Patricia O'Brien discusses her novel Harriet & Isabella, about the trial of Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin
This is your second novel imagining the relationships
between famous figures in American history. Can you tell us a little about your
process for writing Harriet and Isabella? Was it different than the
process that gave birth to The Glory Cloak?
The most important part of the process at the beginning this time was deciding what to discard. The Beecher saga is incredibly rich, and picking one route into the lives of Harriet and her brothers and sisters meant walking away from other, equally tantalizing paths. But that's what a novelist has to do.
What stayed the same was my being drawn into the lives of these people through something tangible that made them real to me. In The Glory Cloak, it was running across an obscure account of Louisa May Alcott's work as a Civil War nurse and reading about the discovery of Clara Barton's long-forgotten Missing Soldiers office in downtown Washington. Visiting those rooms was like stepping into a time capsule and I had a feeling that I could talk to Clara.
In Harriet and Isabella, it was the gold slave bracelet given to Harriet by the Duchess of Sutherland. I had the great satisfaction not only of tracking it down on the Internet in the listed contents of boxes from different Beecher repositories, but of briefly slipping it over my wrist and wondering how Harriet felt the night it was placed on hers. That gave me the connection to her that I needed.
You now have two historical novels under your belt. Have you written other types of fiction or nonfiction? What are some of the special challenges of writing historical fiction?
I've written several contemporary novels and three nonfiction books on women, marriage, and friendship. I love writing historical fiction, in part because it lifts me out of my world and demands immersion in another period of history. It takes me out of myself. The challenge of bringing the people of a particular time alive means researching with an eye to balancing fact and imagination, always remembering that -- when a choice must be made -- the story comes first and the historical detail second. A novelist isn't writing biography. The most helpful piece of advice I've heard about writing historical fiction came from Thomas Mallon at a seminar a few years ago: read less about a period and more from a period -- especially newspapers of the time. That took me to the papers that covered the Beecher trial, especially the Brooklyn Eagle, which was a major help in writing Harriet and Isabella.
This novel covers several significant eras in American history, such as the growth and success of the abolitionist movement, women's suffrage, spiritualism, labor reform, and of course, perhaps the first tabloid-worthy "Trial of the Century." Were you already interested in writing about this time period before you discovered the story of the Beecher family?
Yes, I was actually reluctant to leave the nineteenth century after finishing The Glory Cloak. I was learning too much to let it go, and I still feel that way.
The historical details that form the foundation of this novel are well known. What inspired you to imagine the Beechers' personal lives in this way?
I was curious about how a scandal as scorching as this one affected the lives of what was essentially a religious, tightly connected family. Harriet and her brothers and sisters were no strangers to criticism, but Henry's trial must have exacted a high cost. What was it like to live day-to-day in public view, with nothing sacred or private? What did it do to them? Of course, celebrities live in that kind of culture full-time now.
Harriet and Isabella concerns many historical figures and scenes as well as those you invented in order to tell a rich, realistic story. What cues helped direct you in weaving this novel together?
I wanted the spine of the story to be factual, and from there, to explore the inner lives of my characters, real and fictional. I looked for cues in their lives that have universal meaning. I think, for example, that the estrangement between Harriet and Isabella -- which not much is known about -- underscores the irony and sadness of relationships between people who love each other but do not understand each other. So they judge and condemn. Self-righteousness takes over. People can beome so invested in anger, reconciliation becomes impossible -- because it means admitting they might have been wrong all along.
Another important part of weaving the past into my story was walking the streets of Brooklyn Heights, especially on a snowy night when it's easier to imagine carriages clattering down the streets and gaslight flickering behind the windows of the brownstones. Being on the site where history happened anchors imagination.
You wrote Harriet and Isabella from the sisters' alternating points of view. Why did you choose to begin with Isabella's?
Because she was the prodigal child, the one cast out, the one hurting the most. Or so I imagined her. I wanted to establish what Isabella was yearning for, to pose questions that would keep the reader intrigued: Will Isabella succeed in seeing her brother again -- or not? Will she reconcile with her sister -- or not? Framing a future question allowed me to dip back into the past and fill in the blanks as the story moved along.
There are several items in the novel that serve as a kind of "lucky charm," such as Isabella's hand mirror, Harriet's gold bracelet, and Henry's pocketful of gemstones. Do you believe in charms? Do you have any of your own?
Hmmm, I don't think so.
The Beecher siblings are an imposing unit, but behind the well-constructed façade there are a variety of complicated relationships. Do you have any siblings? If so, did your relationship with them inspire or give you insight into your characters' actions?
I have one sister, but I don't see us in the relationship between Harriet and Isabella. Fortunately, we've never been estranged.
You treat all your characters with such sensitivity and understanding -- even Eunice, who for the most part has a rather off-putting personality. Were you able to get a good idea of these people's temperaments from your research, or did you do a lot of filling in the blanks? What facts helped you shape your characters?
I think their letters were the biggest help. Many of them are crammed with the kind of detail that tells volumes about a person; I filled in the blanks. For example, Harriet's loving but scattered approach to her children was evident in the worries and complaints she voiced in letters to her sisters. Isabella's energy and fierce desire to be known came through in her letters and diaries, and Henry's warmth and exuberance spilled out of his. I also tried to read (as many of us often do) between the lines of those letters, especially during the period before the charges against Henry became public.
As for Eunice, I began by not liking her very much, but eventually came to feel a good deal of sympathy for her. I tried to imagine being in her shoes. She really had the hardest, most demanding role to play in the Beecher drama. What was it like to be laughed at and described publicly as cold and sexless? How did she manage to hold together in such stoic fashion through that trial? Sometimes I wanted to sit next to her at the trial and whisper, "Eunice, he's asking too much of you. Go get a massage."
Many of the characters in this novel are historical figures, such as Susan B. Anthony, Victoria Woodhull, Harriet Beecher Stowe and, of course, Henry Ward Beecher. What was it like to delve into the more personal side of these famous and important figures?
Intimidating, at first. I read everything I could find and then just thought about them for a while. I tried to walk each character through an imagined day -- what they did when they woke up, what they wore, what made them cranky or gave them pleasure, who they saw. When it came to Harriet (the most intimidating of all), it was reading her account of the death of her son Charley that brought her personal life alive. She wrote with such anguish about her loss it made me cry.
Throughout Henry's trial, the Beechers are aghast at the way the press and public impose on and feel entitled to their private lives. Why do you think the trial sparked the beginning of what we today refer to as the "carrion press"?
It was inevitable that it would happen in that era of changing moral attitudes, especially given the ease by which information could finally be sped via wire or telephone by a clamoring, competitive press. But Henry was the most famous preacher in America, and his trial was a terrific story that needed to be covered. So I am of two minds when it comes to blaming this all on the "carrion press." As a former newspaper reporter, I believe that public people who thrive on celebrity cannot at the same time demand, on their own terms, complete privacy. Still the Beecher trial was our first major example of how journalistic excess can cheapen the legitimate job of reporting an important story. That doesn't bode well for us in this era of instant global communication via the Internet. Things can't get much faster -- or can they?
12. In your Author's Note, you mention interviewing two board members of Henry's Plymouth Church, still an active congregation in Brooklyn today. Can you tell us a little more about that conversation?
I was struck with how they talked about Henry as if he were in the next room or at least in the building. I had the sense that he wasn't just a statue in the courtyard to them. They projected an attitude of "knowing" Henry, describing him the way a novelist thinks of a character: living, breathing, walking around. It was intriguing to see how much this amazing man's personality still permeated their imaginations.
After immersing yourself in the historical documents pertaining to the Henry Ward Beecher trial, you must have formed an opinion. What do you think: Did Henry commit adultery with Elizabeth Tilton? Why or why not?
I think the likelihood that a man like Henry could resist the temptations of adultery are very low, given his charismatic personality, his celebrity, and his unhappy home life. Certainly many people suspected as much well before the trial, and he was linked by gossip to several other women. Still he was a man of innovative ideas and immense eloquence and an important figure of his time. The fact that he was not fully exonerated (and, by the way, the story of the three balky jurors comes directly from stories published in the Brooklyn Eagle) leaves a question mark over history's judgment. It isn't so much his guilt or innocence that shows his flaws, it is more how he responded -- especially to Isabella and Elizabeth Tilton -- when under seige.
In a sense, at the heart of this story is an examination of the frailty of great people -- that even the most brilliant icons are still only human, with human failings. What do you hope readers will take away from this story?
I hope in an era where sound bites pass for wisdom and where certitude is somehow a virtue that readers will reflect a little on the ambiguities of the human heart. In real life, it isn't always easy to know what is the "right" thing to do. Motives can be mixed, truth can be murky, and loyalty can be blind. It's not just about the frailty of great people. It's about all of us.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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