January 6, 2011

Stowe: I should certainly fall in love with you

"Well, my dear," wrote Harriet Beecher to a friend on January 6, 1836, "about half an hour more and your old friend, companion, schoolmate, sister, etc., will cease to be Hatty Beecher." That day, she married Calvin Ellis Stowe, a teacher at the seminary school where her father was president. "I have been dreading and dreading the time... and lo! it has come," her letter continued, "and I feel nothing at all." Nothing, in this case, referring to the absence of fear or dread.

Though they were frequently separated for one reason or another, the couple managed to have seven children (some of whom died tragically; their first-born were twins, born almost exactly nine months after their marriage). On one of those occasions when they were apart, Mrs. Stowe wrote to her husband that she was "dependent" on him: "There are a thousand favorite subjects on which I could talk with you better than with any one else. If you were not already my dearly loved husband I should certainly fall in love with you." In 1842, Mr. Stowe wrote to his wife, "I want you to come home as quick as you can. The fact is I cannot live without you... There is no woman like you in this wide world."

Though today known mostly for her 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe was a prolific writer of novels and short stories. Her book Oldtown Folks hearkened back to an earlier United States, before the Civil War, and was inspired heavily by her husband's New England years; the narrator, Horace Holyoke, was born in Natick, Massachusetts, just like Mr. Stowe. One section in particular seems to hearken to Mrs. Stowe's own personal struggles in becoming a domestic housewife:

My mother's gayety of animal spirits, her sparkle and vivacity, all went with the first year of marriage. The cares of housekeeping, the sicknesses of maternity and nursing, drained her dry of all that was bright and attractive; and my only recollections of her are of a little quiet, faded, mournful woman, who looked on my birth and that of my brother Bill as the greatest of possible misfortunes, and took care of us with a discouraged patience, more as if she pitied us for being born than as if she loved us.

The soon to be Mrs. Stowe wrote her letter in an effort to comfort her friend, who was recently engaged and apparently nervous about her own impending marriage. For the information in this post, I am indebted to Philip McFarland's Loves of Harriet Beecher Stowe (2007).


  1. Being able to read letters from the past is so fascinating. Those comments between the spouses are touching, and I especially love that Harriet sat down to write to a friend half an hour before her wedding--she must have been nervous herself, if she needed to turn to a friend!

  2. I think wedding ceremonies themselves were much simpler in those days, leaving her time to write a letter shortly before. Either way, the two were kinda cute together. McFarland's book tells more about Mrs. Stowe's difficulty acquiescing to domestic roles. The story of the Stowes makes an interesting follow-up to yesterday's post on James Parton and Fanny Fern, don't you think?

  3. Having seen all the wedding-related recipes in Child's American Frugal Housewife, I guess I assumed she'd be helping in the kitchen that morning!

    It is interesting to see how the two prominent women writers saw married life so differently. I wonder how much of that is due to when they did their writing; if Harriet had written Uncle Tom's Cabin before marriage, she might have felt more of her own person...?

  4. Getting married was a woman's duty, regardless of her feelings for her impending husband or any other man. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about her wedding day very matter-of-factly. Her parents weren't even there, she just got up that morning, got dressed in a new dress (not a "wedding dress"), went to her friend's house where she was married by her friend's father who was a minister, ate a bit of cake after and was doing housework by the afternoon. Of course your station in life affected how fancy a wedding you had, but there are lots of letters and journal entries from the 19C where women talk about being less than thrilled about getting married. It's kind of sad.

  5. Perhaps. But the good news was that, overall, the Stowes had a positive marriage - especially on an intellectual level. I think her "feeling nothing" was supposed to be a positive comparison to her previous "dreading and dreading."


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