Boulder City Magazine® October 2008 Issue
by Fran Haraway
Boulder City Library
Harriet and Isabella
by Patricia O'Brien
Stephen Vincent Benet once described a character as, “ . . . respectful to the kind of history that does not get into books. She liked the peculiar corners of it . . . .” One of those “peculiar corners” is addressed in Harriet and Isabella, a new novel about superstar minister Henry Ward Beecher, and the scandal that almost ruined his family.
Boulder City Magazine®
|Set mainly in the final quarter of the nineteenth century, this novel examines the family dynamics of one of the most amazing clans in United States history.
Henry Ward Beecher was, in his day, as popular as any televangelist in the current news. A foe of slavery, a supporter of women’s suffrage, a believer in Darwin - he was controversial and charismatic and hundreds hung on his every word. His devotees were understandably crushed when information began being circulated about Beecher’s adulterous relationship with Elizabeth Tilton, his close friend’s wife. Elizabeth admitted it and then recanted her admission. Theodore Tilton, the wronged husband (whose moral slate was by no means pristine), lost his newspaper job because the editor feared negative publicity, so Tilton sued Beecher, and the circus began.
Henry Ward Beecher had twelve siblings. One of his sisters was Harriet Beecher Stowe who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin which, according to Abraham Lincoln (and he should know), “ . . . started the great war.” Another was Isabella Beecher Hooker who helped organize the New England Women’s Suffrage Association and devoted her life to obtaining women’s voting rights. When Victoria Woodhull - another Victorian celebrity in the women’s rights arena - published the accusations against Beecher, Harriet sided with her brother and Isabella sided with Victoria. The result was chaos in a family of brothers and sisters who had, before the scandal, been very supportive of one another.
Was Beecher guilty? The jury found him innocent, but the story - told through the eyes of both Harriet and Isabella - leaves the reader with no definite answer. Was sisterly loyalty worth destroying a family? You decide.
If you are interested in this book or would like to learn more, contact me at info@bouldercity magazine.com.
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