Arts and Leisure

‘A Most Heavenly Night’ for Celia Thaxter

When Celia Thaxter realized her marriage wasn’t working, she moved back home – to a small archipelago off the coasts of Maine and New Hampshire called the Isles of Shoals.

She had grown up there, the daughter of lighthouse keeper Thomas Laighton.

Celia Thaxter's Garden, by Childe Hassam (detail).

Celia Thaxter’s Garden, by Childe Hassam (detail).

She was born June 29, 1835 in nearby Portsmouth, N.H.  At 16 she married her tutor, Levi Thaxter, a Harvard graduate 11 years older than she. They moved to Newtonville, Mass., which she hated. But while living on the mainland, she did publish poetry and stories in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly magazine. She often wrote about her beloved Isles of Shoals.

As her marriage was not going well, Celia Thaxter began to spend more time on the islands helping her family with the hotel they ran. Her stories about the islands attracted to the hotel artists, writers and intellectuals, including Ralph Waldo EmersonNathaniel HawthorneHenry Wadsworth LongfellowThomas Bailey AldrichSarah Orne Jewett and Childe Hassam.

Celia Thaxter

Celia Thaxter

Hassam painted several paintings of Celia and her garden. John Greenleaf Whittier was especially kind to her. The artist William Morris Hunt was a close family friend who visited the Isles frequently — and died there. Rose Lamb, a portrait painter, was his student and a friend of Celia Thaxter’s.

After her death, Lamb and Annie Fields compiled a  book of her letters. In the introduction, they wrote, “Her “parlor,” as it was called, was a milieu quite as interesting as any of the “salons” of the past.”

Celia Thaxter wrote frequently from the island to her women friends, including Fields, Lamb and Sarah Orne Jewett.

On Aug. 29, 1889, she wrote a letter to Rose Lamb:

To Rose Lamb. August 29, 1889.

    To-night there is the most delicious slender red crescent sinking slowly in the west, throwing a mysterious glimmer on the calm sea; there isn’t a whisper of wind, and it is balmy and beautiful; windows and doors all open; a most heavenly night. Now people begin to come and I must stop.

Celia Thaxter died Aug. 25, 1894.

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