She wanted nothing more than to marry the crusty Thoreau. He wanted nothing to do with her.
“What the essential difference between man and woman is, that they should be thus attracted to one another, no one has satisfactorily answered,” Thoreau famously wrote.
Thoreau did fall in love — once, as a young man. At 22, he and his brother John competed for the affections of Ellen Sewall, the lovely daughter of a minister from Scituate, Mass. John, bolder than Henry, asked her to marry him. She accepted, but then changed her mind after her parents objected. Henry then sent her a marriage proposal by mail, which she also rejected.
After that, Henry David Thoreau showed so little interest in women that some scholars have debated whether he was actually gay. But no evidence suggests he felt a greater attractions to men than to women.
His friends thought him uniquely unsusceptible to love or lust.
In eulogizing his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson noted: “He had no temptations to fight against. No appetites. No Passion.”
And his friend Bronson Alcott would say of him: “All those strong wants which do battle with other men’s nature, he knew not.”
Thoreau himself acknowledged that marriage did not appeal to him, and he made virtually no compliments about any woman’s beauty. He reserved his passions for nature and ideas.
Sophia Ford, on the other hand, had a wilder spirit. She came to Concord, Mass., to teach school, but wound up as a tutor to Louisa May Alcott and her sisters. It was here that she met Thoreau, leading the children on nature lessons with him. She was a natural with children, friendly and fun.
Though 15 years older than Thoreau, Ford was smitten, and in 1847 she wrote to Thoreau proposing marriage. The 30-year-old Thoreau was gobsmacked, and he wrote about the proposal to Emerson:
“I have had a tragic correspondence, for the most part all on one side, with Miss ——,” he wrote. “She did really wish to — I hesitate to write — marry me. That is the way they spell it. Of course I did not write a deliberate answer. How could I deliberate upon it? I sent back as distinct a no as I have learned to pronounce after considerable practice, and I trust that this no has succeeded. Indeed, I wished that it might burst, like hollow shot, after it had struck and buried itself and made itself felt there. There was no other way. I really had anticipated no such foe as this in my career. “
Twin Souls? Not
But Ford’s attraction did not wane. At one point, she threatened to kill herself over him. And she believed that she and Henry were twin souls, destined to be reunited in the after-life.
Thoreau received several more letters from her, which agitated him so much he burned them without replying, according to Walter Harding’s The Days of Henry Thoreau. His sister overhead him saying, “he must put a stop to this.”
Eventually Sophia’s ardor faded, but her affections never died. When Thoreau struggled with tuberculosis and appeared to be failing, Sophia insisted her old friend Louisa May Alcott write to her and let her know if he died. In 1862, Alcott did as she requested.
When Sophia Ford herself died in 1885, unmarried at age 85, Alcott wrote a tribute to her:
“Sophia Ford was one of those who, by an upright life, an earnest sympathy in all great reforms and the influence of a fine character made the world better while here, and left a sweet memory behind her…
“The warmth and vigor of her own nature were most attractive, and sincerity made her friendship worth having and her life-long desire for high thinking and holy living won her the regard of many admirable persons, of which she was too modest to boast.”
This story about Sophia Ford was updated in 2023. Read more about Thoreau in Laura Dassow Walls’ Henry David Thoreau: A Life. You can help independent bookstores and The New England Historical Society by buying it here.