Sophia Peabody And The Sleeping Beauty
Thomas St. John
In writing The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne chose to tell a New England version of the Legend of The Sleeping Beauty, or Little Briar-Rose. The brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm were only twenty years older than Hawthorne and had collected their household tales in Germany when the American writer was still a child.
"The Sleeping Beauty" first became popular in America at mid-century, and Hawthorne structured his romance on this enduring fable. He states clearly that "it is a Legend prolonging itself, from an epoch now gray in the distance, down into our own broad daylight, and bringing along with it some of its legendary mist. . .". The choice of the word "prolonging" indicates the story antecedent to The House of the Seven Gables.
Hawthorne was committed to childrens' literature. Early reading in Salem grounded Hawthorne in the classic legends of Greece and medieval Europe. For his childrens' stories, he rewrote the classic tales to conform to modern manners, customs, and morals, often with a strong historical theme. These old tales were "to be taken out of the cold moonshine of classical mythology, and modernized, or perhaps gothicized, so that they may be felt by children of those days".
This obscure man of letters, suffering the neglect of his more ambitious works, must have been deeply consoled by the success of his childrens' stories. On March 21, 1838, he wrote to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow describing his wish to "entirely revolutionize the whole system of juvenile literature".
By mid-century, a less reform-minded Hawthorne, more relaxed and confident in his abilities, adapted "The Sleeping Beauty" to New England. Remaining true to the timeless themes of the medieval legend, while drawing a convincing portrait of modern life, was his challenge.
Hawthorne describes the House of the Seven Gables---architecturally, historically, and metaphysically---making it a setting proper for the "Legend prologing itself"---a castle. His romance is filled with references to castles. The mansion is "the scene of events more full of human interest, perhaps, than those of a gray, feudal castle. . .". The land around the House of the Seven Gables yet remaining to the Pyncheons is called "the small desmesne"---an expression that usually signifies the land surrounding a medieval manor.
Gervayse Pyncheon has known a "long abode in foreign parts, morover, and familiarity with many of the castles and ancestral halls of England, and the marble palaces of Italy. . .". In poverty, Hepzibah dreams of "castles in the air" and imagines an unexpected invitation to a "Pyncheon Hall". Hawthorne extends a metaphor of Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon's character as a magnificent palace.
In both "The Sleeping Beauty" and The House of the Seven Gables, royal and aristocratic families are in eclipse, and Hawthorne refers frequently to titled people. Uncle Venner recalls that "in my younger days, the great man of the town was called King, and his wife---not Queen, to be sure---but Lady". Passengers with Clifford Pyncheon on the railroad "had plunged into the English scenery and adventures of pamphlet-novels, and were keeping company with dukes and earls".
Gervayse Pyncheon hopes that his property will enable him to solicit an earldom and that his daughter, "the beautiful Alice Pyncheon, with the rich dowry which he could then bestow, might wed an English duke, or a German reigning-prince. . ." A portrait of Alice is said to be with "the present Duke of Devonshire, and to be now preserved at Chatsworth".
"The Sleeping Beauty" opens on a world of promise and prophecy, beauty, festivity, and happiness; then comes a sudden betrayal, more prophecy, a curse, and a fulfillment of that curse. A beautiful daughter is born to the king, who orders a great feast to celebrate. In the land there are thirteen wise women, but the king invites only twelve, because he has but twelve golden plates.
During the feast, the wise woman who has been rejected solely for the sake of convenience enters and casts a curse: the princess will prick her finger on the spindle of a loom on her fifteenth birthday and will fall down dead. The last wise woman to bestow her gift can only change this death curse to a deep sleep of one hundred years.
Aware that his great-grandfather Judge John Hathorne had presided over the Salem witch trials in 1692, Hawthorne made his character Matthew Maule a wizard condemned by Colonel Pyncheon. Like the rejected wise woman in "The Sleeping Beauty," Maule curses Pyncheon: "At the moment of execution--with the halter about his neck, and while Colonel Pyncheon sat on horseback, grimly gazing at the scene--Maule had addressed him from the scaffold, and uttered a prophecy of which history, as well as fireside tradition, has preserved the exact words--'God,' said the dying man . . . 'God will give him blood to drink!'
This curse is fulfilled in succeeding generations, beginning with Colonel Pyncheon, who dies at his own feast to celebrate the opening of the House of the Seven Gables. Not to put too fine a point on it--for Hawthorne never did--the American curse is property. There is an element of economic exploitation introduced into The House of the Seven Gables which is not in the original legend. The curse falls on the king for simply failing to recognize the wise woman; lacking a golden plate is merely his excuse. But the Pyncheon family curse falls because of "ill-gotten gold, or real estate."
"What we call real estate--the solid ground to build a house on--is the broad foundation on which nearly all the guilt of this world rests. A man will commit almost any wrong--he will heap up an immense pile of wickedness, as hard as granite, and which will weigh as heavily upon his soul, to eternal ages--only to build a great, gloomy, dark-chambered mansion, for himself to die in, and for his posterity to be miserable in.
This is the chronic Pyncheon doubt about the moral right to the property. Hawthorne insists: "If so, we are left to dispose of the awful query, whether each inheritor of the property--conscious of wrong, and failing to rectify it--did not commit anew the great guilt of his ancestor, and incur all its original responsibilities."
The curse in The House of the Seven Gables takes the form of a relentless cycle of Pyncheon exploitation and arrogance, which yields an equally reprehensible Maule revenge by psychic violence. After two hundred years of this American feud, the Maules are believed to be extinct. The rich Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon now preys on the poor side of his own family--the inevitable end of revenge.
One simply expressed truth in "The Sleeping Beauty" is that a wrong act and its guilt leads without fail to the loss of love and affection--a deep sleep. Only after a long and frequently bitter apprenticeship in exploring lost and submerged emotion--conducted in a country that all but completely denied feeling--was Hawthorne able to accept this truth and be free to write well about sleep.
Painting By Sophia Peabody 1833
To present a sleep of one hundred years convincingly in modern times, Hawthorne associates two Pyncheon women living precisely one hundred years apart: Alice and Phoebe.
Hepzibah talked rather vaguely, and at great length, about a certain Alice Pyncheon, who had been exceedingly beautiful and accomplished, in her lifetime, a hundred years ago. The fragrance of her rich and delightful character still lingered about the place where she had lived, as a dried rosebud scents the drawer where it has withered and perished. This lovely Alice had met with some great and mysterious calamity, and had grown thin and white, and gradually faded out of the world. But even now, she was supposed to haunt the House of the Seven Gables.
In the Sleeping Beauty legend, the king is not at home on his daughter's fifteenth birthday. The princess is quite alone in the palace. In Hawthorne's modernization, Gervayse Pyncheon is likewise not there for his daughter, Alice. Overwhelmed by greed, Gervayse fails to help Alice fend off the machinations of the wizard Matthew Maule. He "had martyred his poor child to an inordinate desire for measuring his land by miles, instead of acres".
The father allows Maule to mesmerize Alice---to enchant her---in hopes of finding the missing document, the parchment key to the lost Pyncheon fortunes. But the savage Matthew seeks only revenge, and Gervayse discovers only the broken spirit of his daughter. Too late he cried, "Alice! Awake!. . .it troubles me to see you thus! Awake!". But "Alice awoke out of her enchanted sleep" only to waste away and die.
The fireside tradition in The House of the Seven Gables tells how the sunny Alice had played a gently melancholy harpsichord and how once in frolic she had tossed into the air a handful of seeds from Italy, which settled on one of the gables, to sprout and to become known as "Alice's posies". This is the way it was with Alice Pyncheon.
The accomplished beauty of modern times is Phoebe Pyncheon. She is cheerful, sings lightly sad songs, and busily tends the flowers and vegetables in the Pyncheon garden. Here the artist Holgrave reads to Phoebe his version of the Alice legend. Holgrave sees, upon finishing near sundown, that he has unexpectedly half-mesmerized her by the gestures that he has used to enhance the effect of his reading.
Illustration By Helen Mason Grose
The daguerreotypist knows that "he could establish an influence over this good, pure, and simple child, as dangerous, and perhaps as disastrous, as that which the carpenter of his legend had acquired and exercised over the ill-fated Alice". But Holgrave "forbade himself to twine that one link more, which might have rendered his spell over Phoebe indissoluble". In awakening Phoebe with a slight upward gesture of his hand, Holgrave chooses to lift the Pyncheon curse.
The deep sleep of one hundred years is over. By the light of the rising moon in the garden, "the commonplace characteristics---which, at noontide, it seemed to have taken a century of sordid life to accumulate---were now transfigured by a charm of romance. A hundred mysterious years were whispering among the leaves. . .". The simple, tender gesture awakens beauty.
After laboring together in the garden for weeks, Holgrave and Phoebe see it for the first time: "It seems to me. . .that I never watched the coming of so beautiful an eve, and never felt anything so very much like happiness as at this moment. After all, what a good world we live in! How good, and beautiful! How young it is, too. . .".
Sketch By Her Daughter Sophia A. Peabody In 1833
"The Sleeping Beauty" is subtitled "Little Briar-Rose". The princess is called a briar-rose because at fifteen, she is both mischievous and tender. In The House of the Seven Gables, the rose comes to signify Phoebe and her beauty. The blossom also unites Phoebe with Alice---
"When Phoebe was quite dressed, she peeped out of the window, and saw a rose-bush in the garden. Being a very tall one, and of luxurious growth, it had been propt up against the side of the house and was literally covered with a rare and very beautiful species of white rose . . .the whole rose-bush looked as if it had been brought from Eden, that very summer, together with the mould in which it grew. The truth was, nevertheless, that it had been planted by Alice Pyncheon---she was Phoebe's great-great-grand-aunt. . .".
Clifford makes Phoebe the Little Briar-Rose when, trying to make his own slight happiness real to himself, he says to her, "Give me a rose, that I may press its thorns, and prove myself awake, by the sharp touch of pain!".
Before learning the deeper truths of "The Sleeping Beauty"---before knowing Sophia Peabody---Hawthorne had interpreted the legend in the light of reform movements and social issues. In the tale "The Procession of Life", Hawthorne observes that "each sect surrounds its own righteousness with a hedge of thorns. It is difficult for the good Christian to acknowledge the good Pagan. . .". The hedge of thorns then signified a kind of "false consciousness" that reformers impaled themselves on.
Hawthorne referred to reformers as "owls" and "bats". These were unfortunates who had cut themselves off from the richness of experience for the sake of the one true cause. By galvanizing the forces of the personality into one relentless will, these "crooked sticks" found in reforming activity an outlet for a will to dominate---
"It would be endless to describe the herd of real or self-styled reformers that. . .had got possession of some crystal fragment of truth, the brightness of which so dazzled them that they could see nothing else in the wide universe. Here were men whose faith had embodied itself in the form of a potato; and others whose long beards had a deep spiritual significance. Here was the abolitionist, brandishing his one idea like an iron flail. . ."
The country was filled with people willing to attack in order to force beauty to awaken. These were like the kings' sons of the fable, who stuck fast in the hedge of thorns and perished miserably because the time was not right. Very characteristically, Hawthorne never loses his compassion: "Yet, withal, the heart of the stanchest conservative, unless he abjured his fellowship with man, could hardly have helped throbbing in sympathy with the spirit that pervaded these innumerable theorists.".
But Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon has "abjured his fellowship with man" in his "hot fellness of purpose". He and his friends "are practised politicians, every man of them, and skilled to adjust those preliminary measures, which steal from the people, without its knowledge, the power of choosing its own rulers". Long familiar with politicians---"these strange malignants"---Hawthorne compares the Judge to Ixion in the Greek legend, who murdered his father-in-law in order to avoid paying the bridal gifts that he had promised.
Hawthorne despaired that, in dealing with these politicians, reformers were mere appendages---ornamental talkers and deluded men uttering democratic pieties from the cryptic and lethal depths of the American hedge of thorns.
At the Old Manse in Concord, receiving little recompense for his literary efforts, Hawthorne tended a vegetable garden to save money on food. He spent two hours daily weeding, so weeds are very frequently mentioned in The House of the Seven Gables. "The sordid and ugly luxuriance of gigantic weeds" becomes Hawthorne's modernized hedge of thorns.
In the Pyncheon garden are plants growing "in a wilderness of neglect, and obstructing one another's development [as if often the parallel case in human society] by their uneducated entanglement and confusion". Weeds represent past evil acts---"The evil of these departed years would naturally have sprung up again, in such rank weeds [symbolic of the transmitted vices of society] as are always prone to root themselves about human dwellings.".
The rampant hedge of thorns that so overwhelms the king's palace in "The Sleeping Beauty" is reflected in Hawthorne's description of Phoebe's chamber, "all overgrown with the desolation, which watches to obliterate every trace of man's happier hours".
Villa Menaggio, Lago Di Como
There is nothing elaborate in the legend of "The Sleeping Beauty" as recorded by the Brothers Grimm. It does not begin with "Once upon a time" but with "A long time ago". It does not end with "And they lived happily ever after" but with "And they lived contented until the end of their days.". There is no "prince charming," merely one more "King's son".
The daguerreotypist Holgrave, a stranger boarding at the House of the Seven Gables, sees that "there is a wonderful insight in heaven's broad and simple sunshine". And even if there was "a paragraph in a penny-paper, the other day, accusing him of making a speech, full of wild and disorganizing matter, at a meeting of his banditti-like associates", still the young man checks the growth of the wild weeds in the Pyncheon garden "by a degree of careful labor, bestowed daily and systematically". It is pleasant to see "this young man, with so much faith in himself".
Like the king's son, Holgrave has led the existence of a nameless, uncommitted wanderer, visiting Italy and parts of France and Germany, "continually changing his whereabouts, and, therefore responsible neither to public opinion nor to individuals---putting off one exterior, and snatching up another, to be soon shifted for a third---he had never violated the innermost man, but had carried his conscience along with him".
Indeed, Holgrave seems to be an avatar of "the stubborn old Puritan, Integrity" as Hepzibah thinks, perhaps capable of being "the champion of a crisis". The daguerreotypist claims not to know precisely why he has come to lodge in the House of the Seven Gables---but he speaks of a drama of retribution for the wrongs of long ago and expresses his dread of catastrophe in an ominous "fifth act" to come. Holgrave, disguised until the end, is the last of the destroyed Maule family.
After years of exploring the possibilities of reform through politics, communal living, and childrens' literature, Hawthorne chose to put his trust in Providence. The writer had settled on "all good things in time". Only "in the fullness of time" is it possible for the king's son to awaken beauty.
Painting By Sophia Peabody 1839-1840
In speaking of Holgrave's future prospects, Hawthorne speaks for himself as well--- "He would still have faith in man's brightening destiny, and perhaps love him all the better, as he should recognize his helplessness in his own behalf; and the haughty faith, with which he began life, would be well bartered for a far humbler one, at its close, in discerning that man's best-directed effort accomplishes a kind of dream, while God is the sole worker of realities.".
Writing The House of the Seven Gables in the autumn of 1850, with his wife Sophia pregnant with his third child Rose, Hawthorne must have remembered the early miscarriage before the birth of Una, his first child. The difficulty may have been caused by falls Sophia took while ice-skating on the Concord River, but for some time, both despaired of bearing living children.
The opening line of the legend of the Sleeping Beauty must have had enormous significance--- "A long time ago there were a king and queen who said every day, Ah, if only we had a child! but they never had one.".
While Nathaniel was playing with his children one afternoon at this time, son Julian became known as "little Prince Rose-red". And the yet unborn Rose Hawthorne, with the "thorn" in her last name, obviously bears the inspiration of "Little Briar-Rose".
Nathaniel Hawthorne first met Sophia Peabody as a child of the neighborhood, playing in Salem's Charter Street burying ground. Hawthorne describes this time in the opening scenes of his late romance Doctor Grimshawe's Secret. They tumbled wildly over the tombs, picking dandelions and chasing butterflies, playing hide-and-seek amongst the slate and the marble. They memorized verses on the headstones and spelled out the names on them.
Sophia shared Nathaniel's increasingly common reveries, sitting quietly, holding her Persian kitten. The cemetery held the graves of Nathaniel's ancestors, including that of the Salem witch-trial judge Col. John Hathorne. Some time later, Hawthorne read on the gravestone of Nathaniel Mather, "An aged man of nineteen years." "It affected me deeply, when I had cleared away the grass from the half-buried stone, and read the name" of this "hard student."
Charter Street Burial Ground
The burying ground was surrounded by a high wooden fence, and a little gate led to Sophia's house, through a neglected but fertile garden, to the back door. She lived in a square-fronted, three-storied frame house with small-paned windows and massive chimneys. Nathaniel must have cherished deep memories of this Charter Street burying ground, for he proposed to Sophia on its granite entrance steps.
As a young woman, Sophia was small and graceful, impulsive, quick, roguish, intuitive, often smiling. She had a friendly wit, though her blue-grey eyes were sometimes observed to turn a distinctly deeper shade with silent opposition.
She brushed her chestnut-brown hair every morning for an hour in what she called her studio, on the third floor of the sunny side of the house, overlooking the burying ground. Here she painted, read, and often slept in a hammock stretched in the corner. Sophia was confined to her room every afternoon almost all year with the blinding headaches and the "cannonading of her temples." She was an invalid. Sophia was forever sending people little gifts, flowers and notes, and receiving visitors among her paintings---
"Sometimes her whole day passed in a kind of unreal pageant of affection. She awakened in the morning pleased with the elm tree that grew outside her window, and the robin that sang in its branches, the clematis that climbed in her window, and the flowers that people brought her. Ellen Barstow, Hawthorne's cousin Nancy's child, brought her a crimson rose. Her sister Mary brought her a handful of flowers in the morning and she crowed over them awhile before she rose. Mary Channing brought her a Scotch rose. Sally Gardiner brought her an armload of roses. She listened to George Hillard talk agreeable nonsense--he said the postmaster of Cambridge was an old man, a hundred and forty years old, who reminded him of nothing sharpened to a point.".
To kill her pain, Sophia was laced first with the tinctures of opium, paregoric, and laudanum, in the allopathic or heroic system of large doses, then with mercury and arsenic, and finally with hyoscyamus, or henbane.
"Ever since her early childhood, when Sophia had been given a good deal of paregoric to ease difficult teething, her father had feared that he had given her too much sedative. He gave her sedatives now, at the insistence of her mother, but with increasing reluctance because he had become interested in homeopathy with its theory that 'like cures like' and its use of drugs in small doses only. Dr. Peabody was pleased with the 'best European leeches' and so was Sophia.".
The doctors in Boston "one after another, tried their hands at curing her, and she went through courses of their poisons, each one bringing her to death's door, and leaving her less able to cope with the pain. But the endurance of her physical constitution defied all the poisons of the materia medica,--mercury, arsenic, opium, hyoscyamus, and all.".
Hyoscyamus niger--black henbane--produced a twilight sleep. It contains the alkaloids hyoscyamine and hyoscine, with atropine throughout. This plant was a staple in medieval poison potions and witches' brews, causing watering of the mouth, rapid pulse, headache, nausea, and fits of madness with delirium, convulsions, coma, and death.
Sophia's sister Elizabeth said that "in 1830, when [Sophia] was living on hyoscyamus, which did her less harm than any other drug, she was able to come downstairs occasionally and into the schoolroom on drawing-days. . .". This drug affected Sophia's feverish reactions to nature: the abnormally bright colors, the lurid moonlight, the vividly clear songs of birds.
Maintaining an invalid in the family was a mark of status in the nineteenth-century upper classes, so Elizabeth Palmer Peabody forced her daughter Sophia into this role. She made Sophia an eternal invalid by relentlessly exaggerating the dangers of independence, always trying to cripple her will. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was "a strong-minded woman who impressed upon her children her iron characterizations of their abilities, like clothes which did not quite fit them." Sophia was set out as the family sacrifice.
Sophia resisted the attack by her mother with severe headaches---she was already semi-invalid at the age of nine. The exploiting Mrs. Peabody carefully lectured that suffering is woman's lot, that it is the will of God after the Fall of Adam, that it was Sophia's duty to be "resigned" and not to be so "wickedly resisting God's will".
Mrs. Peabody explained that the pain she inflicted was successfully "correcting, subduing, eradicating self-sufficiency. . And now that your Father and mine sees fit to give you the enjoyment of tolerable health, you will devote all the energies of your enthusiastic and glowing mind to His Service and Glory.". This announcement was met with torrents of tears, what the shamed Sophia called her "Thunder-gusts".
It was to little avail; Sophia was hedged in everywhere by stern warnings that amounted to threats---she must not laugh, must not waltz because the shock might do serious injury if repeated, must avoid the night air and the bracing fresh air by day. Sophia was denied an active part of the work in moving to the Charter Street house, ordered to "sit in her sweet room at her center table and look straight into Colonel Pickman's garden of flowers".
This continual domineering took its toll. Sophia became "resigned" to an early death and convinced herself that she would never be a burden to any man. Mrs. Peabody had all but convinced Sophia that all men were domineering, inconsiderate, and hurting and that in the power struggle of the sexes, the only alternative open to women besides humiliating submission was a manipulative ill health.
The spirited Sophia resorted to travel for her health. Her tactic was to claim to be "just visiting" any given family, in order to avoid the mother's "tearful protest" and then to develop excuses to extend her escape. After two months of pleading in 1825, and only with her father's final insistence, Sophia traveled over a hundred miles by chaise to New Hampshire over wild roads and never felt better.
Another trip in 1828 took Sophia to her Aunt Mary Palmer, living on the Putney Road by the Common in Brattleboro, Vermont. Sophia went mountain climbing and horseback riding with her young cousins until Mrs. Peabody wrote, "The high state of excitement you are in is not exactly the thing for your head. . .Come home now, and live awhile upon the past.".
Three years later, Sophia moved to a studio in Dedham, Massachusetts, and successfully supported herself by painting. She enjoyed a "fervent happiness" in her creativity, but returned to Salem again when Mrs. Peabody could no longer bear her daughter's happiness. The invalid would not be allowed to teach drawing in her sister's school near Boston.
Finally despairing of her life, sister Elizabeth arranged for Sophia to sail to Cuba in December 1833 for an extended visit to friends who owned a hacienda outside Havana. Mrs. Peabody told the adventurer on departure that she could not be expected to survive the voyage, even without shipwreck, and that she would die in a strange land.
Sophia soon rode forty-five miles on horseback in one day, racing to the hacienda and feeling only slightly tired and sore the next day. But upon returning, completely healthy, the next year, Sophia would write to her sister Elizabeth, "I had an indefinite hope that such a great stir as a voyage to Cuba would alter the state of things but they are settling down again.".
While courting Sophia, Nathaniel wrote her, "Where art thou? My heart searches for thee. . .It seems as if all evil things had more power over thee when I am away". In later years, an acquaintance of Hawthorne would say that the writer had a cat's ability to see in the dark---as certain it was that he needed that faculty in order to avoid all the snares of the Peabody clan.
When Hawthorne married Sophia he rescued her from harder captors than the wicked ogre of the fairy tales---drugs, headaches, years in bed, and more dangerous than any---the brittle, affected aestheticism of New England intellectuals.
Sophia Peabody became Nathaniel Hawthorne's sleeping beauty. He awakened her love by parties in winter on Chestnut Street in Salem, by fresh, open air and common consideration. Sophia the slight and pale took on better color, substance, and confidence, and the pain fell away. They were to be married on the twenty-seventh of June, the month of roses and perfect bloom, as Sophia wrote to Margaret Fuller in announcing the event.
"Then, on the very day originally appointed for the wedding, Hawthorne received a note from Sophia saying that she was ill. There was delay after delay, Hawthorne eager to know when the minister was to appear for the ceremony, and yet assuring Sophia that he would patiently bear the postponement, and counseling her to keep her heart quiet---not to excite herself in this removal of her household gods. A thousand ages hence they would be only in the honeymoon of their marriage. Nevertheless, he was himself restless, and he had a night haunted by ghastly dreams in which he dreamed that Sophia had been hypnotized, and so agitated was he that he awoke in an absolute quake.".
Perhaps Hawthorne had heard that Dr. Peabody's partner in dentistry, Dr. Fiske, had attempted to induce a deep hypnotic sleep in the gentle and compliant Sophia, only to be surprised and disappointed by her ability to resist.
On her wedding day, Sophia listened to her mother tell her that she must never have a child because if she did, it would kill her. She would never paint again if she married because she would be too tired. The badgering was so intense, Sophia took to her bed. Mrs. Peabody hoped that the wedding would be delayed indefinitely, but Sophia merely called for the family doctor and set July 9, 1842 for her nuptial appointment. The "prisoner to pain" had escaped.
The enchantment that Nathaniel Hawthorne escaped was his own talent, his penchant for exploring the "moral picturesque" as he called it. His writing seemed hollow and false, even antagonistic to social values---"the settled, sober, careful gladness of a man by his own fireside, with those around him whose welfare is committed to his trust. . .". Hawthorne never forgot that "the truly wise, after all their speculations, will be led into the common path, and, in homage to the human nature that pervades them, will gather gold, and till the earth, and set out trees, and build a house".
Hawthorne presents this terrible conflict in Clifford Pyncheon. Clifford simply lacks the moral strength to prevent his love of the beautiful, the elegant, and the "aesthetic" from blighting his own simple human sympathies. He lacks "the heart, the will, and conscience, to fight a battle with the world" for his soul. Clifford worships beauty, but abandons human obligations because they are not always attractive.
Hawthorne proposes that there was poetic justice, if not legal justice, in Clifford's thirty years' imprisonment: "It is even possible---for similar cases have often happened---that if Clifford, in his foregoing life, had enjoyed the means of cultivating his taste to its utmost perfectbility, that subtle attribute might, before this period, have completely eaten out or filed away his affections. Shall we venture to pronounce, therefore, that his long and black calamity may not have had a redeeming drop of mercy, at the bottom?".
Clifford's possibility troubled Hawthorne, but the absolute lack or sleep of beauty terrified him. He never turned a blind eye to the brutal things done by men who had capitulated to the dominant American ethic of gold, convenience, and despair. The cold and simple, practical, grasping, and materialistic understanding of many citizens was something to be resented and outwitted.
In "The Artist of the Beautiful," Owen Warland sees the perfection of his craft, an exquisite mechanical toy butterfly, crushed by a baby. It is Hawthorne's most dramatic depiction of the pure, destroying hand of infantile materialism. The American compulsion to destroy what is beautiful is founded on that Puritan terror of beauty as a trap set by Satan. Hawthorne observed our culture of fear and outwitted it.
St. George And The Dragon Brooch
Struggling to overcome his own puritanical fear of happiness, Nathaniel Hawthorne discovered for the first time, with Sophia, that beauty is not a delusion. In the spring in Concord, he looked on the swallows chattering in the dim, sun-streaked interior of a lofty barn. He planted his trees: larkins, elms and oak, pitch pines and firs and white birch---
"Indeed we are but shadows; we are not endowed with real life, and all that seems most real about us is but the thinnest substance of a dream--till the heart be touched. That touch creates us--then we begin to be--thereby we are beings of reality and inheritors of eternity.".
The Legend of the Sleeping Beauty is a tale of promise, betrayal, loss, longing, and finally, the magnificent return of beauty. And so at the end of Hawthorne's tale, after a five day storm, Phoebe returns from the country just as she promised she would. The romance captures the mildness, the sunny, dappled light of a New England autumn afternoon.
The House of the Seven Gables is an extended meditation on the dangers and purposes of beauty, as revealed in the old tale so recorded by the Brothers Grimm. By closely interpreting the enduring heart of "The Sleeping Beauty," Nathaniel Hawthorne gave uncommon social depth to his isolated "characters" and local "types."
The author gratefully acknowledges his debt in understanding to Ralph Harper, lecturer at Johns Hopkins University and rector of St. James' Church, My Lady's Manor, in Monkton, Maryland for his thoughtful study, "Nostalgia; An Existential Exploration of Longing and Fulfilment in the Modern Age".
This book has a Forward by Richard A. Macksey. (Cleveland, Ohio: The Press of Western Reserve University, 1966). Ralph Harper's book was first published by Harper & Brothers, and the Harvill Press, under the title The Sleeping Beauty in 1955.
Drawing After Charles William Jeffrys
Thomas St. John graduated from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey and has lived in Bloomfield, New Jersey, Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Brattleboro, Vermont. His historical essays appeared in the University of Utah's Western Humanities Review, the Ball State University Forum, and in the online Counterpunch.