Admittedly, I’m a bit late with Mondays with Muddy this week. My laptop to a vacation to a service center, and when I got it back, the “d” key wasn’t working, so it had to make a return trip. So I’ve been getting by with S’s computer and my work computer, but it’s been making my time online kind of sparse. I finally got it back today and am working on playing catch up.
But I figure we could all use a charming distraction from this election day with some of my grandmother’s writing. So, without further ado, here is the next excerpt from Beatrice Allen Page’s unpublished manuscript, Landscape with Figures:
“A discussion over cocktails at the Stuarts’ as to where we would live and in what period if we had the choice. It made me realize what a provincial New Englander I am at heart. I’ve often thought I’d like to have lived in Concord during the era of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott, Channing and their friends. I’m not sure that I’d have liked them all or agreed with their strong opinion (anymore than they always areed with one another), but at least you could be certain of an interesting conversation whenever two or three were gathered together.
The town itself was quiet and attractive and neighborly. If you felt in the mood for solitude, there were lovely walks to be taken through outlying meadows and woods and beside the placid Concord Rive with its white pond lilies. I have the impression it was an age of hope and optimism that the world was bound to grow better and better, although everyone seemed to have his own pet scheme for making it better. Or is that impression simply nostalgia?
Carrying my ‘ifs’ a little further, I ask myself: if I could have lived in Concord at that time, and if I could have been anyone I wanted, who would I have chosen to be? The answer is Sophia Peabody Hawthorne. In fact, she comes promptly to mind and excludes all other possibilities.
Sophia, the youngest of the three Peabody sisters, was the prettiest and most charming. She was bookish (she not only read Shakespeare and the English classics, she read Isaiah in Hebrew and Luke in Greek), but not in any pedantic, bluestocking sense; she was gay and witty. She was also a gifted painter but hapy to neglect her own talent to nourish her adored husband’s, ever sensitive to his needs as a person and as a writer, protecting his privacy, never losing faith in his talent, giving him faith in himself through her totally committed heart, always struggling to make ends meet financially and spare him the burden of such worries. In short, an altogether endearing person from a masculine viewpoint, I should imagine.
The real reason I’d have liked to be Sophia, however, is not because she was such an admirable wife, but because she was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife. I fell in love with him in high school when I first saw a picture of him and have never entirely got over it. Judging from Sophia’s description of him, who could blame me or any woman for falling in love with him? She wrote her mother he was ‘a union of power and gentleness, softness and spirit, passion and divine reason…ardent, rapt, tender…’
Nevertheless, one little episode has bothered me ever since I read it a few years ago, in Louise Tharp’s fascinating book on the Peabody sisters, I think. When he came upon his ten-year-old daughter, Rose, writing a story, he scolded her severely and forbade her ever to do such a thing again. Why? It was both cruel and seemingly senseless, and so unlike him. You would have expected him to be proud of her, to have encouraged her, or at least to have reacted with indulgent amusement.
True, he didn’t think much of women writers, although he seemed to have no objections to women painters – or at least those who gave it up for him. Writing, he thought, deprived women of delicacy; they might just as well walk through the street stark naked. Such an attitude just doesn’t fit my image of his character. Even if it had been his misfortune to read only poor writers among the female sex, surely he was intelligent enough to realize there might be a few good ones, too.
It hurts to discover such insensitivity in the man you love, so I try to find some explanation that will put a better light on it. Perhaps Hawthorne, knowing the torment of not being able to write the way he wanted, or sometimes not being able to write at all, of fearing he could not complete a book he’d started, or having completed one, fearing he’d never be able to write another – perhaps knowing all the agony and frustration he’d endured as a writer, he wanted to save his child from such suffering. So he punished her much as a parent spanks a child for running out into the street, not because it was doing something wicked but to make sure it will never get hurt.
That must be the explanation, I tell myself. Still, I’m glad I didn’t know about the episode when I was visiting the Old Manse some years ago. It would have spoiled my impression of the Hawthornes’ idyllic family life.
I remember sitting down on the window seat in the upstairs hall that day and imagining myself as Sophia. It was a lovely summer day and as I gazed out on the tranquil Concord River, I could almost see Thoreau drifting down it in his green dory, as I imagined Sophia must have seen him sometimes. Yielding to an impulse, I exclaimed, as I imagined she must have, ‘Here comes Henry!’
Instinctively, all the sightseers passing through the hall turned their heads to look out the window, before they eyed me a little uneasily and filed on down the stairs.”