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Sisters who transcended convention

For two years, from 1840 to 1842, the town house on West Street just off Boston Common -- now a restaurant -- was bursting with the ideas and talent of the extraordinary Peabody sisters.

After three decades -- they were by then in their 30s -- of ambitious but itinerant lives as members of a well-connected but financially strapped family, they were living and working together in what was then the center of America's intellectual life.

On the first floor, Elizabeth had established a publishing house and bookstore, stocking, among other things, European books and periodicals. Upstairs, Mary conducted a girls' school and a tutoring program, and Sophia had her combination bedroom and art studio.

Their house became the meeting place for Transcendentalists and utopians. There, Margaret Fuller held weekly ''Conversations," Brook Farm was organized, and Ralph Waldo Emerson edited The Dial -- with Elizabeth as its publisher and Henry David Thoreau among the contribu-tors.

But however united the sisters were in artistic and intellectual enterprises, there were secrets of a romantic nature in the form of two of the West Street visitors, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Horace Mann. Elizabeth had loved both, and she noticed the mutual attraction between Hawthorne and Sophia, writing, ''What if he should fall in love with her?"

Even though lifetimes still lay ahead for the sisters after Sophia's marriage to Hawthorne in 1842 and Mary's to Mann the following year, Megan Marshall concludes her account of their linked lives with what she calls the ''breakup of the sisterhood." It is a graceful account, bursting with the excitement of shared personal and intellectual discovery. And it is the fruit of almost two decades of work. Marshall, who lives in Newton and has written on New England and women's history, undertook the project in 1985.

But she writes that to really understand the sisters and their linked lives requires a study of the primary source material, their letters. As Marshall puts it in a comment forwarded by her publisher, ''I realized I could read a thousand letters by one sister and never really know her until I read all the letters her sisters wrote back to her." And not only were there the sheer numbers, but, according to Marshall, many were ''cross-written" to save money, with a letter turned 90 degrees and written back over the original writing.

After the breakup, the sisters mainly went their separate ways. Of their three younger brothers, two had already died, one while studying a yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans. A sister died in infancy.

Elizabeth, who at 17 when the family was attempting a fresh start in Lancaster had opened her first school with ''a dispositiontoward experiment [inherited] from her mother," is credited with introducing kindergartens in the United States. She never mar-ried.

Mary worked with Mann in founding Antioch College and after his death turned to writing, leaving unpublished at her death a short story that hinted at the love triangle with Elizabeth.

Sophia's wedding, Marshall writes, ''seemed the culmination of a Transcendentalist fairy tale." She did her last painting the year her first child was born and lived a life, as a friend put it, ''bound up in that of her husband."

Though each of the Peabody sisters' lives is interesting in its own right, the real fascination is in their linked lives, and those have now been ably re-created.

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