In the pantheon of notable 19th-century American women, Elizabeth Peabody is a particularly bright light. Her contributions to intellectual thought, educational methods, and literary culture are astonishing, especially in a age when most women were constrained by the demands of kitchen and cradle.
Elizabeth's writing on transcendental religious ideas preceded that of Ralph Waldo Emerson. She developed her own classroom teaching techniques to foster individual learning and later joined with Bronson Alcott to start an innovative school that focused on drawing out the thoughts of each child. She also opened a foreign- language bookstore in Boston and promoted the writing of promising authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller.
Her most important contribution to American education was probably the establishment of kindergartens after the Civil War. Henry James immortalized her as the reformer Miss Birdseye in "The Bostonians." And to the end of her 90 years, she wrote - articles, books, journals, and letters, letters, letters. Her family and friends saved most of that correspondence and responded in kind.
All that writing is a mother lode that Megan Marshall has mined for details of the life Elizabeth Peabody shared with her two remarkable younger sisters, Mary and Sophia, dominating that life most of the time. They were Renaissance women as well. "The Peabody sisters ... were fortunate to arrive on an American scene in which women moved freely in intellectual circles and women's ideas were welcome in conversation, if not always in print," writes Marshall.
Mary was a gifted teacher, partnering Elizabeth in classrooms or creating her own. In later years, she helped to promote the kindergarten movement. Mary married Horace Mann, who reformed Massachusetts public schools and then moved on to be the first president of Antioch College in Ohio.
Sophia, the youngest, a talented painter and sculptor, became the wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote his best-known books after they married.
Twenty years of meticulous effort went into writing "The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism." In addition to known Peabody papers, Marshall found documents never before used for books on the sisters.
The resulting biography, studded with quoted phrases from all those letters and journals, unfolds in chronological order as Marshall charts the earlier Peabodys' family history of economic and social decline. The sisters were born to parents whose precarious finances forced them to move frequently, although they probably called Salem home more often than any other place.
But their mother was able to provide them with a thorough classical education. She had read widely in her eminent grandfather's well-stocked library when she was a child and was determined to promote the intellectual development of her children. At age 13, Elizabeth discussed theology with William Ellery Channing, the radical Unitarian minister. Emerson, when a college student, tutored her in Greek.
Mrs. Peabody said she was more interested in seeing the girls attain "a decent independence" than learn to "sew a shirt and bake a pudding." In addition to raising three daughters and three sons, the determined mother helped support the family by establishing schools for girls in the various places they lived.
Readers who remember "The Peabody Sisters of Salem," by Louise Hall Tharp, a popular biography published more than 50 years ago, will be intrigued to find that Marshall has solved the mystery of Elizabeth's unidentified early suitor, L.B. His depression and subsequent demise after she rejected him haunted Elizabeth later in her life.
Marshall has also unearthed details that throw a new light on the sisters' relationship. Especially fascinating is the information about the double romantic triangles: Elizabeth played a part in the relationship of Mary and Horace Mann as well as that of Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
A grieving widower when he first met the Peabodys, Mann took comfort in Elizabeth's arms (literally) at first. But Mary had fallen in love with him and was patient - for almost seven years.
While it's not clear that Elizabeth had more than sisterly feelings for Mann, her early relationship to Hawthorne may have been more than that of publisher and literary agent. An "understanding" may have existed - there are conflicting sources.
However, there's no doubt that when Sophia and Hawthorne finally met, the attraction was electric. He gave her the strength to move away from invalidism (and reliance on opium) to a degree of health. She outlived him.
But the "happily ever after" story for the marrying sisters and the single sister's years of great accomplishments are not recounted in this biography, except in an epilogue. Perhaps another volume of sisterhood is to come.
• Ruth Johnstone Wales is a former Monitor editor.