Marriage in the nineteenth century

Marriage in the nineteenth century

Two books reveal the complexities of women's lives in Unitarian Boston.
John A. Buehrens


Walk across Boston Common from the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations at 25 Beacon Street to West Street. There, at #13, a townhouse-turned-restaurant bears a plaque. It recalls that in 1840 Elizabeth Peabody opened a bookstore there that served as the hub of New England Transcendentalism.

People who heard Ralph Waldo Emerson lecture or Theodore Parker preach came to peruse Peabody’s stock: the latest European periodicals and books on philosophy, social thought, and literature—all selected to help inspire a distinctively new, American culture. Margaret Fuller held her famous Conversations for women in Peabody’s shop. The Transcendentalist Club held its final meeting there before launching a magazine, The Dial, which Peabody published.

And, in the back parlor, two famous weddings took place. The youngest of the three Peabody sisters, Sophia, married novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne there on July 9, 1842. The middle sister, Mary, married educational reformer Horace Mann there on May 1, 1843.

Elizabeth Peabody, the eldest sister, was 36 when she opened her bookstore. Her sisters were only three and five years younger, which is to say that Sophia and Mary were much older than most brides of the time. Elizabeth never married.

Woman in the Nineteenth Century, as Margaret Fuller’s 1845 book of that title implied, had good reason to be cautious about marriage. If a husband died, or proved a poor provider, or was abusive, there were few ways a woman could earn a respectable living except as a governess or teacher, or by taking in boarders.

In The Peabody Sisters, an engaging and meticulously researched biography, Megan Marshall shows that Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia knew this reality through family experience. Their father, Dr. Nathaniel Peabody, had failed to earn a reliable living as a physician and dentist. There were also family secrets: Their mother’s mother had a daughter out of wedlock by a boarder; he later married another daughter. No wonder their mother taught the Peabody sisters to become “resourceful” while disparaging women whose “principle desire . . . is to get married.”

“The problem the sisters posed themselves was one that could only partly, and perhaps never satisfactorily, be answered by marriage,” Marshall writes:

What could women of fierce energy, intellect, and determination do with their talents when they could not enter the public realm by any conventional means? . . . Gaining proximity to powerful men, and with it the potential for influence—yielding to the temptation, as the youngest sister, Sophia, put it, to “shine by borrowed light”—was one choice. But it was not the only one, and not the best one for a woman who wanted, as Elizabeth ultimately vowed, “to be myself and act.” For such a woman, talent was as much a torment as it was a gift, and ambition was an outright curse. The Peabody sisters struggled with the dilemma, and each one found her own set of answers.

Marshall’s research reveals another secret: Elizabeth was actually the first Peabody sister to be courted by Hawthorne, and the first to console Horace Mann after his first wife’s death. Stepping aside in favor of her younger sisters, she seems to have sensed that they could be genuinely happy where she might not be. Instead, she became a lifelong reformer as well as a frustrated philosopher, concerned for the situation of other women, the enslaved, the uneducated, and the poor. She also became a pillar of her Unitarian church—Beacon Hill’s Church of the Disciples, led by the Rev. James Freeman Clarke, who presided at both weddings.

Caroline Healey came into Elizabeth Peabody’s bookstore in its first week of operation. She was then 18, the privileged and broadly educated eldest child of a prominent man. But in 1840 banker Mark Healey was near bankruptcy. Caroline could only admire the expensive editions she desired, talk with Elizabeth, and borrow her Spirit of the Hebrew Scriptures. The next spring, she attended the Conversations led by Fuller, who became another role model.

Since childhood Caroline had conversed with herself in a journal—at first to cope with a mother who likely suffered from bipolar disorder. By 13, she had largely taken over running the household, supervising younger siblings, and doing charitable work through their Unitarian church, Old West (still standing, now Methodist). Although she later destroyed her juvenilia, her surviving journals cover seventy years—making hers the longest known diary kept by an American. Through Helen Deese’s edition, Daughter of Boston, Caroline’s diary tells a poignant, powerful story.

At Christmas, 1842, Caroline Healey attended the First Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C. (now All Souls Church). Her father near bankruptcy, she was teaching at a private girls’ school in nearby Georgetown. The guest preacher was Charles H. A. Dall, a Unitarian minister-at-large to the poor, who invited her to help him organize a Sunday school for poor children. Caroline was vulnerable. By May she was engaged, though she confided to her diary that she found Charles neither “strong” nor full of “manliness,” despite sharing his ideals. They were married at Old West in September 1843.

Initially, the marriage was successful enough. Soon the Dalls had a child, William, to consider. A pastorate in rural Needham, Massachusetts, paid rather poorly, but it was near Boston and promised a new parsonage. Though ill-suited, Dall accepted. When Caroline went through the trauma of having a child born deformed and dead, “Charles in his love of truth—after having buried his little one, with his own trembling hands—was altogether too communicative . . . [about] the peculiarities of the case,” Caroline wrote. She sent him to remonstrate with one of the gossips who troubled her, “and she has been teaming with malice & mischief ever since.” Ah, parish politics!

One can imagine what the conservative farm families of Needham thought when the minister’s young wife published a volume of Essays and Sketches. Paid for by her father, whose fortunes had recovered, but who also disapproved, the book condemned the Mexican War, called for the abolition of slavery, and advocated women’s rights and family reform. Fellow activists Theodore Parker and William Lloyd Garrison hailed the Dall daughter born the next year as “a new reformer born into the world.”

But rural Needham was not ready for reformers. In those days the parish included nearly everyone—Calvinists, Unitarians, Universalists—but no Transcendentalists. The parish committee told Dall that they could not raise funds for his salary. When he asked what flaws were found in him, “they mentioned . . . his being an Anti-Slavery man . . . and his being too much of a politician!” Caroline heard that the gossip at a leading parishioner’s home was that “everybody liked Mr. Dall—but nobody liked me. I wrote Mr. Dall’s sermons, put him up to every thing, & had all my own way.”

Blaming Caroline for her husband’s failure in ministry would be wrong. He was quite capable of failing as a minister entirely on his own. But in his final pastorate, in frontier Toronto, Caroline clearly contributed to problems in both ministry and marriage.

First, she invited the bachelor church treasurer, John Patton, to come board with them. She fell in love with him, though the evidence is that she kept it platonic. Then she hosted fellow reformer Dorothea Dix, who came to see Toronto’s new hospital for the mentally ill. The superintendent was a wealthy physician and parishioner. He was peeved when Dix criticized his administration. When he offered to finance the building of a new church, Caroline—and the boarding treasurer—opposed him, so he split the congregation. Charles suffered a “nervous collapse,” blaming his wife as well as himself.

Mark Healey offered to help his daughter only if she left Charles and her causes. She didn’t do either. Charles accepted a post as a Unitarian missionary in Calcutta, India. Legally, they stayed married, and Charles sent part of his stipend to Caroline back in Boston. But for thirty-two years, until he died in India in 1886, he came home to her only five times, avoiding sex. Deese dubs the arrangement “a Boston divorce.”

In India, Charles taught school and supported women’s rights. He helped Hajom Kissor Singh, founder of an indigenous Unitarian movement in the Khasi Hills, select Unitarian hymns and readings to translate for a prayer book still used today (in revised form) among 9,000 Unitarians there. When he died, Caroline eulogized her estranged husband in a memorial volume.

Meanwhile, rather than depend on her father, she taught, lectured, wrote articles and books, took in boarders, and preached from Unitarian pulpits. She edited a women’s rights journal, The Una, until it failed. Some saw in Caroline a successor to Margaret Fuller. But others found her difficult. Elizabeth Peabody broke with Caroline for speaking publicly about prostitution. When she was passed over for leadership in a women’s rights group and complained to the outspoken Unitarian minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson, he responded that he couldn’t help it if she was so unpopular! She also broke with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton when they opposed the reelection of Abraham Lincoln in 1864.

After the Civil War she dropped out of suffrage circles. Interested more in the right of women to education, jobs, and legal equality, she began to report on conditions in prisons, factories, slums, hospitals, and women’s colleges. She cofounded the American Social Science Association. Her book, The College, the Market, and the Court: or, Woman’s Relation to Education, Labor, and Law, was pioneering. When home in Boston, she ran the Sunday School at the Church of the Disciples.

Her son William had surveyed Alaska. After he settled in Washington, D.C., as a noted survey scientist, Caroline moved there, presiding over a reading group for young women, becoming friends with the first lady, Frances Cleveland, and writing more books. She published twenty-two in all, including one called Transcendentalism in New England.

And she kept her diary. Deese has carefully selected passages that display Caroline’s gift for striking prose and insight. It is no exaggeration to say that her journals stand up to those of Samuel Pepys in seventeenth-century London or George Templeton Strong in nineteenth-century New York. They record one intelligent soul’s response, not only to domestic and interpersonal events, but also to the public and intellectual life of a city and an era.

Together, Marshall’s and Deese’s books portray the complexity of marriage in the nineteenth century among those most eager to see men and women achieve both practical equality and spiritual freedom.

Emerson, their contemporary, had this to say about marriage in his journal in 1848:

None ever heard of a good marriage from Mesopotamia to Missouri, and yet right marriage is as possible tomorrow as sunshine. Sunshine is a very mixed and costly thing as we have it, & quite impossible, yet we get the right article every day. And we are not very much to blame for our bad marriages. We live amid hallucinations & illusions, & this especial trap is laid for us to trip our feet with & all are tripped up, first or last. But the Mighty Mother who had been so sly with us, feels that she owes us some indemnity, & insinuates into the Pandora-box of marriage, amidst dyspepsia, nervousness, screams, Christianity, “help,” poverty, & all kinds of music, some deep and serious benefits & some great joys. We find sometimes a delight in the beauty & happiness of our children that makes the heart too big for the body. And in these ill-sorted connections there is ever some mixture of true marriage.

Challenged, Emerson might have admitted his male perspective on the whole matter. These two new volumes help us hear how his female peers approached, avoided, and experienced marriage—from their own perspective.

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