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“Folded up in a Veil”: Sophia Hawthorne’s Familial Ekphrasis and the Antebellum Travelogue
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Densely referential, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne’s Notes in England and Italy (1869) is an extended meditation on literary legibility, relying on allusion, insinuation, and suggestive imagery to consider what writers can, in good conscience, bring before the eyes of the public. A few pages from the end of the narrative, Hawthorne muses about the ways that her mid-life travels through Rome have altered her idealized, youthful image of the city and its history. In her early imagination, spurred on by schoolroom lessons of imperial domination, Romans “lived on glory … My eyes were holden, so that I could not see the sin or the shame; or a prism was over them, through which the Empire flashed with the seven colors which light paints rainbows.”1 The very experiences recounted in the course of Notes—the Hawthorne family’s residence in Rome, and their travels through England, France and Italy from 1853 to 1860—destroy these “fancies,” shading the vision of militaristic glory with a dark apparition of cruelty and destruction, and masking the natural and artistic beauties of the city in the constant threat of malarial death. Rome nonetheless maintains an indefinable allure: “What, then, is this Rome that will hold sway over mankind, whether or no, in past and present time? I have an idea, but it is folded up in a veil, and I cannot take this moment to answer my question” (544).


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Rome. Baths of Caracalla. 1860–1890. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USZ62-104897.

The interplay of revelation and concealment in this late, evasive passage is illustrative of the ways that Notes reflects on its author’s well-known literary family and the position of mid-century literary celebrity. Sophia’s musings about Rome point to a moment of personal, quasi-religious revelation that is only described through its absence (“my eyes were holden”), even as they demonstratively withhold a similar revelation from readers (“I cannot take this moment…”). The image that ultimately prevents the disclosure of Sophia’s answer is “a veil,” a symbol that echoes suggestively through Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writings, and that has literary and historical significance as a symbol of the tensions between public and private life for the mid-nineteenth-century woman writer. The veil in these late pages indicates private life while concealing it, and flags Sophia’s interiority (her “idea”) while pointing up its inviolability—even by a first-person, apparently autobiographical narrative. Notes plays continuously with revelation and withholding, in relation to both Sophia and the private familial life of her very public family. Her glib, almost mocking last line (“I cannot take this moment…”) and her allusion to an image most closely associated with Nathaniel’s writing underscore not just the mysteries of Rome, but the mysteries of the Hawthorne family that the elusive text leaves unanswered.2

These allusions to and evasions of family life cluster particularly in the art descriptions that take up a large part of the travel narrative, knotting the familial and the aesthetic in a way that neither is independently intelligible. A painter who had earned the coup of exhibiting work at the Boston Athenaeum, Sophia presents her central aim in Notes as the dissemination of the “Great Masters in Architecture, Sculpture, and Painting” to a broader public.3 But her famous last name and the implied presence of family members give these ekphrastic descriptions a heightened charge of biographical revelation, which Sophia’s own language encourages. In one fairly typical instance of description, for instance, Sophia proclaims of a Renaissance Madonna that “It is a MOTHER, with a perfect sense of all a mother’s responsibilities,” as her own children hover on the border of the text, couched anonymously in first-person plural (209). Such descriptions are more than just abstract reflections on motherhood: they highlight a private space that readers never fully access, and recur throughout the travelogue in repeated comparisons between family and imagery. From Nathaniel’s “comely person” to Una’s Titian-like beauty, the Hawthornes are described in language that is resonant of—and sometimes directly allusive to—the artworks that dominate Sophia’s text (185). Late in...



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