Margaret Fuller Ossoli.
From engraving by Hall]
Margaret Fuller, in some respects the most remarkable of American
women, lived a pathetic life and died a tragic death. Without money
and without beauty, she became the idol of an immense circle of
friends; men and women were alike her devotees. It is the old story:
that the woman of brain makes lasting conquests of hearts, while the
pretty face holds its sway only for a month or a year.
Margaret, born in Cambridgeport, Mass., May 23, 1810, was the
oldest child of a scholarly lawyer, Mr. Timothy Fuller, and of a
sweet-tempered, devoted mother. The father, with small means, had
one absorbing purpose in life,--to see that each of his children was
finely educated. To do this, and make ends meet, was a struggle. His
daughter said, years after, in writing of him: "His love for my mother
was the green spot on which he stood apart from the commonplaces of
a mere bread-winning existence. She was one of those fair and
flower-like natures, which sometimes spring up even beside the most
dusty highways of life. Of all persons whom I have known, she had in
her most of the angelic,--of that spontaneous love for every living
thing, for man and beast and tree, which restores the Golden Age."
Very fond of his oldest child, Margaret, the father determined that
she should be as well educated as his boys. In those days there were
no colleges for girls, and none where they might enter with their
brothers, so that Mr. Fuller was obliged to teach his daughter after
the wearing work of the day. The bright child began to read Latin
at six, but was necessarily kept up late for the recitation. When
a little later she was walking in her sleep, and dreaming strange
dreams, he did not see that he was overtaxing both her body and brain.
When the lessons had been learned, she would go into the library, and
read eagerly. One Sunday afternoon, when she was eight years old, she
took down Shakespeare from the shelves, opened at Romeo and Juliet,
and soon became fascinated with the story.
"What are you reading?" asked her father.
"Shakespeare," was the answer, not lifting her eyes from the page.
"That won't do--that's no book for Sunday; go put it away, and take
Margaret did as she was bidden; but the temptation was too strong, and
the book was soon in her hands again.
"What is that child about, that she don't hear a word we say?" said an
Seeing what she was reading, the father said, angrily, "Give me the
book, and go directly to bed."
There could have been a wiser and gentler way of control, but he had
not learned that it is better to lead children than to drive them.
When not reading, Margaret enjoyed her mother's little garden of
flowers. "I loved," she says, "to gaze on the roses, the violets, the
lilies, the pinks; my mother's hand had planted them, and they bloomed
for me. I kissed them, and pressed them to my bosom with passionate
emotions. An ambition swelled my heart to be as beautiful, as perfect
Margaret grew to fifteen with an exuberance of life and affection,
which the chilling atmosphere of that New England home somewhat
suppressed, and with an increasing love for books and cultured people.
"I rise a little before five," she writes, "walk an hour, and then
practise on the piano till seven, when we breakfast. Next, I read
French--Sismondi's _Literature of the South of Europe_--till eight;
then two or three lectures in Brown's _Philosophy._ About half past
nine I go to Mr. Perkins's school, and study Greek till twelve, when,
the school being dismissed, I recite, go home, and practise again till
dinner, at two. Then, when I can, I read two hours in Italian."
And why all this hard work for a girl of fifteen? The "all-powerful
motive of ambition," she says. "I am determined on distinction, which
formerly I thought to win at an easy rate; but now I see that long
years of labor must be given."
She had learned the secret of most prominent lives. The majority in
this world will always be mediocre, because they lack high-minded
ambition and the willingness to work.
Two years after, at seventeen, she writes: "I am studying Madame de
Stael, Epictetus, Milton, Racine, and the Castilian ballads, with
great delight.... I am engrossed in reading the elder Italian
poets, beginning with Berni, from whom I shall proceed to Pulci and
Politian." How almost infinitely above "beaus and dresses" was such
intellectual work as this!
It was impossible for such a girl not to influence the mind of every
person she met. At nineteen she became the warm friend of Rev. James
Freeman Clarke, "whose friendship," he says, "was to me a gift of the
gods.... With what eagerness did she seek for knowledge! What fire,
what exuberance, what reach, grasp, overflow of thought, shone in her
conversation!... And what she thus was to me, she was to many others.
Inexhaustible in power of insight, and with a good will 'broad as
ether,' she could enter into the needs, and sympathize with the
various excellences, of the greatest variety of characters. One
thing only she demanded of all her friends, that they should not be
satisfied with the common routine of life,--that they should aspire to
something higher, better, holier, than had now attained."
Witty, learned, imaginative, she was conceded to be the best
conversationist in any circle. She possessed the charm that every
woman may possess,--appreciation of others, and interest in their
welfare. This sympathy unlocked every heart to her. She was made the
confidante of thousands. All classes loved her. Now it was a serving
girl who told Margaret her troubles and her cares; now it was a
distinguished man of letters. She was always an inspiration. Men never
talked idle, commonplace talk with her; she could appreciate the best
of their minds and hearts, and they gave it. She was fond of social
life, and no party seemed complete without her.
At twenty-two she began to study German, and in three months was
reading with ease Goethe's _Faust, Tasso and Iphigenia_, Koerner,
Richter, and Schiller. She greatly admired Goethe, desiring, like him,
"always to have some engrossing object of pursuit." Besides all this
study she was teaching six little children, to help bear the expenses
of the household.
The family at this time moved to Groton, a great privation for
Margaret, who enjoyed and needed the culture of Boston society. But
she says, "As, sad or merry, I must always be learning, I laid down a
course of study at the beginning of the winter." This consisted of the
history and geography of modern Europe, and of America, architecture,
and the works of Alfieri, Goethe, and Schiller. The teaching was
continued because her brothers must be sent to Harvard College, and
this required money; not the first nor the last time that sisters have
worked to give brothers an education superior to their own.
At last the constitution, never robust, broke down, and for nine days
Margaret lay hovering between this world and the next. The tender
mother called her "dear lamb," and watched her constantly, while the
stern father, who never praised his children, lest it might harm them,
said, "My dear, I have been thinking of you in the night, and I cannot
remember that you have any _faults._ You have defects, of course, as
all mortals have, but I do not know that you have a single fault."
"While Margaret recovered, the father was taken suddenly with cholera,
and died after a two days' illness. He was sadly missed, for at heart
he was devoted to his family. When the estate was settled, there was
little left for each; so for Margaret life would be more laborious
than ever. She had expected to visit Europe with Harriet Martineau,
who was just returning home from a visit to this country, but the
father's death crushed this long-cherished and ardently-prayed-for
journey. She must stay at home and work for others.
Books were read now more eagerly than ever,--_Sartor Resartus_,
Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Heine. But money must be earned. Ah! if
genius could only develop in ease and prosperity. It rarely has the
chance. The tree grows best when the dirt is oftenest stirred about
the roots; perhaps the best in us comes only from such stirring.
Margaret now obtained a situation as teacher of French and Latin in
Bronson Alcott's school. Here she was appreciated by both master and
pupils. Mr. Alcott said, "I think her the most brilliant talker of
the day. She has a quick and comprehensive wit, a firm command of her
thoughts, and a speech to win the ear of the most cultivated." She
taught advanced classes in German and Italian, besides having several
Before this time she had become a valued friend of the Emerson family.
Mr. Emerson says, "Sometimes she stayed a few days, often a week, more
seldom a month, and all tasks that could be suspended were put aside
to catch the favorable hour in walking, riding, or boating, to talk
with this joyful guest, who brought wit, anecdotes, love-stories,
tragedies, oracles with her.... The day was never long enough to
exhaust her opulent memory, and I, who knew her intimately for ten
years, never saw her without surprise at her new powers."
She was passionately fond of music and of art, saying, "I have been
very happy with four hundred and seventy designs of Raphael in my
possession for a week." She loved nature like a friend, paying homage
to rocks and woods and flowers. She said, "I hate not to be beautiful
when all around is so."
After teaching with Mr. Alcott, she became the principal teacher in a
school at Providence, R.I. Here, as ever, she showed great wisdom both
with children and adults. The little folks in the house were allowed
to look at the gifts of many friends in her room, on condition that
they would not touch them. One day a young visitor came, and insisted
on taking down a microscope, and broke it. The child who belonged
in the house was well-nigh heart-broken over the affair, and, though
protesting her innocence, was suspected both of the deed and of
falsehood. Miss Fuller took the weeping child upon her knee, saying,
"Now, my dear little girl, tell me all about it; only remember
that you must be careful, for I shall believe every word you say."
Investigation showed that the child thus confided in told the whole
After two years in Providence she returned to Boston, and in 1839
began a series of parlor lectures, or "conversations," as they were
called. This seemed a strange thing for a woman, when public speaking
by her sex was almost unknown. These talks were given weekly,
from eleven o'clock till one, to twenty-five or thirty of the most
cultivated women of the city. Now the subject of discussion was
Grecian mythology; now it was fine arts, education, or the relations
of woman to the family, the church, society, and literature. These
meetings were continued through five winters, supplemented by evening
"conversations," attended by both men and women. In these gatherings
Margaret was at her best,--brilliant, eloquent, charming.
During this time a few gifted men, Emerson, Channing, and others,
decided to start a literary and philosophical magazine called the
_Dial_. Probably no woman in the country would have been chosen as the
editor, save Margaret Fuller. She accepted the position, and for four
years managed the journal ably, writing for it some valuable essays.
Some of these were published later in her book on _Literature and
Art_. Her _Woman in the Nineteenth Century_, a learned and vigorous
essay on woman's place in the world, first appeared in part in the
_Dial_. Of this work, she said, in closing it, "After taking a long
walk, early one most exhilarating morning, I sat down to work, and did
not give it the last stroke till near nine in the evening. Then I felt
a delightful glow, as if I had put a good deal of my true life in it,
and as if, should I go away now, the measure of my footprint would be
left on the earth."
Miss Fuller had published, besides these works, two books of
translations from the German, and a sketch of travel called _Summer
on the Lakes_. Her experience was like that of most authors who are
beginning,--some fame, but no money realized. All this time she was
frail in health, overworked, struggling against odds to make a living
for herself and those she loved. But there were some compensations
in this life of toil. One person wrote her, "What I am I owe in large
measure to the stimulus you imparted. You roused my heart with high
hopes; you raised my aims from paltry and vain pursuits to those which
lasted and fed the soul; you inspired me with a great ambition, and
made me see the worth and the meaning of life."
William Hunt, the renowned artist, was looking in a book that lay on
the table of a friend. It was Mrs. Jameson's _Italian Painters._ In
describing Correggio, she said he was "one of those superior beings of
whom there are so few." Margaret had written on the margin, "And
yet all might be such." Mr. Hunt said, "These words struck out a new
strength in me. They revived resolutions long fallen away, and made me
set my face like a flint."
Margaret was now thirty-four. The sister was married, the brothers had
finished their college course, and she was about to accept an
offer from the _New York Tribune_ to become one of its constant
contributors, an honor that few women would have received. Early in
December, 1844, Margaret moved to New York and became a member of
Mr. Greeley's family. Her literary work here was that of, says Mr.
Higginson, "the best literary critic whom America has yet seen."
Sometimes her reviews, like those on the poetry of Longfellow and
Lowell, were censured, but she was impartial and able. Society opened
wide its doors to her, as it had in Boston. Mrs. Greeley became her
devoted friend, and their little son "Pickie," five years old, the
idol of Mr. Greeley, her restful playmate.
A year and a half later an opportunity came for Margaret to go to
Europe. Now, at last, she would see the art-galleries of the old
world, and places rich in history, like Rome. Still there was the
trouble of scanty means, and poor health from overwork. She said, "A
noble career is yet before me, if I can be unimpeded by cares. If
our family affairs could now be so arranged that I might be tolerably
tranquil for the next six or eight years, I should go out of life
better satisfied with the page I have turned in it than I shall if I
must still toil on."
After two weeks on the ocean, the party of friends arrived in
London, and Miss Fuller received a cordial welcome. Wordsworth, now
seventy-six, showed her the lovely scenery of Rydal Mount, pointing
out as his especial pride, his avenue of hollyhocks--crimson,
straw-color, and white. De Quincey showed her many courtesies. Dr.
Chalmers talked eloquently, while William and Mary Howitt seemed like
old friends. Carlyle invited her to his home. "To interrupt him," she
said, "is a physical impossibility. If you get a chance to remonstrate
for a moment, he raises his voice and bears you down."
In Paris, Margaret attended the Academy lectures, saw much of George
Sand, waded through melting snow at Avignon to see Laura's tomb, and
at last was in Italy, the country she had longed to see. Here Mrs.
Jameson, Powers, and Greenough, and the Brownings and Storys, were her
warm friends. Here she settled down to systematic work, trying to keep
her expenses for six months within four hundred dollars. Still, when
most cramped for means herself, she was always generous. Once, when
living on a mere pittance, she loaned fifty dollars to a needy artist.
In New York she gave an impecunious author five hundred dollars to
publish his book, and, of course, never received a dollar in return.
Yet the race for life was wearing her out. So tired was she that she
said, "I should like to go to sleep, and be born again into a state
where my young life should not be prematurely taxed."
Meantime the struggle for Italian unity was coming to its climax.
Mazzini and his followers were eager for a republic. Pius IX. had
given promises to the Liberal party, but afterwards abandoned it, and
fled to Gaeta. Then Mazzini turned for help to the President of the
French Republic, Louis Napoleon, who, in his heart, had no love for
republics, but sent an army to reinstate the Pope. Rome, when she
found herself betrayed, fought like a tiger. Men issued from the
workshops with their tools for weapons, while women from the housetops
urged them on. One night over one hundred and fifty bombs were thrown
into the heart of the city.
Margaret was the friend of Mazzini, and enthusiastic for Roman
liberty. All those dreadful months she ministered to the wounded and
dying in the hospitals, and was their "saint," as they called her.
But there was another reason why Margaret Fuller loved Italy.
Soon after her arrival in Rome, as she was attending vespers at St.
Peter's with a party of friends, she became separated from them.
Failing to find them, seeing her anxious face, a young Italian came
up to her, and politely offered to assist her. Unable to regain her
friends, Angelo Ossoli walked with her to her home, though he could
speak no English, and she almost no Italian. She learned afterward
that he was of a noble and refined family; that his brothers were in
the Papal army, and that he was highly respected.
After this he saw Margaret once or twice, when she left Rome for some
months. On her return, he renewed the acquaintance, shy and quiet
though he was, for her influence seemed great over him. His father,
the Marquis Ossoli, had just died, and Margaret, with her large heart,
sympathized with him, as she alone knew how to sympathize. He joined
the Liberals, thus separating himself from his family, and was made a
captain of the Civic Guard.
Finally he confessed to Margaret that he loved her, and that he "must
marry her or be miserable." She refused to listen to him as a lover,
said he must marry a younger woman,--she was thirty-seven, and he but
thirty,--but she would be his friend. For weeks he was dejected and
unhappy. She debated the matter with her own heart. Should she,
who had had many admirers, now marry a man her junior, and not of
surpassing intellect, like her own? If she married him, it must be
kept a secret till his father's estate was settled, for marriage with
a Protestant would spoil all prospect of an equitable division.
Love conquered, and she married the young Marquis Ossoli in December,
1847. He gave to Margaret the kind of love which lasts after marriage,
veneration of her ability and her goodness. "Such tender, unselfish
love," writes Mrs. Story, "I have rarely before seen; it made green
her days, and gave her an expression of peace and serenity which
before was a stranger to her. When she was ill, he nursed and watched
over her with the tenderness of a woman. No service was too trivial,
no sacrifice too great for him. 'How sweet it is to do little things
for you,' he would say."
To her mother, Margaret wrote, though she did not tell her secret,
"I have not been so happy since I was a child, as during the last six
But days of anxiety soon came, with all the horrors of war. Ossoli was
constantly exposed to death, in that dreadful siege of Rome. Then Rome
fell, and with it the hopes of Ossoli and his wife. There would be
neither fortune nor home for a Liberal now--only exile. Very sadly
Margaret said goodbye to the soldiers in the hospitals, brave fellows
whom she honored, who in the midst of death itself, would cry "Viva l'
But before leaving Rome, a day's journey must be made to Rieta, at the
foot of the Umbrian Apennines. And for what? The most precious thing
of Margaret's life was there,--her baby. The fair child, with blue
eyes and light hair like her own, had already been named by the people
in the house, Angelino, from his beauty. She had always been fond
of children. Emerson's Waldo, for whom _Threnody_ was written was an
especial favorite; then "Pickie," Mr. Greeley's beautiful boy, and now
a new joy had come into her heart, a child of her own. She wrote to
her mother: "In him I find satisfaction, for the first time, to
the deep wants of my heart. Nothing but a child can take the worst
bitterness out of life, and break the spell of loneliness. I shall not
be alone in other worlds, whenever Eternity may call me.... I wake in
the night,--I look at him. He is so beautiful and good, I could die
When Ossoli and Margaret reached Rieta, what was their horror to find
their child worn to a skeleton, half starved through the falsity of a
nurse. For four weeks the distressed parents coaxed him back to life,
till the sweet beauty of the rounded face came again, and then they
carried him to Florence, where, despite poverty and exile, they were
"In the morning," she says, "as soon as dressed, he signs to come into
our room; then draws our curtain with his little dimpled hand, kisses
me rather violently, and pats my face.... I feel so refreshed by his
young life, and Ossoli diffuses such a power and sweetness over every
day, that I cannot endure to think yet of our future.... It is very
sad we have no money, we could be so quietly happy a while. I rejoice
in all Ossoli did; but the results, in this our earthly state, are
disastrous, especially as my strength is now so impaired. This much I
hope--in life or death, to be no more separated from Angelino."
Margaret's friends now urged her return to America. She had nearly
finished a history of Rome in this trying time, 1848, and could better
attend to its publication in this country. Ossoli, though coming to a
land of strangers, could find something to help, support the family.
To save expense, they started from Leghorn, May 17, 1850, in the
_Elizabeth_, a sailing vessel, though Margaret dreaded the two months'
voyage, and had premonitions of disaster. She wrote: "I have a vague
expectation of some crisis,--I know not what. But it has long seemed
that, in the year 1850, I should stand on a plateau in the ascent of
life, when I should be allowed to pause for a while, and take more
clear and commanding views than ever before. Yet my life proceeds as
regularly as the fates of a Greek tragedy, and I can but accept the
pages as they turn.... I shall embark, praying fervently that it may
not be my lot to lose my boy at sea, either by unsolaced illness, or
amid the howling waves; or, if so, that Ossoli, Angelo, and I may go
together, and that the anguish may be brief."
For a few days all went well on shipboard; and then the noble Captain
Hasty died of small-pox, and was buried at sea. Angelino took this
dread disease, and for a time his life was despaired of, but he
finally recovered, and became a great pet with the sailors. Margaret
was putting the last touches to her book. Ossoli and young Sumner,
brother of Charles, gave each other lessons in Italian and English,
and thus the weeks went by.
On Thursday, July 18, after two months, the _Elizabeth_ stood off the
Jersey coast, between Cape May and Barnegat. Trunks were packed, good
nights were spoken, and all were happy, for they would be in New York
on the morrow. At nine that night a gale arose; at midnight it was
a hurricane; at four o'clock, Friday morning, the ship struck Fire
Island beach. The passengers sprung from their berths. "We must die!"
said Sumner to Mrs. Hasty. "Let us die calmly, then!" was the response
of the widow of the captain.
At first, as the billows swept over the vessel, Angelino, wet and
afraid, began to cry; but his mother held him closely in her arms and
sang him to sleep. Noble courage on a sinking ship! The Italian girl
who had come with them was in terror; but after Ossoli prayed with
her, she became calm. For hours they waited anxiously for help from
the shore. They could see the life-boat, and the people collecting the
spoils which had floated thither from the ship, but no relief came.
One sailor and another sprang into the waves and saved themselves.
Then Sumner jumped overboard, but sank.
One of the sailors suggested that if each passenger sit on a plank,
holding on by ropes, they would attempt to push him or her to land.
Mrs. Hasty was the first to venture, and after being twice washed
off, half-drowned, reached the shore. Then Margaret was urged, but she
hesitated, unless all three could be saved. Every moment the danger
increased. The crew were finally ordered "to save themselves," but
four remained with the passengers. It was useless to look longer
to the people on shore for help, though it was now past three
o'clock,--twelve hours since the vessel struck.
Margaret had finally been induced to try the plank. The steward had
taken Angelino in his arms, promising to save him or die with him,
when a strong sea swept the forecastle, and all went down together.
Ossoli caught the rigging for a moment, but Margaret sank at once.
When last seen, she was seated at the foot of the foremast, still
clad in her white nightdress, with her hair fallen loose upon her
shoulders. Angelino and the steward were washed upon the beach
twenty minutes later, both dead, though warm. Margaret's prayer was
answered,--that they "might go together, and that the anguish might be
The pretty boy of two years was dressed in a child's frock taken from
his mother's trunk, which had come to shore, laid in a seaman's
chest, and buried in the sand, while the sailors, who loved him,
stood around, weeping. His body was finally removed to Mt. Auburn, and
buried in the family lot. The bodies of Ossoli and Margaret were never
recovered. The only papers of value which came to shore were their
love letters, now deeply prized. The book ready for publication was
When those on shore were asked why they did not launch the life-boat,
they replied, "Oh! if we had known there were any such persons of
importance on board, we should have tried to do our best!"
Thus, at forty, died one of the most gifted women in America, when her
work seemed just begun. To us, who see how the world needed her, her
death is a mystery; to Him who "worketh all things after the counsel
of His own will" there is no mystery. She filled her life with
charities and her mind with knowledge, and such are ready for the
progress of Eternity.