Flashbacks lead readers back to the days of the trial, in 1875, and to earlier moments in both sisters' lives. As Harriet slowly comes to terms with the fame and responsibility that writing Uncle Tom's Cabin has laid at her feet, Isabella forges her own path away from her stiflingly close-knit family, becoming an ardent supporter for women's suffrage. The novel is a dramatic account of how one famous American family's private conflicts played out in a very public sphere, posing questions on the importance of loyalty versus truth. It also provides insight into women's lives, the role of slavery, and the nature of celebrity in the post-Civil War years. (As a sidenote, as a native of the Hartford suburbs, I particularly enjoyed "visiting" with the former residents of Hartford's Nook Farm, a neighborhood I'd often seen on grade school field trips!)
For more information, see the book's website at http://www.harrietandisabella.com/.
I hope you enjoy the following interview with Patricia O'Brien. Also, in Reading the Past's first giveaway, Simon and Schuster will be sending copies of Harriet and Isabella to three randomly selected readers; details are at the end of the post.
How did your interest in the social and political history of 19th-century America originally develop?
Before starting to write historical fiction, much of the 19th century seemed like dusty history to me. When I began exploring the lives of Louisa May Alcott and Clara Barton for my earlier novel, The Glory Cloak, I quickly became immersed in the history of the Civil War. And when I began reading the letters and diaries of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher for Harriet and Isabella, I was drawn even deeper into the color and tumult of the late 19th century. I guess you could say I was led there by the people I was writing about. I hated leaving, even after finishing my book.
Do you have a special interest in illuminating women’s lives from the period?
Yes. The Beecher women, for example, were complex and passionate human beings who lived extraordinary lives, given the strictures of their time. In that period, there were many smart women in long dresses – with rich lives for a novelist to explore.
Despite their feud and their very different personalities, I found myself sympathizing with both protagonists and their dilemmas as I read. When you first began your research, did you identify more strongly with either Harriet or Isabella? How did your feelings change as you learned more about both sisters, or did they?
I identified with Isabella first. She took such a hit from her family when she tried to stand up for her values. I sympathized with her yearnings for achievement and her feelings of being left in the shadow of her famous brother and sisters.
Harriet intimidated me somewhat at the beginning. She felt brisk and unapproachable. But the emotion that poured out in her anguished letters after the death of her child drew me to her. I came to see her as an oh-so-human mix of bravery and timidity, with a generous as well as judgmental nature.
Henry’s deathbed scene, in Brooklyn Heights in 1887, frames the novel. Other major sections look back to the trial itself, and there are shorter flashbacks to earlier periods in the sisters’ lives. Despite the number of time-shifts, I never had trouble figuring out where I was. You must have put an immense amount of effort into structuring the novel so that everything read clearly; how did you accomplish this?
It was tricky. I wanted my characters to be looking back on the past, to evaluate themselves, deal with their thoughts and regrets, but I also wanted the immediacy of the early years that shaped them and the immediacy of the trial. Once I framed it around the time of Henry's dying, the rest seemed to flow. A key decision was to use the present tense for the events in 1887, and past tense for all other time frames.
How did your previous career as a newspaper reporter affect your approach to the story, in terms of the research techniques you used and/or the subject matter itself?
I went after original material, just the way I went after original interviews when I was a reporter. This time, I had the luxury of spending much longer on my research than I ever could with a daily deadline. But I felt right at home doing some of the basic research in the archives of the Brooklyn Eagle, which covered at length every day of the trial. I tried to imagine being the reporters writing those stories, and how the voracious national appetite for detail affected the tone of their coverage.
To me, Victoria Woodhull was one of the most compelling secondary characters; she seems almost larger than life, yet before reading the novel, I hadn’t known about her role in the Beecher adultery trial. How did you approach creating her character?
I wanted to show her contradictions, from her reckless sexuality to her visionary skills that made her – for a short while – the heroine of the suffragist movement. I also wanted to be careful not to let her take the reins and gallop away in a direction I didn’t want to go. Victoria had a powerful and colorful personality, and was, in many ways, a woman before her time.
Along with the galley copy of Harriet and Isabella I received at BEA, you’d provided a sheet detailing a self-guided walking tour of Brooklyn Heights. From the descriptions there, I got the impression that you’d walked this route yourself, and imagined scenes as you stopped at important points along the way. How important do you feel it is for historical novelists to physically visit the places where their characters lived and interacted?
Very important, if at all possible. I particularly remember walking the streets of Brooklyn Heights one night right after a snowfall, when it was easy to imagine horse-drawn carriages maneuvering through the snow and gaslight flickering behind the windows of the brownstone mansions. I could imagine Henry striding these same streets, waving to people in these same houses… it cut the distance between past and present almost to nothing.
I felt the same way when I was allowed into the newly-discovered Civil War office of Clara Barton in Washington while writing The Glory Cloak. I could run my hands over the faded wallpaper and bring it into my story, knowing Clara had sat in that same room and gazed at that same wallpaper as she worked.
Were there any historical tidbits you turned up in your research that you would have liked to use in the novel, but were unable to?
I like this question. Yes, indeed there were. One of the challenges of writing historical fiction is not to let historical detail – no matter how fascinating – divert you from your story. For example, Harriet’s husband, Calvin Stowe, had an imaginary friend (into adulthood) whom he named Harvey. This brought to mind the play and 1950 film in which Jimmy Stewart had an imaginary best friend – a six-foot tall rabbit, also named Harvey. Was Calvin’s pal the inspiration? Hmmmm… couldn’t go anywhere with that.
Another small tidbit I tried to place but finally rejected was a newspaper account describing an older man who showed up almost every day at Henry’s trial with a fine wood cane topped with a polished brass knob. He would sit through the testimony, holding his cane in front of him – and chew on the knob. I couldn’t go anywhere with that either unless I gave him some fleshing out; some identity and reason for being there, which would have been a diversion. But I loved the image.
Thank you, Patricia, for taking the time to answer questions for this interview.
Also, thanks to Simon & Schuster, we have three new hardcover copies of Harriet and Isabella to give away to readers. To enter, either leave a comment on this post, or send an email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with "Harriet and Isabella" as the subject. Three entries will be selected randomly at the end of the day Friday, February 8th, after which I'll contact you for your mailing addresses. Good luck!
(Added, in response to a question - this drawing is open to everyone, not only those readers in the USA.)