Can love bloom between two artists without causing their art to wither and die? That is one of the more intriguing aspects of Erika Robuck’s poignant historical novel, The House of Hawthorne.
Sophie Peabody was a promising painter who was hindered by debilitating headaches. Her family sent her to Cuba in the hope that the warm climate might cure her. There she nurtured her talent as a painter, while also writing The Cuba Journal. She returned to Massachusetts invigorated, but her headaches eventually would return. In the throes of illness, she met Nathaniel Hawthorne when he came calling on her sister, Elizabeth. Sophie and Nathanial were lovestruck. Robuck described the intensity of their feelings in this passage: “When I enter, Hawthorne’s eyes meet mine, and he rises. By the holy angels, I feel my soul at once aflame and reaching through my breast toward him.”
Their courtship lasted more than four years. Nathaniel would not marry Sophie until he could support her financially. He joined Brook Farm, a transcendentalist community and married Sophie in 1842. Their love blossomed in splendidly rendered scenes. Sophie worried that their marital bliss was impeding Nathaniel’s writing. When their first daughter, Una, was born, Sophie observed she had neither the time nor the energy to paint. They had two more children and then moved from home to home as they struggled to support a family. They eventually settled in the Wayside in Concord. Among their circle of friends were New England scions the Alcott family, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau.
The publication of Hawthorne’s classic novel, The Scarlett Letter, in 1850, and The House of the Seven Gables in 1851, vaulted him into an exalted placae in literature, but did not ease the family’s chronic financial struggles. it was interesting to learn that published authors had it no easier in the 1800s than they do today.
This is not the story of Hathrorne’s literary talents, but rather it is about the enduring and almost spiritual love between Nathanial and Sophie. Spanning several decades and encompassing their travels to England, Portugal and Italy, their journey was littered with tragedy: the loss of Sophie’s brother and parents, Nathaniel’s parents, and a deadly illness that befalls their eldest daugther. Through it all their love endured.
What carries this story is Robuck’s brilliant prose, which brings Sophie to life as a strong, intelligent character: devoted to her husband, yet independent of spirit and an artist of immense talent.