occupied by Emerson, and later in The Wayside, at times the home of various literary figures. Sophia read and often offered advice about her husband’s work and continued her artwork as she could. With her husband, she brought up their three children in what she believed to be a positive manner.

Many books chronicle the lives of these three Peabody women, but I am partial to Tharp’s as she balances the narration of their personal and professional lives—their close familial connections, intellectual and artistic triumphs, and the fulfillment two of the sisters found in married and family life. Should I ever find the book or break down and buy another, I may decide to again “hold forth” on my fascination with the sisters’ multi-layered lives.   

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