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The Unexpected Mrs. Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe, an extraordinary member of an extraordinary family, always claimed that God wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin
August 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 5
Her life was about half over when she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but for thirty years more she wrote almost a book a year on the average, plus innumerable essays, poems, children’s stories, and magazine articles, many of which she did under the pseudonym Christopher Crowfield. Perhaps her most artful novel, The Minister’s Wooing , ran to fifty printings, and a magazine article, “The True Story of Lady Byron’s Life,” which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1869, caused more furor than anything published in America since Uncle Tom’s Cabin .
During a second visit to England she had become fast friends with the widow of Lord Byron, who confided the terrible secret that the great Byron had committed incest with his half sister and that a child had been born as a result. Mrs. Stowe kept the secret for thirteen years, but when Byron’s former mistress, Countess Guiccioli, published her memoirs and portrayed Lady Byron as a selfrighteous tyrant who would drive any mortal male to excesses, Harriet Stowe decided it was time to strike a blow in her friend’s behalf, Lady Byron by this time having been dead for nearly a decade. So she told the whole story.
All kinds of accusations were hurled at her, some quite unpleasant. She rode out the storm, however, and again, as with Uncle Tom , she wrote a book to justify what she had written. But her standing with the American public would never be the same.
She could write in all kinds of places, under every kind of condition. She was always bothered by deadlines, and it seems she was always in need of money. The royalties poured in, but the more she had the more she spent —on a huge Gothic villa in Hartford that was all gables and turrets and was never fi nished completely; on a cotton plantation in Florida where she intended to provide Negroes with a program of work and education; and later, when that failed, on an orange and lemon grove at Mandarin, Florida, “where the world is not, ” she said, and where she hoped her unfortunate son Frederick might find himself.
Frederick had trouble staying sober. His problem had started before the war, but at Gettysburg he had been hit in the head by a shell fragment, and, his mother would always believe, he had never been himself again. “After that,” one of her grandsons would write, “he not only was made drunk by the slightest amount of alcohol but he could not resist taking it.”
Calvin grew enormously fat, ever ^ more distant, and of even less use than before when it came to the everyday details of life. Moreover, Harriet found fame increasingly difficult. She had become a national institution. Her correspondence alone would have drained a less vigorous spirit.
Tragedy struck repeatedly. In 1857, upon returning from Europe, she learned that her son Henry, a student at Dartmouth, had drowned while swimming in the Connecticut River. In 1870 Frederick, unable to endure his mother’s Florida experiment any longer, wrote her a touching apology and went to sea, shipping around the Horn. It is known that he got as far as San Francisco, but after that he disappeared and was never heard from again. She would go to her grave with every confidence that he would return one day.
But it was the Brooklyn scandal that hurt her worst of all, she said. In November of 1872 a New York paper reported that her beloved brother Henry Ward, by then the most popular preacher in America, had been carrying on an adulterous affair with one of his parishioners. His enemies swept in for the kill. For all the Beechers the gossip was agonizing. A sensational trial resulted, the husband bringing suit against Beecher for alienation of his wife’s affections. It dragged on for six months and was the talk of the country. Whether Beecher was guilty or innocent was never proved one way or the other. He denied everything, the jury was unable to agree on a verdict, and as far as his sister was concerned his character was never even in question.
The whole story was a slanderous fabrication, she said, and she stood by him through the entire grisly, drawn-out business, as did all the Beechers except Isabella Beecher Hooker, who was only a half sister, it was noted, and was regarded by many as just a little unbalanced. (Isabella, who called herself “ the inspired one,” wanted to take charge of a service at Plymouth Church herself and “as one commissioned from on high” declare her brother’s guilt from his own pulpit. Years later, when he was dying, she even tried to force her way into his house to get a deathbed confession.)