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MARGARET FULLER: MARCHESA D'OSSOLI
ANY account of Brook Farm which should neglect to dwell upon the part played in the community life by Margaret Fuller, Marchesa d'Ossoli, would be almost like the play of "Hamlet" with the Prince of Denmark left out. For although Margaret Fuller never lived at Brook Farm – was, indeed, only an occasional visitor there – her influence pervaded the place, and, as we feel from reading the "Blithedale Romance," she was really, whether absent or present, the strongest personality connected with the experiment.
Hawthorne's first bucolic experience was with the famous "transcendental heifer" mistakenly said to have been the property of Margaret Fuller. As a matter of fact, the beast had been named after Cambridge's most intellectual woman, by Ripley, who had a whimsical fashion of thus honouring his friends. According to Hawthorne, the name in this case was not inapt, for the cow was so recalcitrant and anti-social that it was finally sent to Coventry by the more docile kine, always to be counted on for moderate conservatism.
This cow's would-be-tamer, not wishing to be unjust, refers to this heifer as having "a very intelligent face" and "a reflective cast of character." He certainly paid Margaret Fuller herself no such tribute, but thus early in his Brook Farm experience let appear his thinly veiled contempt for the high priestess of transcendentalism.
Even earlier his antagonism toward this eminent woman was strong, if it was not frank, for he wrote: "I was invited to dine at Mr. Bancroft's yesterday with Miss Margaret Fuller, but Providence had given me same business to do for which I was very thankful."
The unlovely side of Margaret Fuller must have made a very deep impression upon Hawthorne. Gentle as the great romancer undoubtedly was by birth and training, he has certainly been very harsh in writing, both in his note-book and in his story of Brook Farm, of the woman we recognise in Zenobia. One of the most interesting literary wars ever carried on in this vicinity, indeed, was that which was waged here some fifteen years ago concerning Julian Hawthorne's revelations of his father's private opinion of the Marchesa d'Ossoli. The remarks in question occurred in the great Hawthorne's "Roman Journal," and were certainly sufficiently scathing to call for such warm defence as Margaret's surviving friends hastened to offer. Hawthorne said among other things:
"Margaret Fuller had a strong and coarse nature which she had done her utmost to refine, with infinite pains; but, of course, it could be only superficially changed. . . . Margaret has not left in the hearts and minds of those who knew her any deep witness of her integrity and purity. She was a great humbug – of course, with much talent and moral reality, or else she could never have been so great a humbug. . . . Toward the last there appears to have been a total collapse in poor Margaret, morally and intellectually; and tragic as her catastrophe was, Providence was, after all, kind in putting her and her clownish husband and their child on board that fated ship. . . . On the whole, I do not know but I like her the better, though, because she proved herself a very woman after all, and fell as the meanest of her sisters might."
The latter sentences refer to Margaret's marriage to Ossoli, a man some ten years the junior of his gifted wife, and by no means her intellectual equal. That the marriage was a strange one even Margaret's most ardent friends admit, but it was none the less exceedingly human and very natural, as Hawthorne implies, for a woman of thirty-seven, whose interests had long been of the strictly intellectual kind, to yield herself at last to the impulses of an affectionate nature.
But we are getting very much ahead of our story, which should begin, of course, far back in May, 1810, when there was born, at the corner of Eaton and Cherry Streets, in Cambridgeport, a tiny daughter to Timothy Fuller and his wife. The dwelling in which Margaret first saw the light still stands, and is easily recognised by the three elms in front, planted by the proud father to celebrate the advent of his first child.
The garden in which Margaret and her mother delighted has long since vanished; but the house still retains a certain dignity, though now divided into three separate tenements, numbered respectively 69, 72, and 75 Cherry Street, and occupied by a rather migratory class of tenants. The pillared doorway and the carved wreaths above it still give an old-fashioned grace to the somewhat dilapidated house.
The class with which Margaret may be said to have danced through Harvard College was that of 1829, which has been made by the wit and poetry of Holmes the most eminent class that ever left Harvard. The memory of one lady has preserved far us a picture of the girl Margaret as she appeared at a ball when she was sixteen.
"She had a very plain face, half-shut eyes, and hair curled all over her head; she was dressed in a badly-cut, low-neck pink silk, with white muslin over it; and she danced quadrilles very awkwardly, being withal so near-sighted that she could hardly see her partner."
With Holmes she was not especially intimate, we learn, though they had been schoolmates; but with two of the most conspicuous members of the class – William Henry Channing and James Freeman Clarke – she formed a lifelong friendship, and these gentlemen became her biographers.
Yet, after all, the most important part of a woman's training is that which she obtains from her own sex, and of this Margaret Fuller had quite her share. She was one of those maidens who form passionate attachments to older women, and there were many Cambridge ladies of the college circle who in turn won her ardent loyalty.
"My elder sister," writes Thomas Wentworth Higginson, in his biography of Margaret Fuller, " can well remember this studious, self-conscious, over-grown girl as sitting at my mother's feet, covering her hands with kisses, and treasuring her every word. It was the same at other times with other women, most of whom were too much absorbed in their own duties to give more than a passing solicitude to this rather odd and sometimes inconvenient adorer."
The side of Margaret Fuller to which scant attention has been paid heretofore is this ardently affectionate side, and this it is which seems to account for what has always before appeared inexplicable her romantic marriage to the young Marchese d'Ossoli. The intellect was in truth only a small part of Margaret, and if Hawthorne had improved, as he might have done, his opportunities to study the whale nature of the woman, he would not have written even for his private diary the harsh sentences already quoted. One has only to look at the heroic fashion in which, after the death of her father, Margaret took up the task of educating her brothers and sisters to feel that there was much besides selfishness in this woman's makeup. Nor can one believe that Emerson would ever have cared to have for the friend of a lifetime a woman who was a "humbug." Of Margaret's schoolteaching, conversation classes on west Street, Boston, and labours on the Dial, a transcendental paper in which Emerson was deeply interested, there is not space to speak here. But one phase of her work which cannot be ignored is that performed on the Tribune, in the days of Horace Greeley.
Greeley brought Boston's high priestess to New York for the purpose of putting the literary criticism of the Tribune on a higher plane than any American newspaper then occupied, as well as that she might discuss in a large and stimulating way all philanthropic questions. That she rose to the former opportunity her enemies would be the first to grant, but only those who, like Margaret herself, believe in the sisterhood of women could freely endorse her attitude on philanthropic subjects.
Surely, though, it could not have been a hard woman of whom Horace Greeley wrote: "If she had been born to large fortune, a house of refuge for all female outcasts desiring to return to the ways of virtue would have been one of her most cherished and first realised conceptions. She once attended, with other noble women, a gathering of outcasts of their sex, and, being asked how they appeared to her, replied, 'As women like myself, save that they are victims of wrong and misfortune.' "
While labouring for the Tribune, Margaret Fuller was all the time saving her money for the trip to Europe, which had her life long been her dream of felicity; and at last, on the first of August, 1846, she sailed for her Elysian Fields. There, in December, 1847, she was secretly married, and in September, 1848, her child was born. What these experiences must have meant to her we are able to guess from a glimpse into her private journal in which she had many years before recorded her profoundest feeling about marriage and motherhood.
"I have no home. No one loves me. But I love many a good deal, and see some way into their eventful beauty. . . . I am myself growing better, and shall by and by be a worthy object of love, one that will not anywhere disappoint or need forbearance. . . . I have no child, and the woman in me has so craved this experience that it has seemed the want of it must paralyse me. . . ."
The circumstances under which Margaret Fuller and her husband first met are full of interest. Soon after Miss Fuller's arrival in Rome, early in 1847, she went one day to bear vespers at St. Peter's, and becoming separated from her friends after the service, she was noted as she examined the church by a young man of gentlemanly address, who, perceiving her discomfort and her lack of Italian, offered his services as a guide in her endeavour to find her companions.
Not seeing them anywhere, the young Marquis d'Ossoli, for it was he, accompanied Miss Fuller home, and they met once or twice again before she left Rome for the summer. The following season Miss Fuller had an apartment in Rome, and she often received among her guests this young patriot with whose labours in behalf of his native city she was thoroughly in sympathy.
When the young man after a few months declared his love, Margaret refused to marry him, insisting that he should choose a younger woman for his wife. "In this way it rested for some weeks," writes Mrs. Story, who knew them both, "during which we saw Ossoli pale, dejected, and unhappy. He was always with Margaret, but in a sort of hopeless, desperate manner, until at length he convinced her of his love, and she married him."
Then followed the wife's service in the hospitals while Ossoli was in the army outside the city. After the birth of their child, Angelo, the happy little family went to Florence.
The letters which passed between the young nobleman and the wife he adored are still extant, having been with the body of her beautiful baby the only things of Margaret Fuller's saved from the fatal wreck in which she and her two loved ones were lost. One of these letters will be enough to show the tenderness of the man:
"ROME, 21 October, 1848.
"MIA CARA: – I learn by yours of the 20th that you have received the ten scudi, and it makes me more tranquil. I feel also Mogliani's indolence in not coming to inoculate our child; but, my love, I pray you not to disturb yourself so much, and not to be sad, hoping that our dear love will be guarded by God, and will be free, from all misfortunes. He, will keep the child for us and give us the means to sustain him."
In answer to this letter, or one like it, we find the woman whom Hawthorne had deemed hard and cold writing:
"28 October, 1848.
". . . It rains very hard every day, but to-day I have been more quiet, and our darling has been so good, I have taken so much pleasure in being with him. When he smiles in his sleep, how it makes my heart beat! He has grown fat and very fair, and begins to play and spring. You will have much pleasure in seeing him again. He sends you many kisses. He bends his head toward me when he asks a kiss."
Both Madame Ossoli and her husband were very fearful as they embarked on the fated ship which was to take them to America. He had been cautioned by one who had told his fortune when a boy to beware of the sea, and his wife had long cherished a superstition that the year 1850 would be a marked epoch in her life. It is remarkable that in writing to a friend of her fear Madame Ossoli said: "I pray that if we are lost it may be brief anguish, and Ossoli, the babe, and I go together."
They sailed none the less, May 17, 1850, on the Elizabeth, a new merchant vessel, which set out from Leghorn. Misfortune soon began. The captain sickened and died of malignant smallpox, and after his burial at sea and a week's detention at Gibraltar, little Angelo caught the dread disease and was restored with difficulty. Yet a worse fate was to follow.
At noon of July 18, while they were off the coast of New Jersey, there was a gale, followed by a hurricane, which dashed the ship an that Fire Island Beach which has engulfed so many other vessels. Margaret Fuller and her husband were drowned with their child. The bodies of the parents were never recovered, but that of little Angelo was buried in a seaman's chest among the sandhills, from which it was later disinterred and brought to our own Mount Auburn by the relatives who had never seen the baby in life.
And there to-day in a little green grave rests the child of this great woman's great love.
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