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Chapter 15: marriage and motherhood. (1847-1850.)

Margaret Fuller's profoundest feeling about marriage and motherhood had already been recorded for years in a fragment of her journal. With strong, firm touches, in this confession, she balances what she has against what she would fain possess; and visibly tries to make the best of the actual:

I have no home on the earth, and [yet] I can think of one that would have a degree of beautiful harmony with my inward life.

But, driven from home to home as a Renouncer, I get the picture and the poetry of each. Keys of gold, silver, iron, and lead are in my casket.

No one loves me. But I love many a good deal, and see some way into their eventual 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. Meanwhile I have no fetter on me, no engagement, and as I look on others, almost every other, can I fail to feel this a great privilege? I have no way tied my hands or feet. And yet the varied calls on my sympathy have been such that I hope not [233] to be made partial, cold, or ignorant by this isolation. I have no child, and the woman in me has so craved this experience, that it has seemed the want of it must paralyze me. But now as I look on these lovely children of a human birth, what slow and neutralizing cares they bring with them to the mother! The children of the muse come quicker, with less pain and disgust, rest more lightly on the bosom and have... [here the fragment ends.]

Ms. (W. H. C.)

It may naturally be asked why, with such a true woman's longing for home and children, Margaret Fuller had never been married. Loved “with oriental adoration,” in Horace Greeley's phrase, by many women, she had also been loved sincerely by many men, while some of each sex had no doubt disliked her. Her letters to the men with whom she was, in maturer years, most intimate are singularly free, I will not merely say from coquettishness or sentimentality, but from anything that could fall short of her high standard of friendship. There is, however, no question that she had in early life at least one deep experience of personal emotion, followed by a reaction of disappointment. It is a satisfaction to know that the same letters which prove this — letters which I am not authorized to publish, nor should I wish to do it — show her only in an unselfish and generous aspect, while they bring her nearer to us by proving that even she, with all her Roman ambition, was still “a very woman” at heart. [234] With this retrospect for a background, the married life of Margaret Fuller Ossoli may now be studied. It will be portrayed, so far as possible, from original documents; the first place being given to a letter, relating to her, not included in the “Memoirs,” from Mr. Cass, then American charge d'affaires at Rome, and one of the few in whom she put confidence, at the great crisis of her life. The letter is addressed to Mrs. W. Ellery Channing, of Concord, Massachusetts, who, as has already been said, was the younger sister of Madame Ossoli.

Legation des États-unis d'amerique. Rome, May 10, 1851.
Madam,--I beg leave to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the — th ult., and to express my regret that the weak state of my eyesight has prevented me from giving it an earlier reply.

In compliance with your request, I have the honor to state, succinctly, the circumstances connected with my acquaintance with the late Madame Ossoli, your deceased sister, during her residence in Rome.

In the month of April, 1849, Rome, as you are no doubt aware, was placed in a state of siege by the approach of the French army. It was filled at that time with exiles and fugitives who had been contending for years, from Milan, in the North, to Palermo, in the South, for the Republican cause: and when the gates were closed, it was computed that there were, of Italians alone, thirteen thousand refugees within the walls of the city, all of whom had been expelled from adjacent states, till Rome became their last rallying-point, and to [235] many their final resting-place. Among these was to be seen every variety of age, sentiment, and condition,striplings and blanched heads; wild, visionary enthusiasts; grave, heroic men, who, in the struggle for freedom, had ventured all and lost all; nobles and beggars; bandits, felons, and brigands. Great excitement naturally existed; and, in the general apprehension which pervaded all classes that acts of personal violence and outrage would soon be committed, the foreign residents, especially, found themselves placed in an alarming situation.

On the 30th of April the first engagement took place between the French and Roman troops, and a few days subsequently I visited several of my countrymen, at their request, to concert measures for their safety, Hearing on that occasion, for the first time, of Miss Fuller's presence in Rome, and of her solitary mode of life, I ventured to call upon her, offering my services in any manner that might conduce to her comfort and security. She received me with much kindness, and thus our acquaintance commenced. Her residence, oil the Piazza Barberini, being considered an insecure abode, she removed to the Casa Dies, which was occupied by several American families.

In the engagements [which succeeded] between the Roman and French troops, the wounded of the former were brought into the city, and disposed throughout the different hospitals, which were under the superintendence of several ladies of high rank, who had formed themselves into associations, the better to insure care and attention to these unfortunate men. Miss Fuller took an active part in this noble work, and the greater portion of her time, during the entire siege, was passed [236] in the Hospital of the Trinity of the Pilgrims, which was placed under her direction, in attendance upon its inmates.

The weather was intensely hot; her health was feeble and delicate; the dead and dying were around her in every form of pain and horror; but she never shrank from the duty she had assumed. Her heart and soul were in the cause for which these men had fought, and all was done that woman could do to comfort them in their sufferings. I have seen the eyes of the dying, as she moved among them, extended upon opposite beds, meet in commendation of her unwearied kindness; and the friends of those who then passed away may derive consolation from the assurance that nothing of tenderness and attention was wanting to soothe their last moments. And I have heard many of those who recovered speak with all the passionate fervor of the Italian nature of her, whose sympathy and compassion throughout their long illness fulfilled all the offices of love and affection. Mazzini, the chief of the Triumvirate,--who, better than any man in Rome, knew her worth,--often expressed to me his admiration of her high character; and the Princess Belgiojoso, to whom was assigned the charge of the Papal Palace on the Quirinal, which was converted on this occasion into a hospital, was enthusiastic in her praise. And in a letter which I received not long since from this lady, who is gaining the bread of an exile by teaching languages in Constantinople, she alludes with much feeling to the support afforded by Miss Fuller to the Republican party in Italy. Here, in Rome, she is still spoken of in terms of regard and endearment; and the announcement of her death was received with a degree of sorrow which is not often be [237] stowed upon a foreigner, and especially one of a different faith.

On the 29th of June the bombardment from the French camp was very heavy, shells and grenades falling from every part of the city. In the afternoon of the 30th I received a brief note from Miss Fuller, requesting me to call at her residence. I did so without delay, and found her lying on a sofa, pale and trembling, evidently much exhausted. She informed me that she had sent for me to place in my hands a packet of important papers, which she wished me to keep for the present, and, in the event of her death, to transmit it to her friends in the United States. She then stated that she was married to the Marquis Ossoli, who was in command of a battery on the Pincian Hill. That being the highest and most exposed position in Rome, and directly in the line of the bombs from the French camp, it was not to be expected, she said, that he could escape the dangers of another night such as the last, and therefore it was her intention to remain with him, and share his fate. At the Ave Maria, she added, he would come for her, and they would proceed together to his post. The packet which she placed in my possession, contained, she said, the certificates of her marriage, and of the birth and baptism of her child. After a few words more, I took my departure, the hour she named having nearly arrived. At the porter's lodge I met the Marquis Ossoli, and a few moments afterwards I saw them walking towards the Pincian Hill.

Happily the cannonading was not renewed that night, and at dawn of day she returned to her apartment, with her husband by her side.

On the same day the French army entered Rome, [238] and, the gates being opened, Madame Ossoli, accompanied by the Marquis, immediately proceeded to Rieti, a village lying at the base of the Abruzzi Mountains, where she had left her child in the charge of a confidential nurse, formerly in the service of the Ossoli family. She remained, as you are no doubt aware, some months at Rieti, whence she removed to Florence, where she resided until her ill-fated departure for the United States. During this period I received several letters from her, all of which, though reluctant to part with them, I inclose to your address, in compliance with your request.

I am, Madam, very respectfully, your obedient servant, Lewis Cass, Jr.1

The circumstances under which Margaret Fuller and her husband first met have been several times described; and every account of them must mainly rest upon the important narrative by Mrs. William W. Story, the greater part of which was published long since in the “Memoirs.”2 In this letter she not only describes the occasion when Madame Ossoli confided the secret of the marriage and placed the evidences of it in Mrs. Story's hands; but she gives from immediate authority a narrative of the first interviews between those who were thus strangely brought together. If I vary somewhat from this account, as heretofore printed, it is because Mrs. Story's original letter lies before me; and I have attached importance [239] to certain passages which were omitted, perhaps for want of space or reasons of literary convenience, in the “Memoirs.”

Soon after Margaret Fuller's first coming to Rome, early in 1847, she went, one day, to hear vespers at St. Peter's, and, after the service, proposed to her companions, Mr.Spring and Mrs. Spring, that they should wander separately, at will, among the chapels, and meet at a certain designated point. Failing, however, to find them again, she walked about, in some perplexity, scanning different groups through her eye-glass. Ere long a young man of gentlemanly address came up to her, seeing her evident discomfort, and offered his services as guide. After they had continued their search in vain, for some time, during which the crowd had dispersed, he endeavored to find a carriage for her; and this failing, they walked together to her residence, conversing with some difficulty, as he knew no English and she had not yet learned Italian. At the door they parted, and she told her friends the adventure. A day or two after this, she observed the same young man walking before the house, as if meditating entrance; and they finally met once or twice before she left Rome for the summer. She was absent from June to October, visiting Florence, Bologna, Venice, Milan, the Italian lakes, and Switzerland. In October she established herself again in Rome, having an t “apartment” in the Corso, and trying to live for six months on four hundred dollars. [240] She wrote to her mother that she had not been so well since she was a child, or so happy even then. She had grown accustomed to the climate, which had at first affected her unfavorably; she could study history and antiquities; she had near her some tried friends, such as Mr.Cranch and Mrs. Cranch and Mr. and Mrs. Story; and she received her acquaintances, at her rooms, in a simple way, every Monday evening. Among these guests came constantly her new acquaintance, the young Italian,--well known by this time as Giovanni Angelo, Marquis Ossoli. He sympathized ill her zeal for what then seemed the promise of Italian liberty, and it is thought by those who best knew them that she did much in strengthening his purpose to throw off the traditions of his family, and pledge himself to the party of the people. Yet through his kindred he still kept up some relations with the other side, and the two attended the meetings held by the different factions; being meanwhile steadily drawn together by the excitement of a common interest.

It happened that the old Marquis Ossoli died of a lingering illness that winter, and, as Angelo was his youngest and only unmarried child, the care of the father came peculiarly upon this son. During this time of anxiety he used to spend a few daily moments with Margaret Fuller, sure of sympathy and strength; and it was immediately after his father's death that he disclosed his love, “telling her,” according to Mrs. Story [241] “that he must marry her or be miserable.” “She refused to look on him as a lover,” continued Mrs. Story,

and insisted that it was not fitting,that it was best he should marry a younger woman; that she would be his friend but not his wife. In this way it rested for some weeks, during which we saw Ossoli pale, dejected, and unhappy. He was always with her, but in a sort of hopeless, desperate manner, until at length he convinced her of his love, and she married him. Ms.

After this followed the siege of Rome, and Margaret Fuller's service in the hospitals,--as already described in Mr. Cass's letter,--while Ossoli was in the army outside the city. One day, after great anxiety, she called Mrs. Story to her, and confided to her the secret of her marriage, showing her the marriage certificate and those relating to the birth of her child. These she confided to Mrs. Story, with a book containing the narrative of her whole acquaintance with her husband. The papers were kept for a time by Mrs. Story, and at length returned to Madame Ossoli; and every trace of them is now lost forever. The conclusion of Mrs. Story's narrative will now be given almost entire, its picture of the married life of the Ossolis being too valuable to be omitted. Like the passages just quoted, this has never before been printed:--

... At once. Ossoli, Margaret, and the child went to Florence. Rome was shut upon them, and they had [242] some difficulty in getting a permission to remain even in Florence. (Mr. Greenough interested himself to get this for them.) After this we never saw them; some letters have which tell a tale of deep maternal happiness and satisfaction-of the tenderness of her husband, and of serene days such as her life had known but few. I look back upon those days in Florence as the peacefullest she had ever known; in them she had sweet communion with nature, love, and a tender mother's joy. I believe that she was coming home to richer blessings, and a life if of some struggles, still of sure enjoyment.

I have heard it suggested by some one that Ossoli had married Margaret under the impression of her having a large fortune. That this is utterly false I can declare, since to my own knowledge he was in the habit, even from their first acquaintance, of making for her what the Italians term little economies, and was in Margaret's unreserved confidence as to the feeble state of her purse.

Again, I have heard it said that he was a person entirely without education. I can only say that his education was equal to that of most Roman gentlemen, not thorough, but such as suited him for his rank and position. He had from his youth been under the care of a priest, who taught him as a tutor. He knew not much of foreign languages, read French a little, and was a good deal interested in Italian history.

Many of our countrymen who saw him could discover little in him, but that was rather because he was not quickly interested in others, than that he lacked interesting points. He was always reserved, and, when with Margaret, preferred always to hear her talk, even [243] when she spoke a language he did not know, than to talk himself or hear any one else.

His manner towards Margaret was devoted and lover-like to a striking degree. He cared not how trivial was the service if he might perform it for her. I remember to have seen him one morning, after they had been married nearly two years, set off on an errand to get the handle of her parasol mended, with as much genuine knightly zeal as if the charge had been a much weightier one. As he took it, he said, ‘ How sweet it is to do little things for you; never attend to such yourself, always leave them to me for my pleasure.’ When she was ill he nursed and watched over her with the tenderness of woman. When she said to him, ‘How have you learned to be so good a nurse,’ he said, ‘My father was ill, and I tended upon him.’ No service was too trivial, no sacrifice too great for him. He never wished her to give up any pleasure because he could not share it, but if she were interested, he would go with her to any house, leave her, and call again to take her home. Such tender, unselfish love 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. ‘ No companion in nature was ever so much to me as is Ossoli;’ does not this show that his soul was deep and full of emotion; for who that knew Margaret Fuller would believe that any other companion would have been agreeable to her in her communion with nature. What a beautiful picture is that of their return to Rome after a day spent on the Campagna!


To this narrative I will add another letter, from Mrs. Story to Mrs. J. R. Lowell, transcribed [244] by the latter for Miss Sarah F. Clarke, and giving some additional particulars. It is without a date, but belongs to just this period, and has not before been printed:--

My Dear Miss Clarke,--I have just received a letter from my friend, Emelyn Story, in which she speaks of a friend of yours, and of her husband, in a way which I thought might be interesting and pleasant to you, so I copy it.

As to Margaret Fuller's marriage, I might write you at any length upon that subject, but from lack of room to do so, I shall merely tell you that I have known of the marriage since May, now some six months, during which time I have been under a solemn pledge of secrecy; now she releases me, I can only say that we knew and liked Mr. Ossoli, or, as his title goes, the Marquis Ossoli, very much; he is much younger than Margaret, being, as I should judge, about William's age (thirty), is good looking, quite handsome, as the Italians go, has a melancholy expression about the eyes --is tall and thin. In character he seems to be remarkably amiable and tender, not intellectual, simple, natural, and good. During the attack of the French on Rome he showed great courage, spirit, and zeal, was conspicuous among the officers for his devotion to his duties. So much we saw ourselves, for we often went to his post and found him exhausted and faint for want of food and rest, but always firm and resolute to remain to the end. He was a captain of the Civic Guard, and in many respects conspicuous for his adherence to Mazzini's views, so that now they cannot remain in Rome, and were obliged to leave at once [245] upon the entrance of the French. His family are distinguished for the same zeal on the other side, that of the Pope, and are in the Papal household, his two brothers being chamberlains to the Pope. His radicalism causes him to be looked upon as the black sheep in the family, and it was on account of family difficulties that the marriage was not sooner made known. If people were not always the best judges for themselves, it would seem better that it should have been made known at first; but I know enough of their affairs to say that they were prevented solely by family matters from declaring it at the time it occurred.

Margaret is now living in Florence; their future is rather dark in a pecuniary point of view, as the small fortune he inherited is tied up, in some way, by the change of government and depreciation of property, so that, at least for the present, it is not available, and I doubt if it ever comes to much. All I know is that Margaret will have to exert herself. Now that their little boy is with them, and is well, they are perfectly happy. I wish with all my heart that Margaret might be able to enjoy this happiness without anxiety about meeting the expenses, etc., etc. Ossoli is a devoted lover; he is all kindness and attention to her, and I think she has chosen the better part in marrying him, for his love must be most precious to her. Judging from what he was after a year's marriage, I should say he was more of a lover than before their marriage. He is a gentleman in manners and bearing, as he is by birth. His father is at the head of one [of] the Rioni awards or quarters] in Rome, and his family are of undoubted rank and position there. I believe her child is healthy and strong, although it suffered much from the faithlessness [246] of its nurse, whose milk failing, [she] fed it upon wine and bread, and this at the time when Mr.Ossoli and Mrs. Ossoli were shut up in Rome, during the siege. When, at last, she could leave Rome and go into the country to see him, she found him quite ill, almost, as she feared, beyond recovery, so that she at once took him to Florence, where he has regained his health.

Mr. Ossoli does not speak English, not even a sentence, that I ever heard, so that he has not been known to many Americans, not even to some of William's friends; but he was often at our house, and we knew him, perhaps, better than any one.

You may have seen this before, but not in the same form, and I thought it might be interesting to you to hear from a fresh person so pleasant a statement of Mr. Ossoli's character, pleasanter than those we have sometimes heard here.

I shall not give up that day you promised me, but find you soon, and make you fix upon one.

Yours very truly, Maria Lowell, Cambridge, Elmwood, Friday morn.

It is a curious fact that, throughout this letter, Mrs. Lowell uniformly spells the name of Margaret Fuller's husband “Ossili,” and it illustrates how vague a knowledge of the whole affair had at first reached America. Through such statements as these it came to be better understood; and the really simple and noble character of Margaret Fuller's young lover stood out above all distrust. There lie before me two old-fashioned daguerreotypes of him, and a lock of his hair, the characteristic [247] blue-black hair of his nation. The pictures represent a thoroughly Italian face and figure: dark, delicate, slender; by no means the man, one would say, to marry at thirty an American woman of thirty-seven, she being poor, intellectual, and without beauty. Yet it will be very evident, when we come to read their letters to each other, that the disinterested and devoted love which marked this marriage was so far a fulfillment of Margaret Fuller's early dreams. Mr. Kinney, the American consul, wrote to Mr. Emerson from Turin, May 2, 1851:

It is abundantly evident that her young husband discharged all the obligations of his relation to her con amore. His admiration amounted to veneration, and her yearning to be loved seemed at least to be satisfied. Ms.

There is every reason to believe that this statement was none too strong.

1 Fuller Mss. i. 669. Published also with Women in the Nineteenth Century, when reprinted in 1869.

2 Memoirs, II. 281.

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