Story of Harriet Beecher Stowe - R. B. MacArthur

As a Friend

Mrs. Stowe was a little woman physically, very quick in all her movements, but so retiring in disposition that Mrs. Browning said of her, after meeting her at a reception, "Never did lioness roar so softly." She, like the other members of the Beecher family, possessed a keen sense of humor, which was a delight to all who knew her, an element which makes her books so readable. This quality of seeing the funny side of things helped her over many, a difficult place and made her an ideal wife, mother, teacher and friend. She was not the kind of person who made friends readily, and as readily forgot them. Her life was rich in real, abiding friendships with people in almost every walk in life.

One of the most striking of these friendships was that existing between her and her schoolmate, Georgiana May. From the time these two went to school together at the Hartford Female Seminary, they never lost sight of each other. During the long years that they lived in different parts of the country, they wrote long, interesting, intimate letters to each other, telling of their personal plans and problems and recounting life's adventures, for both of them married and had different problems to meet in their own little worlds.

[Illustration] from Harriet Beecher Stowe by R. B. MacArthur


Between her and her own brother, Henry Ward Beecher, there existed one of the most precious friendships that has ever been recorded. We read of David and Jonathan, of Damon and Pythias, but of Harriet and Henry fully as much could be said, although they were brother and sister. They loved each other as devotedly as these friends of history, and bore each other's griefs as if the hurt were personal. When Mrs. Stowe suffered so keenly the thrusts of poison tongues after the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, this brother was a great comfort to her. In later years, when mean-spirited men sought to belittle Henry Ward Beecher, who had become a world famous preacher in the meantime, by his brave and courageous stand against wrong in any form, this sister's unswerving faith in him helped him through his humiliating experience, and when he was completely vindicated of the charges brought against him, her joy was an added zest to the victory.

While abroad she made many friends of note, who remained her friends from that time on. With the Duchess of Sutherland she corresponded for years, and with Lady Byron also. A very deep bond of sympathy existed between her and the gentle, misjudged wife of Lord Byron, which made Mrs. Stowe, at the very pinnacle of her fame, willing to sacrifice her reputation, everything, in order to clear Lady Byron's name of slanderous charges.

John Ruskin and Mrs. Browning counted her as one of their dearest friends after they met her in her travels in England. Her letters to these illustrious writers have never been found, but we can judge of their contents by the interesting answers she received from them.

Nor were these the only children of genius who sought out this wonderful woman and called her friend. George Eliot, foremost woman writer in England at that time, and George Sand, brilliant French authoress of the same period, wrote her freely and frequently, criticizing her literary works with sincere praise, for both seemed to admire their American sister greatly, and to realize what she was accomplishing in the field of literature. Strangely enough, these three women are said to have resembled each other to a marked degree in characteristics, although not in physical likeness. When lost in thought, there was a peculiar heaviness to their features, a lack-luster of eye that made their faces very plain and expressionless like stone masks. But when animated, their faces lighted up, their eyes sparkled, and they looked like different persons. Possibly this accounts for the great difference that exists in all the photographs these women had taken of themselves. Certainly there is a wide range of expression in those of Mrs. Stowe which are still preserved for posterity.

While she was abroad she discovered some pictures of herself supposed to be good likenesses, that astonished her, and she wrote home that she was making a collection of them for her family to put in the museum as curiosities. The Richmond portrait of her is a much better likeness than any of the photographs, because it has caught her best expression. The marble bust by Miss Durant is also a good likeness, for this famous sculpturess was also able to catch and preserve the sweetness and strength of the animated countenance. This bust was given to the University of New York and can still be seen there. It differs from most of her pictures in the method of hair-dressing. She usually wore her hair parted in the middle with five or six long smooth curls hanging at either side of her face, and bound down by a narrow velvet band; but Miss Durant has pictured her with it drawn back into a knot low in her neck.

She was a pleasant person to meet, being always self-possessed, and considerate of others, a gentle, rather old-fashioned little woman, who showed by her very manner that she was a born gentlewoman, though not a society lady. Mrs. Fields recalls in her Life and Letters of Harriet Beecher Stowe, a reception she once attended with Mrs. Stowe when the hostess drew Mrs. Fields aside and asked in surprise why she had never been told that Mrs. Stowe was beautiful.

"Indeed when I observed her," says Mrs. Fields, "in the full ardor of conversation, with her heightened color, her eyes shining and awake but filled with great softness, her abundant curling hair rippling naturally about her head and falling a little at the sides, I quite agreed with my hostess. Nor was that the first time her beauty had been revealed to me; but she was seldom seen to be beautiful by the great world, and the pleasure of this recognition was very great to those who loved her."

She was inclined to be absent-minded even in her youth, and this habit grew on her with the years. Often while entertaining friends, or being entertained by them, she would suddenly lose herself in some train of thought, brought up, possibly by a chance remark of guest or hostess, and would take no further part in the conversation going on about her. Sometimes she would wander away from the rest of the guests at a reception, and perhaps be found admiring the flowers in the conservatory, or calmly watching the scene from some hidden nook, while her thoughts were far afield.

On one occasion, when at the very height of her fame, she was invited to dine at the Quincy house. Her hostess showed her to an upper room that she might refresh herself after her journey, before she was presented to the other guests, and she was left alone. Presently the family below began to wonder what was delaying her so long, and as the minutes passed they grew impatient, then alarmed. When dinner was announced and Mrs. Stowe had failed to appear, her hostess hurried to her room to discover if she were ill, for she had not answered when a servant had knocked on her door to inquire for her welfare. When the door was opened by the anxious hostess, there stood Mrs. Stowe in front of a bookcase, with her bonnet and shawl still on, reading a volume she had taken from the shelves. It was a copy of Sir Charles Grandison, a book she had read as a child, and the finding of it there had so taken her attention that she had completely forgotten where she was and what social etiquette demanded of her as a guest. But she was so contrite over her failings, and so lovable that no one could help forgiving her, not even her publishers when she disappointed them in getting a serial installment ready for a set date.

James Russell Lowell, as editor of the Atlantic Monthly, became personally acquainted with Mrs. Stowe, and had only the highest praise to speak of her. Other noted Americans whom she numbered among her friends were Oliver Wendell Holmes, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James T. Fields, John Greenleaf Whittier and John T. Howard. Of course there were hosts of others more or less well known in public life, and who can count those whose names are unknown in the annals of history, who knew this great-hearted woman as a true and tender friend?

Let us not forget the black man in this listing of Mrs. Stowe's friends, for in a large measure he owes his freedom to the compassion of the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and after all, it is not the greatness of one's friends that counts; it is their sincerity, and surely no one could love Harriet Beecher Stowe any more sincerely than the humble slave for whom she fought all her life.