[lit-ideas] Two Sisters in Love

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Wed, 1 Nov 2006 18:01:25 -0800

When Hawthorne was 33, both Elizabeth and Sophia Peabody were in love with
him; although this wasn't admitted by either sister as they were getting to
know him.  Elizabeth was also 33 and the dominant force in the Peabody
household.  After Twice Told Tales were published she believed greatness lay
ahead for Hawthorne and did her best to encourage him.  Sophia was only 28
and sickly.  We learn from her letters that she was very effusive and
emotionally exuberant.  She was very different from her older sister.


Since Hawthorne wasn't officially courting either sister, he spent time
talking to and walking with both of them and as often as not his own sister
accompanied them.   Their association was based upon his writings.
Literature, music, art were what they talked about and since Elizabeth was
the most knowledgeable and forceful, he spent more time with Elizabeth than
Sophia.   Hawthorne was very shy and had not Elizabeth was very persuasive,
and yet it was Sophia that he fell in love with and eventually married.  


So what of Elizabeth's reaction?  "When Sophia and Hawthorne were dead and
Julian Hawthorne [Hawthorne's son] had published his two-volume biography,
Elizabeth Peabody commented with touching candor, 'It is because I believe
marriage is a sacrament, and nothing less, that I am dying an old Maid, -- I
have had too much respect for marriage to make a conventional one in my own
case, -- I am free to say that had Hawthorne wanted to marry me he would
probably not have found much difficulty in getting my consent; -- but it is
very clear to me now, that I was not the person to make him happy, or to be
made happy by him, and Sophia was.  -- If there was ever a 'match made in
Heaven' it was that. . . .'"


And then the biographer Miller concludes his chapter by writing "In youth as
in age -- fortunately in view of her fragilities -- Elizabeth Peabody lived
more or less securely inside the shelter provided by fantasies of innate
goodness which reduced human complexities to a comforting symmetry."  



Miller's comment struck me in part as very perceptive or at least very
clever.  Who today could say what Elizabeth Peabody did back in the 19th
century?  What person in the year 2006 could be satisfied with such a
"comforting symmetry"?  And this question is perhaps what inspired Miller's
last sentence -- the assumption that this symmetry was "provided by
fantasies of innate goodness."  He assumes that human complexities trump the
fantasy of "innate goodness."   I suspect Miller here of an anachronism.  In
our post-Freudian age we are inundated with human complexities, but will
such complexities be upheld by future psychologists and philosophers?  Will
Freud, Foucault, Lacan et al be vindicated, or will something more
symmetrical and less complex eventually replace their theories?  


My doubts about Miller's conclusion sympathize with the criticisms such
cultures as the Chinese have of the American.  Is our complexity, our lack
of innate goodness truly the standard for all mankind, or is there another
way of looking at these matters -- a way we've forgotten?





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