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Bookmarks Issue: 
18-Sept-Oct-2005
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Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism

A-PeabodySistersThis biography of three sisters—Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804-1894), Mary Tyler Peabody Mann (1807-1887), and Sophia Amelia Peabody Hawthorne (1809-1871)—is based on rich primary sources and was 20 years in the making. The Peabody sisters weren’t rich, and, in the words of educator Horace Mann (Mary’s husband), they had "no éclat in the fashionable world." But with their reformist zeal, the sisters helped transform 19th-century America. Elizabeth ran Boston’s famed West Street bookstore (where fellow Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller held her salons for women), spearheaded the kindergarten movement, and helped Louisa May Alcott’s father found a progressive school; Mary wrote Christianity in the Kitchen and married Horace Mann; and baby sister Sophia was an artist of some repute and a supportive wife to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Together they shared—and influenced—great intellectual and artistic pursuits.
Houghton Mifflin. 544 pages. $28. ISBN: 0395389925

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"It is a graceful account, bursting with the excitement of shared personal and intellectual discovery. … Though each of the Peabody sisters’ lives is interesting in its own right, the real fascination is in their linked lives, and those have now been ably re-created." Michael Kenney

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Marshall … performs the intellectual equivalent of a triple axel. She manages to create vivid portraits of three distinct, and distinctly engaging, personalities, placing them at the center of the seismic disturbances associated with writers like Hawthorne, Emerson and Thoreau. … [T]hanks to this exceedingly well-written, sensitively evoked history, their world lives for us." William Grimes

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"By painting so colorful and sympathetic a portrait of these remarkable women, who have mostly been viewed as minor characters in the careers of their more famous contemporaries, Marshall has given us so much that it seems ungrateful to ask for more. But I couldn’t help wishing she’d quoted at even greater length from the literary efforts of the Peabody sisters, who were such passionate (and thrifty) journal and letter writers that, as Marshall explains in her introduction, they often ‘turned a single sheet 90 degrees and wrote back across a page already covered with handwriting.’" Francine Prose

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Megan Marshall explores with the skill of a novelist the complexities of each sister’s life in their struggle to define themselves as individuals. The sisters not only had an impact on America’s leading thinkers and writers but also were remarkable in overcoming family financial challenges usually faced by sons rather than young, unmarried women." Jeanne Nicholson

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"[Marshall] expertly weaves the family’s life into the fabric of their times, and there is a lovely consonance of style and sensibility between her and the Peabody women. … Marshall’s book is a grand story but also a key contribution to the debate on New England transcendentalism." Gillian Gill

Critical Summary

Marshall immersed herself for two decades in every scrap of information available about the Peabody sisters. She has not only recreated their world, but also—has appropriately placed them at the center of many important 19th-century reform movements. No longer will Margaret Fuller reign as the lone woman in Transcendentalist circles. The only point of disagreement among reviewers is whether Marshall should have ended the book when she did; the biography takes us through roughly half of the Peabodys’ lives and careers. Dare we hope there’s a sequel in the offing?