Young Salem residents Nathaniel Hawthorne and Sophia Peabody had a slow-burning romance. One you might watch play out and think, “Will they just get together already?”
Sophia, a talented painter, was more accomplished than Hawthorne when they met. However, she didn’t nurture big plans for her romantic future, and in a letter to her sister, even said, “I never intend to have a husband.” That changed in 1837 when she met Nathaniel Hawthorne, a then struggling writer. They began corresponding through letters with colorfully descriptive accounts of their lives, while cholera raged throughout the region.
Chester Harding. Portrait of Sophia Peabody (detail), 1830. Oil on canvas. Gift of the Estate of Rosamond Mikkelsen (2016.59.1A). Charles Osgood, Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne (detail), 1840. Oil on canvas. 29 1⁄2 × 24 1⁄2 in. (74.9 × 62.2 cm). Gift of Professor Richard C. Manning, 1933 (121459). Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Mark Sexton and Jeffrey Dykes.
Troubled by illness in her youth, Sophia journeyed with her sister to Cuba in 1833 to recuperate in the warm climate. Sophia created a pair of paintings of Italy to give as a present to her fiancé, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Seen here is Isola San Giovanni, completed around 1839 and now part of PEM’s permanent collection. Gift of Joan D. Ensor, in memory of her mother, Imogen Hawthorne, granddaughter of Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne, 2004. 138521.
In 1839 the two became secretly engaged. Sophia kept painting and Nathaniel kept writing. And the two finally wed in 1842. This couple stayed in touch, had a secret engagement and pursued their personal interests — all in the midst of a pandemic.
Something about their experience feels strangely familiar to me. As the popular (and somewhat dreaded) Hallmark holiday approaches this February 14, I’m aiming to take a nod from these two lovebirds. Could romance be possible during quarantine?
As I’ve said to my mother on many occasions: it’s very weird trying to date right now. There’s no striking up conversation with the person next to you at a bar. No bumping into someone on the train or waiting in line for iced coffee. No one to dance with at parties or concerts. It's hard to meet a guy when half your face is covered by a mask and you are constantly encouraged to stay as far away as possible from other people.
So I did what any millennial would do. I skimmed dating articles in Cosmo and downloaded Hinge. Boastfully marketing itself as the app that’s “designed to be deleted,” I was mildly curious.
Unlike the relationship developed through years of intimate correspondence between Sophia and Nathaniel, the online dating world is rather impersonal. You like someone’s profile. Match. Exchange mildly entertaining messages. Start texting. And set up a date. Or you get ghosted and try it all again.
After a few days swiping through potential suitors, it dawned on me — what if we actually meet? In real life. It felt like something from a Jane Austen novel. Can we only go for a socially-distanced walk around town? Even Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy could dance with each other.
A rapid-fire thread of anxious thoughts raced through my head:
What if he doesn’t take coronavirus seriously? Or worse, he’s an anti-masker?
Were his profile photos taken before the inevitable Quarantine 15?
Will I have lipstick on my teeth from this mask?
Do we kiss?
Is it reckless to do any of this during a pandemic?
But I decided to go. And it was surprisingly refreshing to meet someone new and escape into conversation, while abiding by our 90-minute reservation and state-imposed curfew.
It was comforting in some small way. At its most basic, all anyone is looking for on any app is connection during these crazy times. A moment to exchange experiences of how we’re dealing with the anxieties of quarantine; hearing what makes us happy; which home workouts we’ve started; what country we’ll travel to first once it’s safe. Whether it happens IRL at a restaurant or through virtual speed dating (hard pass for me, but some do enjoy).
If anything, I think the pandemic has made everyone a little more honest — both about who we are and what we’re looking for in a partner. As one date kindly put it, he didn’t think we were a great fit for each other right now. (I still prefer him over the others who completely disappeared).
We’ve had time, almost a year, to think about a lot of things, and the dating world interestingly reflects that. No, we’re not writing letters, but we are communicating more and even having a phone conversation (something I usually avoid).
To take a page from the Hawthorne’s book, maybe some things do take time.
TOP IMAGE: Ever the romantic, Charles Benson wrote his wife letters from sea as seen from a page in his journal. Charles A. Benson papers, 1862-1880, MSS 15, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Rowley MA.
For those in the area, Salem’s annual So Sweet Chocolate & Ice Sculpture Festival runs through Valentine’s Day. Stop by February 13 and 14 to see a special sculpture outside PEM and to participate in a “Love Letter Treasure Hunt” to search for pieces of a love letter between our very own Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne.
Editor’s Note: The above portrait of Sophia is on view in PEM's Salem Stories exhibition. Two of Sophia Hawthorne’s paintings as well as the portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne are on view in PEM’s Barbara Weld Putnam Gallery. PEM’s Phillips Library collection includes over 3,000 individual volumes by the author. Explore more at pem.org/visit/library.