Harriet and Isabella

Written by Patricia O’Brien
Review by Helene Williams

The adultery trial of world-famous preacher Henry Ward Beecher was front-page news and tabloid fodder in the 1870s, and Patricia O’Brien brings to life the divided family that suffered for years after Henry’s acquittal. The Beechers were the 19th-century equivalent of the Kennedys: outspoken, influential, and living in the public eye, they were the closest America came to having royalty. Henry’s sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was famous in her own right for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, though she shunned the spotlight. She was the main emotional support for her half-sister Isabella until Isabella became an outspoken suffragist and then a supporter of one of Henry’s accusers. Their rift mirrored the division in the American public, between loyalty to the family and honesty towards one’s beliefs.

The main narrative takes place in 1887 New York, as Henry Beecher lies dying. His siblings gather to say their farewells and to comfort each other, including Isabella, who is turned away by Henry’s wife Eunice and by Harriet as well. Each scene prompts a flashback, both to happier family times and to the trial, and in this interweaving of past and present O’Brien reveals the complicated relationship between the family members, especially the two women. Harriet’s unswerving loyalty to Henry allows for no inner questioning of his possible guilt, and her strong beliefs lead the other siblings to ostracize Isabella as well. Over time, however, some of the siblings relent, and while outwardly supporting the Beecher name, they reveal to Isabella their own thoughts about Henry’s actions.

O’Brien’s fictionalized account of the post-scandal family turmoil paints a vivid picture of the issues and morality of the time, and lets today’s readers peek into what may well have been the real thoughts and emotions connecting two very different famous women.