Joseph Maurice Sheahan was the son of Irish immigrants, who-- depsite a great deal of anti-Irish antagonism in late nineteenth-century Boston-- graduated from Harvard University in 1873. He then attended the famed medical school at the University of Paris in France, where he met his future wife, Marie Louise Maurice. After earning his medical degree in 1879, Sheahan remained in the city to serve his residency and became engaged to Marie Louise. Sheahan loved Paris and apparently planned to stay in France—after receiving his degree in medicine he served as an intern with hospitals in Paris and was appointed a reserve surgeon in the French army—but his parents beseeched their dutiful son to return to Quincy. Sometime in 1881, Sheahan left France to return to Massachusetts where, not without some regrets about the bright future that appeared to stretch before him in Europe, he established a general medical practice in Quincy. After the medical practice was set up, Marie Louise sailed from France to join her fiancé in Quincy where they were married on February 16, 1882.
On December 2, 1882 Joseph and Marie Louise Sheahan celebrated the birth of their first child, a boy they named George Maurice Sheahan. They bought a house located at 12 School Street in Quincy, a short walk from their parish church, that served as both the family’s residence and as Doctor Sheahan’s medical offices. A second child, Joseph Louis, was born on March 31, 1885, but was just two years old when he died May 16, 1887. On June 1, 1888, Joseph and Marie-Louise had their third and last child, who they named Henry Edouard Sheahan, who would later change his name to Henry Beston.
Henry was extremely close to his mother, and from childhood was as fluent in French as he was in English, which he said was a vital factor in the development of his concise but elegant writing style: “Mine was a French childhood, my mother a Parisian…Literature, I learned, was an art. I admired the swiftness and lucidity, the clarité of French style, and strove constantly for a smooth rhythm. Sentences should flow like ocean breakers.” Like his father and brother George, Henry loved sailing, and he would later state that, along with his French upbringing, living near the sea had the greatest influence on him during his formative years: “we enjoyed a New England boyhood of sea, and shore, enriched with a good deal of the French spirit.” The family bought a summer cottage near the Quincy waterfront and Dr. Sheahan acquired a small catboat for his sons to use. George and Henry spent many happy afternoons sailing around Quincy Bay, exploring its islands and reveling in the many minor adventures that sailing afforded them. In sentiments that Henry shared, George later wrote, “I was lucky in being born near the sea, with a strong love for it, and parents who encouraged me therein as well as their means would allow. To me the ocean is neither hostile nor altogether friendly, but indifferent…to human fate. It is a relentless taskmaster,
but richly rewards its pupils, and there is no better
training for a boy than handling a sailboat.”
Despite the love of sailing and salt water shared by the Sheahan men, life at home was not idyllic. Oddly perhaps, for a writer who often uses the first person in his essays and books, Beston wrote very little about his boyhood. It seems likely that his circumspection when it came to writing about his early years was due at least in part to aspects that were still somewhat painful to recall even many years later. As is often the case with second-generation Americans, Doctor Sheahan drove himself mercilessly, and he expected much of his sons. As Beston later stated in an interview: “My father was a brilliant physician, but was awfully irritable at home.” While Henry had an athletic build he didn’t share his father’s interest in baseball and other organized sports, perhaps due in part to poor eyesight—by his teens he was already wearing eyeglasses to correct his nearsightedness and astigmatism. Instead, Henry had an aptitude and fondness for the arts and music, and his mother encouraged this interest. He didn’t take music lessons, but he taught himself how to play the piano and concertina (an instrument similar to the accordion) by ear, eventually supplementing his innate talent with lessons that he paid for himself when he was in college. Many years later when he lived alone in his dune shack on Cape Cod, he brought his concertina with him.