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Elizabeth Peabody Revisited
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Elizabeth Peabody Revisited Mary Frew Moldstad, College of Wooster In trying to defend himself against his brother Wüliam's accusation that he had caricatured the Transcendentalist educator Elizabeth Peabody in his character Miss Birdseye (The Bostonians, 1886), Henry James made two claims that must have seemed patently false to WUliam. The first was a righteous avowal in an 1885 letter to William that "I have not seen Miss Peabody for twenty years, I never had but the most casual observation of her." The second was that, while he foresaw his "creation would perhaps be identified with Miss Peabody," he had evolved her entirely in his "moral consciousness" like "every person [he had] ever drawn" (HJL III, 68-69). Perhaps his extreme sensitivity to criticism from WiUiam led him to distort the facts in replying to his brother. Henry was not so guüeless about Miss Peabody as he claimed to be. Seven years before his letter to WUliam, he had traveled south from London especiaUy to visit EUzabeth Peabody. In spite of his claim of not having seen her for twenty years, James had actuaUy written to WUliam of this 1878 visit, a discrepancy noted by Alfred Habegger in his review of Henry James: A Life (207). On May 1, 1878, he wrote that he had profited from the Eastertide "stillness" in London "to run down for a couple of days to the Isle of Wight and caU upon our Utile friend Miss Peabody" (HJL II, 170). It seems improbable that either Henry or WiUiam would have totally forgotten that he had "walked on the downs and conversed" with Hawthorne's sister-in-law at a time when he was soon to write his critical biography Hawthorne (1879) for the English Men of Letters series. Elizabeth Peabody was then seventy-four years old and had had a "slight stroke in 1877" (Tharp 325). Although the Letters of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody leave in question her whereabouts at Easter, 1878 (383), James's letter to WUliam identifies the Miss Peabody he visited on the Isle of Wight as the American feminist educator (HJL II, 172). His 1878 letter surely suggests a closer tie with Miss Peabody than he wished to acknowledge to William. Henry James never took criticism easfiy, especiaUy from his philosopher brother. WiUiam was increasingly outspoken in criticizing Henry, both personaUy and professionaUy, though Henry consistently praised WUliam. Sometimes WiUiam was approving and encouraging, but more often he "landed in England and paused there just long enough to throw his brother Henry into the state of half-resentful bewilderment that always resulted from their first European reunions " (James III, 209).1 WiUiam's growing criticism was especiaUy difficult for Henry at this time. The deaths of the elder Jameses and the consequent loss 210 The Henry James Review for Henry of their encouragement had left him since 1882 at the mercy of hostile American critics, angry at him over his portrayal of America as provincial in Hawthorne. In writing The Bostonians, Henry James had tried hard to redeem himself by showing that he could write an American novel. When WiUiam joined other confidantes such as WiUiam Dean HoweUs and the Jameses' Aunt Kate in assuming that EUzabeth Peabody was his "model," and when WiUiam "assault[ed]" Henry about it, the novefist wrote the spirited, lengthy denial to his brother on February 14, 1885. WiUiam's letter must have made Henry feel that his family were joining forces with the enemy. The claim that he had evolved Miss Birdseye entirely in his "moral consciousness " rather than modeling her after anyone was one he made frequently about bis characterizations. WiUiam obviously regarded the distinction as invalid and perhaps in his roguish way wished to pique Henry with an accusation he knew to be accurate and particularly damning. Henry would not endear himself to New Englanders by sitting in far-off London and consciously caricaturing Elizabeth Peabody. Yet it seemed as though, to some extent at least, he had done this. His distortions and the length and heat of his denial suggest feelings of guüt. WiUiam knew that a moral consciousness must inevitably store impressions from life. Actually, the assumption that...