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The Beechers' Uncivil War

By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, January 4, 2008

HARRIET AND ISABELLA

By Patricia O'Brien

Touchstone. 304 pp. $25

It's hard to get a bead on what people remember about our collective American past. Yes, we probably remember that Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin," an immensely popular novel denouncing the evils of American slavery in 1852, and that a decade later, President Lincoln would greet her as the "little woman who started this big war." And -- on a good day -- we remember the war's dates: 1861-1865. But this novel is set much later, in 1887, and focuses on another member of the Beecher family, Henry Ward Beecher, the most famous preacher of his day, and a participant in one of the greatest forgotten scandals of the 19th century.

The Beechers were much like the Kennedys of 50 years ago -- American semi-royalty, a great family both dedicated to public service and reveling in its own celebrity. The numerous siblings had two different mothers, but all had the same father, Lyman Beecher, a stern and dour theologian of the old school, who lavished his money on education for his sons, gave short shrift to his daughters and, in the grand Calvinist tradition, looked upon everything that yielded up pleasure as very probably a sin.

His first son, Henry Ward Beecher, invented another brand of Christianity, one that insisted on a warm, loving, all-forgiving God. He was talented and charismatic and presided over a huge congregation at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights. He was famous -- a national icon. Now, in 1887, he lies dying of a stroke: "Everyone from President Cleveland to Queen Victoria is keeping a death vigil for Henry Ward Beecher, for his eloquent preaching has enthralled the country for decades." The streets of Brooklyn are thronged with devout congregants and curious journalists.

But there's another reason for this almost unseemly interest. Twelve years before, Beecher had been put on trial for adultery, an outraged Theodore Tilton insisting that he had been cuckolded; his wife alternately confessing to this sin and then retracting her confession -- the whole scandalous mess having been put into play by a sometimes-feminist, sometimes-spiritualist, always-publicity-seeking Victoria Woodhull. There was a hung jury in that trial; Beecher more or less shimmied out from under the matter of his guilt or innocence. But the trial tarnished the Beecher reputation and caused a serious rift in the family.

And that's what Patricia O'Brien's new novel "Harriet and Isabella" is about. What happens when a family sets itself up as a symbol of moral purity? What happens when that standard is threatened or breached? And -- when push comes to shove -- where should one's individual loyalties lie?

In "Two Cheers for Democracy," E.M. Forster famously remarked that if he had to choose between betraying a friend or betraying his country, he hoped he would have the courage to betray his country. In 1852, if you were a white Northerner, it was probably fairly easy to come down against the institution of slavery. It was probably much harder to publicly support an emotionally volatile brother who may or may not have been fooling around.

Almost all the Beecher siblings, including Catharine Beecher, whose self-help book, "The American Woman's Home," instructed ladies how to keep house properly, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who had "started" that righteous Civil War, do rally around their brother. But one younger sister, Isabella Beecher Hooker, just can't buy into it. She thinks her brother is guilty, urges him to repent in public and even visits Victoria Woodhull in prison, where she has been jailed on "trumped-up charges." Isabella is a zealous suffragette, as righteous in her own way as her sister Harriet, and equally devoted to the truth. They just have different versions of it. Isabella is banished from the family during the trial and labeled by them as mentally unstable. The question, in terms of the novel's plot, is: Will she be allowed to see her brother on his deathbed?

Harriet and Isabella have children and husbands and other concerns besides their high ideals. Henry's own domestic situation is far from perfect; his thin-lipped wife, Eunice, looks and acts, according to one character, as if she had been "weaned on a pickle." Her looks, her acts have been held up to scornful scrutiny in their particular "trial of the century."

This all brings to mind the prurient Starr Report and those members of the House of Representatives with their bright toupees and their public lip-smacking over private indiscretions -- a perennially favorite American pastime. This novel is about our country's ideas and ideals, how we strive, incessantly, to be better than anyone else in the world, and how, sometimes spectacularly, we fail.

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