Writer, Artist and Wife of Author Nathaniel Hawthorne
Sophia Hawthorne (September 21, 1809 – February 26, 1871) was a writer and painter, and one of the famous Peabody sisters. She took up drawing and painting in 1829, and was an accomplished artist before her marriage to author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Sophia also published her journals and some of Nathaniel’s notebooks, which she edited and published after his death.
Sophia Amelia Peabody was born September 21, 1809, in Salem, Massachusetts.Her father was dentist Nathaniel Peabody and her mother was the strong Unitarian Eliza Palmer Peabody. She had three brothers; her sisters were Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and Mary Tyler Peabody (later wife of Horace Mann).
With a father who had originally been a teacher, a mother who sometimes ran small schools, and two older sisters who taught, Sophia received a wide-ranging education in traditional academic subjects at home and in those schools run by her mother and sisters – focusing on geography, science, literature, languages and both American and European history. Sophia was a lifelong voracious reader, as well.
At age 13, Sophia started having debilitating headaches. One possible cause was a fashionable treatment her dentist father prescribed for her teething pains that included mercury. She was often an invalid, though she did study drawing with an aunt, and her sister Elizabeth arranged for her to study with some of the finest artists in Boston. Sophia was an ambitious and talented student, who aspired to become a professional painter.
While also teaching with her sisters, Sophia supported herself by painting. In 1833 Sophia contributed several paintings to the Ladies Fair in Hamilton Hall, Salem, one of two ladies fundraisers at the time for Samuel Gridley Howe’s newly established blind school in Boston. She sold two works titled Scenery near Bristol, in England for a total of sixty dollars at that fair.
Patricia Dunlavey Valenti, author of a two-volume biography of Sophia Hawthorne, also writes of Sophia’s artistic talent in an article entitled “Sophia Peabody Hawthorne: A Study of Artistic Influence:”
‘Sophia, wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne’ is the simple inscription which marks the grave of a woman remembered for her marriage to one of the foremost men in American letters. However, she deserves to be remembered among the earliest women in American painting.
The flawlessness of her copies could have provided her with a comfortable living, but she aspired with the intensity and seriousness of a professional to surpass the status of an amateur or copyist to become a painter of original canvases. Her aspirations were affirmed by the leading painters of the day who became her mentors.
As Sophia’s health was on the decline, however, her artistic efforts were put aside for a recuperative trip to Cuba at the end of 1833 with her sister Mary. In her absence, Sophia’s reputation as an artist received an important boost when her sister Elizabeth entered one of Sophia’s landscape paintings in the Boston Athenaeum’s 1834 exhibition, an unusual accomplishment for a woman.
From December 1833 to May 1835, Mary served as a governess with the Morell family in Havana, while Sophia read, wrote and painted. Sophia kept a journal on that trip which included her drawings, such as “The Ceyba Tree of Cuba.” Her Cuba Journal was a description of the people and landscape of Cuba. Her sister Elizabeth encouraged Sophia to publish the journal, Sophia “wished for that no more than she wished for her own death.”
Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, and much of his life until 1850 was spent in Salem. The events of 1692 in Salem haunted him – his great-grandfather John Hathorne was the only judge involved in the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 who never repented of his actions. Nathaniel later added a “w” to make his name “Hawthorne” in order to hide this relation.
In 1821 Hawthorne attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, graduating in 1825, after which he returned to Salem to live with his mother and sisters. He lived a somewhat solitary life, and launched his writing career. He published his first novel Fanshawe in 1828, and several short stories in various periodicals, which were collected in 1837 as Twice-Told Tales.
On November 11, 1837 Elizabeth Peabody invited Hawthorne and his sisters, Elizabeth and Louisa, to the Peabody home. It was on this occasion that Sophia first met Nathaniel Hawthorne. Like Hawthorne, Sophia was a reclusive person. Throughout her early life, she underwent experimental medical treatments for her frequent migraines. She had originally objected to marriage, partly because of her health, but she and Nathaniel became secretly engaged by New Year’s Day 1839.
Sophia continued to paint and draw during their engagement. Her paintings Villa Menaggio, Lago di Como (1839-40) and Sola San Giovanni (1839-40) were both created right after her engagement to Hawthorne. Sophia gave these two paintings to Hawthorne in 1840 on the first anniversary of their engagement.
A wedding was scheduled for June 27, 1842, but was postponed when Sophia fell ill. On July 9, 1842, five years after first meeting, Sophia and Nathaniel were married in the Peabody parlor in Boston. Both were considered relatively old for marriage (she was 32 and he was five days past his 38th birthday), but the coupling proved happy for both of them. They eventually had three children.
Immediately after their wedding, they rented and moved into The Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts, which they rented from their neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson. Here the Hawthornes lived happily, if under some financial strain. Emerson invited Hawthorne into his social circle, but he was almost pathologically shy and stayed silent when at gatherings.
The Hawthornes enjoyed a long and happy marriage. Hawthorne wrote: “We are as happy as people can be, without making themselves ridiculous, and might be even happier; but, as a matter of taste, we choose to stop short at this point.” Sophia wrote of his writing: “I am always so dazzled and bewildered with the richness, the depth … looking forward to a second reading where I can ponder and muse and fully take in the miraculous wealth of thoughts.”
The Hawthornes were still living at the Old Manse in Concord when their first child, a girl they named Una, was born March 3, 1844, after a difficult 10-hour delivery. Hawthorne was forty years old; he wrote that fatherhood brought “a very sober and serious kind of happiness,” and the family began to worry about money. Sophia also had a recurrence of her migraines after Una’s birth.
Sophia gave up her art after the children were born. Scholars take various views about the marriage and its effect on Hawthorne’s writing as well as on Sophia’s creative work. Sophia seems to have been devoted to Hawthorne but also faced the limitations that women of all eras have faced who try to fulfill their own desires to paint, write or pursue a profession while running a household and caring for children.
While Hawthorne sometimes actively discouraged his wife from her pursuits, by, for example, urging her not to publish her journals, he also portrays with sympathy in his fiction women who face society’s restrictions. Hilda in The Marble Faun, Hester in The Scarlet Letter and Zenobia of The Blithedale Romance all remind the reader of the restraints on women.
In October 1845, when they were no longer able to afford the rent on the Concord house, Hawthorne, Sophia and Una moved to Salem where they lived with Hawthorne’s mother. In March 1846, Sophia moved to 77 Carver Street in Boston to be to be near her family and her doctor while pregnant with their second child. On April 9, 1846, strapped for money, Hawthorne took a position as Surveyor of the Port at the Salem Custom House.
After son Julian was born on May 22, 1846. Hawthorne wrote of the news to a sister, “A small troglodyte made his appearance here at ten minutes to six o’clock this morning, who claims to be your nephew.” The family then moved back to Salem, but soon moved again into a house that was large enough to allow his mother to live with them. This was the last house in Salem in which Hawthorne lived.
After losing his job at the Salem Custom House in June 1849 because of a change in political administrations, Hawthorne began writing full-time, and his famous novel The Scarlet Letter was published in March 1850. To help with the family’s finances, Sophia sold hand-painted lampshades and firescreens.
During this time his mother died, and Hawthorne announced his wish to leave Salem, which he called “that abominable city,” saying that he now had no reason to remain. In May 1850, the Hawthornes moved to Lenox, Massachusetts, where second daughter Rose was born May 20, 1851, about a month after the publication of The House of Seven Gables. Sophia went into labor before the midwife could arrive, and Rose was delivered with the help of Sophia’s father.
In March 1852 Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne purchased The Wayside, a historic house in Concord, Massachusetts, from Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott. This is the only house the Hawthornes ever owned. Hawthorne was not known for socializing with his neighbors, and he often used the hilltop in his backyard as a means of escaping social interactions.
In March 1853 Hawthorne was appointed American Consul in Liverpool, England by by his friend and former Bowdoin classmate, President Franklin Pierce. On June 14, 1853, friend and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow held a farewell dinner party at his Cambridge home. While the Hawthornes were abroad they leased The Wayside to family members.
Few of Sophia’s letters from her courtship and early marriage survive. In June 1853, Nathaniel had alluded to the destruction of his letters in his journal: “I burned great heaps of old letters and other papers, a little while ago, preparatory to going to England. Among them were hundreds of Sophia’s maiden letters.”
In July the family moved to Liverpool, and Hawthorne assumed his position as Consul on August 1, 1853. In October of 1855, in an attempt to improve her health, Sophia took Rose and Una to Portugal for nine months; Julian remained with his father. In October 1857, when Franklin Pierce failed to receive the presidential nomination, Hawthorne’s position as American Consul in Liverpool ended.
Early the following year, the Hawthornes traveled to France and to Italy, where they lived both in Rome and in Florence. In 1858 Una became ill with malaria, and she was very sick for several months. Una’s illness took a toll on her parents, too. Sophia spent long hours caring for her daughter and offering comfort to her distraught husband. Una eventually recovered, but never completely regained her health.
Sophia also suffered a bout of ill health again, brought on by the stress of her daughter’s illness, and in May 1859 the family spent some time in England at a resort in hopes of finding relief. Hawthorne had recorded his experiences in Italy in his notebooks, and he wrote his last completed novel, The Marble Faun, which was published in America the following year.
Image: Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1841
In February 1860, the Hawthornes returned to America, and moved back to The Wayside. Nathaniel considered moving to Boston, noting “I am really at a loss to imagine how we are to squeeze ourselves into that little old cottage of mine.” The income from his consulship did not bring as much money as Hawthorne had predicted and reception to The Marble Faun was not positive.
Hoping to expand The Wayside, he wrote of his financial woes “with a wing of a house to build, and my girls to educate, and Julian to send to Cambridge [to study at Harvard].” Nevertheless, they made several changes to the home, most notably the three-story tower on the back of the house. The top room became Nathaniel’s study – he named it his “sky parlor.”
Una continued to have bouts of bad health, her malaria returning, and lived on and off with her aunt, Mary Peabody Mann. Julian left to attend Harvard College, away from home for the first time, visiting sometimes on weekends. Nathaniel struggled unsuccessfully with several novels.
During these years, Nathaniel spurned invitations from James Russell Lowell to write for the Atlantic Monthly. When the journal was purchased by publisher James Thomas Fields, he invited both Nathaniel and Sophia to write. He agreed; she declined. Sophia wrote:
You forget that Mr. Hawthorne is the Belleslettres portion of my being, and besides that I have a repugnance to female authoresses in general. I have far more distaste for myself as a female authoress in particular.
At the outset of the Civil War, Hawthorne’s spirits and health were fading. In March 1862, urged by his friend Horatio Bridge, Hawthorne took a trip to Washington, DC, where he visited several sites related to the War and the Army, especially in Virginia. He and U.S. Representative Charles Russell Train called on President Abraham Lincoln.
Hawthorne was in failing health in his final years, but in May 1864 he took a trip to the White Mountains with his friend and former U.S. president Franklin Pierce. Some have speculated that he knew he was ill and wanted to spare his wife. On May 18, 1864, they arrived in Plymouth, New Hampshire; Nathaniel Hawthorne died in his sleep that night.
Franklin Pierce sent word to Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who notified Sophia of her husband’s death. Sophia fell apart, and Una and Julian had to make the funeral arrangements. Sophia wrote to a friend: “My darling has gone over that Sapphire sea, and these grand soft waves are messages from his Eternal Rest.” Nathaniel Hawthorne is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts, near Emerson and Thoreau on Author’s Ridge.
After her husband’s death, Sophia faced serious financial difficulties. She threatened to sue publisher James Thomas Fields for not paying enough in royalties from book sales. Fields blamed his recently-deceased business partner William Ticknor for promising “to pay the highest rate of copyright it ever paid” but that no written contract existed. The two agreed to a compromise as, Sophia said, she preferred “peace to pence.”
Sophia Peabody Hawthorne began editing Nathaniel’s notebooks. Her edited versions were serialized in the Atlantic Monthly, and Passages from the American Note-books was published in book form in 1868. Then she began working on her own writings, taking her own letters and journals from the period of 1853-1860 and publishing a successful travel book, Notes in England and Italy.
Sophia moved to England in 1868 with her three children; she sold The Wayside in 1870. There, Una and Rose both fell in love with a law student, George Lathrop. In 1870 they moved again, to Dresden, Germany, where son Julian was studying engineering. Julian married an American and returned to America. Sophia published more of Nathaniel’s notebooks – Passages from the English Note-books and Passages from the French and Italian Note-books.
Later that year Sophia and the girls moved back to England where Sophia became ill with typhoid pneumonia in February 1871. She had difficulty breathing and was cared for by her daughters.
Sophia Hawthorne died on February 26, 1871 at age 61. She was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery in London on March 4.
Una wrote to Julian that their mother’s grave was “on a sunny hillside looking towards the east… We had a head and footstone of white marble, with a place for flowers between, and Rose and I planted some ivy there that I had brought from America, and a periwinkle from papa’s grave. The inscription is simply: Sophia, wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne.”
Una Hawthorne, her health never good, died in September 1877 at the age of 33 and was buried alongside her mother in Kensal Green. Julian became an author, noted for a biography of his father. His first marriage ended in divorce, and he married again after his first wife died. Convicted of embezzlement, he served a brief jail term.
After her mother’s death Rose Hawthorne married George Lathrop , and they bought the old Hawthorne home, The Wayside, and moved there. Their only child died in 1881, and the marriage was not happy. Rose took a nursing course in 1896 and founded a home for incurable cancer patients. After Lathrop’s death, Rose became a nun, Mother Mary Alphonsa Lathrop, and founded the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne.
In 2006, the remains of Una and Sophia Hawthorne were reburied near Nathaniel Hawthorne’s grave in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, on Author’s Ridge, where the gravesites of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott are also found. A funeral was held for the family’s descendants and a public ceremony was held at The Old Manse to mark the occasion.
While Sophia Peabody Hawthorne spent most of her marriage in the traditional role of wife and mother, supporting her family financially at times so that her husband could focus on writing, in her last years she blossomed as a writer in her own right. Her husband had admired her writing, and occasionally borrowed images and even some text from her letters and journals.
Many modern scholars share the sentiments Henry Bright wrote in a letter to Julian right after Sophia’s death:
No one has yet done justice to your mother. Of course, she was overshadowed by him, – but she was a singularly accomplished woman, with a great gift of expression.