The Peabody Sisters by Megan Marshall

The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism
The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism by Megan Marshall

This book was the March 2015 selection for the Sisters Book Club. For April, we’re reading Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls. If you’d like to join us for discussion about this or any other book on our list, please visit our Goodreads group.

Megan Marshall basically lived with the Peabody sisters while writing this book (as much as someone can live with a trio of sisters who’ve been dead for more than 100 years), and it shows in her writing. She delved into their correspondence, their personal journals, their friends’ letters to other friends about the sisters, news stories, census reports. Then she took all of this and turned it into the compelling story of three sisters at the center of a huge philosophical shift that took place in New England in the first half of the nineteenth century.

What’s really interesting to me in reading this book was how big an influence the Peabody women had on the men whose names are usually associated with the period: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Mann, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Theodore Parker, William Ellery Channing. I wasn’t exactly surprised by this—I’d already read Megan Marshall’s biography of Margaret Fuller—but it’s still jarring to see just how easily otherwise enlightened men could brush off the accomplishments and intellectual lives of the women around them, and how readily so many women accepted their limited role in society.

I heard on the news today about some story of poor judgment (at best) on the part of a public figure in Boston, and the commentator said, “Why are we not taking to the streets about this?” I have the same feeling when I read about the Peabody sisters. Why aren’t the women studying with Elizabeth Peabody and meeting in her book shop rising up and throwing off the restrictive roles their society has handed them? I can speculate about the reasons—all very good ones, too—but it still doesn’t quite make sense to me how the granddaughters of those who fought to make the United States into an independent country didn’t fight more dramatically on behalf of their own independence.

The other thing that I found interesting was the negative impression I was left with of Emerson, Mann, and Hawthorne. They so obviously used the intelligent women around them, toyed with their affections, pitted sister against sister, and still the sisters defended these men and fought amongst themselves (in a very genteel, epistolary, nineteenth-century way, but it was fighting nonetheless). It’s just another reminder, I guess, that although men are placed on pedestals by the writers of history, they are still human beings. Once again, not surprising, just disappointing.

In addition to being an intimate story of the sisters as individuals and of their sisterhood, this is also an excellent history of the Unitarian church. I’ve often wondered how we got from Calvinism to Unitarian Universalism in fewer than three centuries, and this book helped me make sense of it for the first time. It also sheds light on some of the ongoing friction points within the denomination.

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