Monday, February 04, 2008

An interview with Patricia O'Brien

Patricia O'Brien's Harriet and Isabella (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, Jan. 2008, $25.00) dramatizes a sex scandal that preoccupied the nation in the late 19th century. It begins in Brooklyn Heights in 1887, as Henry Ward Beecher, a charismatic preacher known for his oratorical skill, lies on his deathbed. As reporters gathered around his brownstone begin their vigil, two of his sisters, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Isabella Beecher Hooker, are forced to revisit the cause of their long estrangement. Twelve years earlier, Henry had been put on trial for adultery with Elizabeth Tilton, one of his parishioners. While Harriet stood by him, striving to present the Beechers as a strong family unit, Isabella publicly urged him to admit his guilt.

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

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 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.)


  1. Looking forward to reading this one (and maybe to winning a copy!)

  2. Wonderful interview Sarah. I'm looking forward to reading this as well. I became acquainted with the trial through reading Barbara Goldsmith's book on Victoria Woodhull and found the whole period fascinating. Particularly the other sister Catherine Beecher who was well-known for her school as well as her books on being a good wife and mother despite the fact that she never married herself.

  3. Great interview, fascinating book! Please enter me in the drawing!

  4. Thanks, ladies!

    All of the Beecher sisters appear in the novel to some degree. I was browsing the Stowe Center's genealogy page while reading it - most of the Beechers lived to a great age.

  5. Thanks for the interview, Sarah. It sounds like a wonderful book.

  6. Sounds completely fascinating!

  7. Interesting interview!

  8. I loved the Glory Cloak and cannot wait to read this one. I love 19 cent historical fiction. I only wish there was more of it! I hope Ms. O'Brien contiunes to write it because I will contiune to read it!

  9. I would like to read this book, too. Thanks for the interview.

  10. Sounds like it is going to be a great book! Looking forward to it; thanks for the author interview.

  11. Just curious ... does the novel bring up Harriet's vindication of Lady Byron at all?

    19th-century "free love" scandals are always interesting (and often comical!) to read about, so I'll be checking this out, definitely.

  12. Foose - hmm, I don't remember that as part of the novel, but it didn't cover her entire writing career... just whatever was necessary for this particular story.

  13. This book sounds fascinating. I agree that all the free love scandals are interesting to read about and something that most Americans today don't even know existed. They think that the idea of free love was invented in the 1960s.

  14. LOL, Lisa - I think that's true!

  15. Eric Walker2:27 PM

    On page 221, when discussing Henry Beecher's legal team, Patricia O'Brien referred it as the "prosecutor." Since Henry was sued by Mr. Tilton, O'Brien meant to say "defendant." This slipped by O'Brien and her editors.

  16. Khalif10:21 PM

    This is my first time reading an interview for a book and I can say I really learned a lot and I am going to get this ASAP!

  17. Wow, what a great interview, keep it up!

  18. Bailey McInnis9:19 PM

    Amazing interview, I have just added this novel to my must read list! It sounds like an amazing story!

  19. That was an interesting insight into Patricia's mind. Good Job!

  20. I find it so interesting when she discusses the fact that there can be more history than can fit into a story. It would be fun to have those tidbits as asides in the book.