Story of Harriet Beecher Stowe - R. B. MacArthur

As Wife and Mother

In the summer of 1834, Harriet went East to see her brother, Henry Ward, graduate from Amherst College. She traveled by stage to Toledo, Ohio, and by steamboat to Buffalo.

While she was in the East, she received the sad tidings that a very dear friend, Eliza Tyler Stowe, had died. She was the wife of Calvin E. Stowe, then teaching at Lane Theological Seminary, and was so beloved of her husband that her death nearly drove him insane. So, upon Harriet's return to Cincinnati, she strove to comfort him as best she could, and their friendship ripened into a real love affair which culminated in their marriage two years later.

But they were not able to settle down in a home of their own at once, for, through the influence of General Harrison, Professor Stowe was appointed a commissioner by the State of Ohio to investigate the public school systems of Europe. In addition to this, the Lane Seminary faculty entrusted him with funds for the purpose of buying some much needed supplies for their library while abroad, and he sailed for Europe in June, 1836, just five months after his marriage. It was not possible for Mrs. Stowe to accompany him, so she went to live at her father's house during his absence, and kept herself busy writing short stories and articles for the Western Monthly Magazine and the New York Evangelist. She also helped her brother Henry, who at that time was editing a small daily paper in Cincinnati, called the Journal.

In a letter to a friend, she says of her marriage, "I was married when I was twenty-five years of age to a man rich in Greek and Hebrew, Latin and Arabic, and, also, rich in nothing else." And this condition remained true all her life, in spite of the fact that she earned large sums of money by her writing. Neither she nor her husband was a good business manager, and they invested unwisely, were imposed upon by so-called charities, and in other ways soon used up all the money they earned.

In a brief autobiographical sketch she says that when she set up house-keeping her entire stock of china cost her eleven dollars. Two years later when her brother was married and came visiting her with his bride, she had to buy ten dollars' worth more in order to set a respectable table. But this supply was made to last for several years without further replenishing. She must have inherited her mother's gift for manufacturing household necessities, for she records at different times in her letters the making of sofas, lounges, barrel chairs, pillows, bolsters, mattresses and other articles of furniture. She could wield the paintbrush about the house as well as in her art, could drive nails as well as her brothers could, knew how to tack down carpets and mend furniture with practiced hand, and the family came to depend upon her in such emergencies rather than upon the professor. One time when a pane of glass had been broken in the cellar window, Professor Stowe decided that it was his duty to mend it, so he selected a thin board to cover the opening, and went to work with hammer and nails. But after he had succeeded in breaking the rest of the glass in the window, and almost demolishing the sash, he returned to the house much crestfallen, and Mrs. Stowe quietly repaired the damaged window.

Besides these rather peculiar accomplishments, Mrs. Stowe possessed the ability to cut and fit her own clothes, and even to make her husband's coats and her own shoes. When she found it difficult to insert the rubber in the sides of certain styles of shoes, she invented a way of lacing them up the back, which really made a more presentable shoe when it was finished. So we discover that she was talented in other ways than in her writing, for surely very few people of to-day can make their own shoes, although they might succeed in fitting their own dresses.

The first year of Mrs. Stowe's married life, twin daughters were born, while the professor was still in England. The fond mother named them Eliza Tyler and Isabella, but when the proud father returned from his lengthy sojourn in foreign lands, he insisted that they be called Eliza Tyler and Harriet Beecher. Five other babes came to enrich her life as the years sped by, adding more cares to the already busy woman, but she always declared that she would never exchange her children for all the ease, leisure and pleasure she could have without them. She said, "God invented mothers' hearts, and He certainly has the pattern in His own."

She took her motherhood very seriously, just as she took everything else, and her growing family became her foremost thought. Many anxious hours she devoted to her little ones in nursery and schoolroom, as well as hovering over their sick beds when childish ailments robbed them of their health temporarily. And much of their early education they received under her guidance in their own home. In speaking of this subject in one of her letters, she says, "The most fearful thing about this education matter is that it is example more than word. Talk as you will, the child follows what he sees, not what he hears. The prevailing tone of the parent's character will make the temper of the household; the spirit of the parent will form the spirit of the child." With this thought uppermost in her heart, she succeeded in making the atmosphere of her home sweet, harmonious and happy, and between the members of her family existed a bond of understanding such as is rarely found.

Domestic service was hard to obtain even in her time, and particularly in homes of so little worldly wealth. But at one time Mrs. Stowe had befriended a homeless English girl who had come to our land to seek her fortune, and for years this girl lived with her and helped her solve her household problems. Mrs. Stowe says she never would have lived through all the trials her position in life brought her, if it had not been for this friend, Anna. Yet in spite of the numberless tasks that absorbed her time night and day for the welfare of her flock, she found time to keep at her writing through all the years; or perhaps it would be better to say that she made the time, for she certainly learned to do several things at once, and in this way managed her stories when a less determined or a less talented soul would have given up in despair. She was a rapid writer, and could accomplish much in a brief time, so she forged ahead in spite of almost overwhelming obstacles.

Professor Stowe was very dependent upon her, and being somewhat of a pessimist, drew upon her strength as one of the children might have done, for she had to cheer him on whenever he became down-hearted. She mothered him, teased him, laughed at him, humored him, and yet helped him at every turn. He had a quick temper, and as his health broke under the heavy mental work he was engaged in, he often was decidedly irritable; but her patience and his own good nature always brought about a happy ending to the occasional domestic explosions.

One day he brought home a dozen eggs to set, having decided to try his luck at raising blooded stock. Saying nothing about his intentions, he hid the eggs in the woodshed until he should have time to build a nest according to his own notions. Naturally, the children found the eggs in their play and thinking that a hen had stolen her nest, they gathered up the treasure and carried it in triumph to their mother. She was busy with the day's cooking and had just discovered that there was not an egg in the house, so the children's find delighted her housewifely soul, and she briskly beat up the eggs into puddings and pies. A day or two later, the busy professor remembered his eggs and went to get them from their hiding place. Finding them gone, he stormed the house, expressed himself in no uncertain terms to the whole family, and rushed wrathfully away to deliver another lecture to his class at college.

The ingenious and whimsical mother was amused at his tantrum and decided to laugh him out of it. So when he returned for dinner still feeling rather injured and peppery, he found the table properly set but no one in sight indoors or out. Perplexed, and possibly a little alarmed at this unusual occurrence, he set out to find the missing members of his family. A very human imitation of the cackling of hens drew him to the woodshed from which his setting of eggs had vanished, and when he peered in through the door for the cause of the loud and enthusiastic chorus of cackles, he beheld his wife, all the children, and even the dog perched on a beam overhead, making as much racket as they could. It was impossible to keep his face straight, and he burst into a hearty laugh. That was all they wanted, and the whole family trooped gaily into the house for the belated dinner.

Nor was the domestic calm ever any more seriously ruffled than on the occasion just mentioned, for the professor and his wife were very much in love with each other to the end of their days, and dwelt in rare communion of spirit. He writes to her during an absence from home, "If you could come home to-day, how happy should I be. I am daily finding out more and more (what I knew very well before) that you are the most intelligent and agreeable woman in the whole circle of my acquaintance." She replies in the same vein, "If you were not already my dearly beloved husband, I should certainly fall in love with you."

Next in line to her twin daughters, came two sons, Henry Ellis and Frederick William, born in 1838 and 1840. While they were very small the State of Ohio suffered a near-famine, due to the blocking of the river with ice, so navigation was impossible for some weeks, and supplies were so difficult to obtain that only the rich could afford even the bare necessities of life. The Stowes, like many other families, lived on black bread and bacon for several months, and this diet still further impaired Mrs. Stowe's health, which was very poor during these strenuous years. She taxed her strength to the uttermost in helping prepare for a family reunion at her father's house at about this time, and the excitement of meeting brothers and sisters whom she had not seen for years only buoyed her temporarily.

Eleven of Dr. Beecher's children were home for this reunion, and strange as it may seem, it was the first time some of these children had ever met each other! Three different sons occupied their father's pulpit during this celebration. But when the hardships and excitement were over, Mrs. Stowe felt compelled to go away for a brief rest, and returned to Hartford for a short vacation. On the way home, she visited her brother William in Batavia.

The winter which followed this brief breathing spell was a hard one at Walnut Hills. Typhoid fever broke out at the Seminary, the Beecher house was turned into a hospital, and the whole family laid everything else aside to nurse the sick. Hardly had they recovered from this siege when the shocking news reached them that George Beecher, one of Mrs. Stowe's brothers, had accidentally shot himself and was dead. While the whole family was sorrowing over the loss of this loved one, Mrs. Stowe's fifth child, Georgiana May, was born. The Seminary was struggling desperately to keep open, there was no money to pay the salaries of its instructors, the students were more poverty-stricken than ever before, and finally Professor Stowe was obliged to go East in an attempt to raise money for the institution.

Mrs. Stowe was overworked and so worried over the ill health of her little flock that her own health gave way at last and she was bundled off to Dr. Wesselhoeft's water-cure at Brattleboro, Vermont, where she remained for eleven months. She demurred against going at this time, saying they had no money to pay for such expensive treatments, but afterwards said she should have had more faith in God's goodness, for the money came in from unknown friends who had heard of the sickness in the professor's family and wanted to help in any way they could. Mrs. Stowe seemed much benefited by her water cure, and returned to Walnut Hills very hopefully in the summer of 1847, only to suffer a very trying siege of neuralgia in her eyes which almost incapacitated her for work of any kind.

A sixth child, Samuel Charles, was born the following January, and after that her eyes, as well as her general health improved. But the anxiety of these struggles and adversities had proved too much for the professor, and shortly after this wee son was born, he, himself, was forced to go to Vermont to the water cure, where he remained for fifteen months. During his absence, Cincinnati was stricken with an epidemic of cholera which was unusually fatal to its victims. Hardly a home in the city escaped the scourge. Professor Stowe, learning of the plague, wanted to return to his family, but his wife opposed him so strongly because of his bad health, that he remained at Brattleboro, although his youngest child was taken with the dread disease, and after a partial recovery, suffered a relapse, which proved fatal. The oldest boy, Henry, was also ill with it, but did not die. Those were indeed dark days for the poor mother, alone with her little children. But with her unswerving faith in her God, she bore her burden bravely, and while her own heart was crushed with her heavy sorrow, she went about doing all she could for other stricken homes.

Professor Stowe returned to Cincinnati from his long absence with the determination to go East to live. He had been with the Lane Seminary for seventeen years, but several calls had come to him from different Eastern institutions, and he decided to accept the position offered him by Bowdoin College, his Alma Mater. He could not at once leave Cincinnati, as his successor must be found to fill the place he would leave vacant, but after much discussion, Mrs. Stowe concluded to take three of the children and go to Brunswick, Maine, to make ready for the rest of the family when the professor should be at liberty to come.

They had a long, tedious journey, for trains were not as common then as now, and part of the trip must still be made by boat. There was furniture to be bought, a house to be found and put in order, and countless unexpected tasks to be looked after, in the midst of a cold, northeastern storm that continued for days until every one of her brood was on edge and she herself just ready to die from weariness and disgust at the weather. But in spite of all her handicaps and discouragements, she found many of her adventures funny, and laughed heartily over them with family and friends.

The kitchen in the dreary old house they had to live in when they first reached Brunswick had no sink, cistern or other water near at hand. But the resourceful Mrs. Stowe bought two hogsheads, with the idea of putting them down cellar in place of a real cistern, when to her dismay she discovered that the only cellar door in the house was in the kitchen, and was a mean, narrow affair, leading down a steep, almost perpendicular flight of stairs. Not to be discouraged at this state of affairs, nor forced to give up this desire of her heart, she set herself to think out some solution of the difficulty, and decided that the hogsheads must come to pieces and be set up again in the cellar. Arrived at this decision, she was fortunate enough to find an honest Yankee cooper who actually carried out this idea one summer forenoon, and put her novel cisterns in working order, to the utter amazement of the natives, who thought it could not be done satisfactorily.

But when it came to getting a sink installed, Mrs. Stowe encountered greater difficulties, for the only carpenter available was her own landlord, who valued his leisure more than his income, and did not think it was ever necessary to hurry. Though capable of doing almost anything, he contented himself with doing next to nothing, and it was weeks before Mrs. Stowe could persuade him to finish that much-needed article of furniture.

On the 8th of July, following their advent in Brunswick, the seventh and last child was born in the Stowe family. He was named Charles Ellis. During the months preceding his birth, in addition to the many tasks Mrs. Stowe found to occupy her time in getting ready the new home for her flock, she had taught school for the benefit of her own children an hour each day, and had read to them two hours every evening. Naturally, she found little time to write. But after the newest baby had come, she set to work to prepare the articles and stories she had promised newspaper editors. She says of her literary efforts at this time, "Nothing but deadly determination enables me ever to write; it is rowing against wind and tide." But at this period of her life when she was perhaps the very busiest with household matters and family anxieties, she began the greatest work she ever did; in fact, the greatest work any American woman ever did.

During the month of December, while her husband was still teaching at Lane Seminary, she wrote him for information she wished to use in getting up an article for the Era, on the capabilities of the liberated blacks for taking care of themselves. Earlier in the year, on her way to the new Brunswick home, she had stopped ten days in Boston to visit her brother Edward, then preaching in that city. Daniel Webster's Seventh of March speech was still the topic of the day. That this great man, idolized by the nation, should advocate the Fugitive Slave Law was a cruel blow to all the Beechers, and from this time on, Mrs. Stowe devoted more and more of her time to the cause of the slave. But it was after Mrs. Stowe had reached Brunswick that her brother Edward's wife wrote her, "Hattie, if I could use a pen as you can, I would write something to make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is." When the letter was read in the midst of the family circle in Brunswick, Mrs. Stowe was so wrought up by it that she sprang to her feet and cried, "I will write something. I will if I live!" Thus it was that she began writing Uncle Tom's Cabin  that same winter, and the next April the first chapter of the book, destined to become famous the world over, was sent to the editor of the National Era  in Washington.