As Sophia Peabody approached her 30th year, she wrote a letter to her sister saying, “I never intend to have a husband.”
A poor but handsome writer who lived a block away from her childhood home would change her mind.
Sophia Amelia Peabody was born on Sept. 21, 1809 in Salem, Mass., the third of the three extraordinary Peabody sisters. Her oldest sister, Elizabeth Palmer, became a member of the Transcendentalist circle, publishing their work and hosting their talks at her bookstore in Boston.
Mary Tyler married Horace Mann, the celebrated education reformer, member of Congress and president of Antioch College. Along with Elizabeth, she started the first kindergarten in the U.S.
Sophia was the youngest, pretty, artistic and frail. Doctors’ treatments made her an invalid throughout her life. When she was an infant, her dentist father treated her teething pains with mercury. Throughout her life she would be dosed with calomel, or mercury chloride, a common prescription at the time. It would destroy the central nervous systems of many 19th century women, Sophia among them. To alleviate pain she was given opium, to which she was almost certainly addicted. Throughout most of her life, she was bedridden.
In her early 20s she started seeing a competent doctor, Walter Channing. He prescribed activity, travel, painting and drawing, which she loved. On Dec. 4, 1833, Sophia left for Cuba, accompanied by her sister Mary. They returned in May 1835. The next year, Nathaniel Hawthorne came calling.
Hawthorne had spent 12 years a virtual recluse in his family home in Salem after graduating from Bowdoin College. He was writing short stories and a novel, but to little public notice. He finally emerged after a good review from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow after prodding by Elizabeth Peabody. At the time she was living at her family’s home, a block from Hawthorne.
It wasn’t Sophia but Elizabeth who Hawthorne came to see. She reportedly urged Sophia to come downstairs and see him. “He is handsomer than Lord Byron!” she said. Sophia refused. “If he has come once he will come again” she said.
She was right. Hawthorne continued to visit the Peabody household, courting Elizabeth. Or so everyone thought.
In 1838, Sophia wrote the letter to her sister saying she didn’t want a husband – partly because of her health. By Jan. 1, 1839, she had secretly agreed to marry Hawthorne.
They would remain engaged for three years. Hawthorne could barely support himself with his writing, let alone a wife. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a friend of Elizabeth’s and a fan of Sophia’s, made their marriage possible. He persuaded his uncle to let them rent the Old Manse in Concord, Mass. He hired Henry David Thoreau to plant a garden for them. Emerson made gifts and loans to them during the first three years they lived together in Concord.
Nathaniel Hawthorne and Sophia Peabody finally married on July 9, 1842, at Elizabeth Peabody’s bookstore at 13 West St. in Boston.
The next day Hawthorne wrote to his sister Louisa,
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.
This story was updated in 2021.