A slow-paced yet often incisive collective biography of Elizabeth, Mary and Sophia Peabody—three Massachusetts sisters who helped spark educational reform and the American mid-19th-century literary renaissance.
A historiographical revolution has occurred since the previous major biography of the trio, Louise Hall Tharp’s The Peabody Sisters of Salem (1950), notably in feminism and in greater candor about sexual matters. But this account by Marshall (a specialist in women’s- and New England history), while longer than Tharp’s, covers only half its subjects’ life spans, thus losing in narrative nimbleness. Still, using a vast cache of family letters and journals, Marshall masterfully analyzes how the three “both welcomed their group identity and resented it as they strove for independent self-fulfillment.” Most startling, she depicts two triangular relationships, with Mary and Sophia succeeding in winning the affections of their eventual husbands (educator Horace Mann and Nathaniel Hawthorne, respectively) from Elizabeth. Above all, Marshall sets the sisters’ hard-won achievements against the background of their family and time. The Peabodys followed their unconventional mother’s lead into teaching—a necessity in a household with an underachieving father and three brothers. Elizabeth, the oldest, often intimidated not only her sisters but also many men with her precocious intellect. Author, translator, bookseller and publisher, she introduced the kindergarten movement to the United States. Mary, the family beauty, wrote a biography of Mann and even a posthumously published novel inspired by the love triangle with Elizabeth. Sophia, an invalid afflicted by migraines, blossomed into an accomplished painter and sculptor even as she drew out the shy Hawthorne. Marshall demonstrates how the sisters not only supported Hawthorne and Mann, but also Bronson Alcott, William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker, Emerson and other Transcendentalists.
Though sometimes more detailed than it need be, a psychologically acute group portrait of a family that managed (in Elizabeth’s words) “to move the mountain of custom and convention.”