March 3, 2011

Una Hawthorne: business on earth now

In which his torment often was so great,
That, like a lyon, he would cry and rore;
And rend his flesh; and his owne synewes eat.
His owne deare Una, hearing evermore
His ruefull shriekes and gronings, often tore
Her guiltlesse garments and her golden heare,
For pitty of his payne and anguish sore:
Yet all with patience wisely she did beare...

When Nathaniel Hawthorne and Sophia Peabody had their first child on March 3, 1844, they named her after a character in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (quoted above from Book I, Canto X). Extended family was not happy. Nathaniel protested to his sister, "Almost everybody has had something to say about [the name]; but only yourselves have found out that it does not sound prettily!" Una Hawthorne's godfather was John L. O'Sullivan, one of Hawthorne's early publishers.

The delivery took 10 hours, but mother remained happy: "It was a great happiness to be able to put her to my breast immediately and I thanked Heaven I was able to have the privilege of nursing her." The new father noted it was "a very sober and serious kind of happiness" and was concerned about financially supporting his growing family. "There is no escaping it any longer," he wrote to a friend, "I have business on earth now, and must look about me for the means of doing it." Perhaps more prophetically, he predicted: "It will not do for me to continue merely a writer of stories for the magazines - the most unprofitable business in the world."

Scholars speculate that Una inspired the character of Pearl in The Scarlet Letter, published seven years after her birth (she was never allowed to read the novel). As a teenager, while the Hawthornes lived in Italy, Una came down with "Roman fever" (an illness similar to malaria). She later became engaged to a nephew of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, but the marriage was called off for reasons which remain unclear. When her younger sister Rose Hawthorne married, she reportedly became depressed and possibly insane. A later potential husband, Albert Webster, died at sea. She lived with her brother Julian Hawthorne in England (Julian and Una are pictured above, circa 1850). It was in England that she died in 1877 at the age of 33. She was originally buried next to her mother before both were reburied in Concord, Massachusetts.

After her father's death, Una provided a preface for the posthumous publication of his incomplete novel Septimius Felton: Or, The Elixir of Life:

I believe it is a striking specimen of the peculiarities and charm of his style, and that it will have an added interest for brother artists, and for those who care to study the method of his composition, from the mere fact of its not having received his final revision. In any case, I feel sure that the retention of the passages within brackets (e. g. p. 30), which show how my father intended to amplify some of the descriptions and develop more fully one or two of the character studies, will not be regretted by appreciative readers.

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