Harriet and Isabella by Patricia O’Brien is the story of Harriet Beecher Stowe and her sister Isabella Beecher Hooker and their estrangement over whether their brother Henry was really guilty of adultery or not.
The book starts in 1887 with Henry lying comatose on his deathbed after suffering a stroke. There is nothing that can be done for him. The family gathers to wait for him to die. Everyone but Isabella. She is not allowed in the house because years prior she dared to believe the accusations that Henry had had an affair with Elizabeth Tilton, a member of the church where he preached and wife of a good friend. Isabella, hoping that she can see her brother one time before he dies to make peace and say goodbye, is staying at a rooming house just down the street and within sight of her brother’s house. From here the story jumps back and forth in time and between Isabella as narrator and Harriet as narrator.
The Beechers were quite the family in their time and the children of Lyman Beecher were fiercely loyal to one another. At the same time they competed with each other in order to find a niche inside and outside the family where they could stand out and bring accolades to the Beecher name. This meant they all had to choose a moral cause to fight for. Henry became a very famous preacher. Harriet a writer who helped open the eyes of a country to the horrors of slavery. Another sister became a teacher and opened an important school for girls. Still others became experts in their chosen fields. Isabella became active in the suffrage movement working alongside Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and, for a while, Victoria Woodhull.
But to Isabella’s chagrin, her family thought she chose the wrong cause. It was particularly shocking to hear Harriet tell her that she thought women’s suffrage was wrong and that Isabella was associating with crazy women. But Isabella was as headstrong as the rest of the Beechers and refused to give up working for a cause she believed in. Perhaps because she was friends with Victoria Woodhull, the one who first publicly accused Henry Beecher of adultery, and perhaps because she already had a little distance from the family so could look at her brother more critically, she was able to decide for herself the truth of the accusations.
The rest of the family, whether they believed Henry was guilty or not (and some believed him guilty but just found it easier to keep it to themselves), closed ranks and gathered round Henry to present a united front to the world. When Isabella asked Henry directly if he was guilty, instead of answering he turned the tables and accused her of being disloyal to him and the family. How dare she even ask such a question? How dare she think he might be guilty? Because Isabella refused to fall in line, she was shut out from the family.
We don’t know for sure whether Henry Beecher was guilty of adultery or not. The trial ended in a hung jury. The woman he was accused of having had sex with confessed their guilt and then retracted it. Henry signed a confession but the confession was not written in his hand, but a friend’s who was trying to mediate between Henry and the allegedly cuckolded husband. Nonetheless, one does get the feeling he was guilty. This being a novel based on the events, however, it is hard to tell what were actual facts and what was fiction for the sake of story.
The book is a little wobbly at times and loses focus. Even though it is supposed to be about Harriet and Isabella and their relationship, there is a big chunk of the book that is all Harriet at Henry’s trial and we have no idea what is happening with Isabella who is not allowed to attend the trial but must follow it in the papers. Maybe there is more biographical information available about Harriet. And of course, there would be quite a lot of material about Henry’s trial. Isabella isn’t as fleshed out as Harriet is.
Harriet and Isabella is an overall enjoyable read. The story is really less about the relationship between Harriet and Isabella and more about family dynamics and the fallout when one of its members is seen as betraying family loyalty and values. And when that family is the Beechers, the falling out ends up being a rather public drama.