Harriet and Isabella is a novel about the relationship between Harriet Beecher Stowe and her sister, Isabella Beecher Hooker. Set in 1870s and ‘80s Brooklyn, the story alternates between Henry Ward Beecher’s deathbed and the time when he was involved in a scandalous adultery case, in which he was accused of grossly immoral conduct and practicing free love. Harriet, the abolitionist, supported her brother, while Isabella, the suffragist, took the side of his accuser, Victoria Woodhull. As Beecher lies dying, Isabella comes back to Brooklyn to see if she can mend old wounds.
In the back of the book, the author says that she went to Brooklyn and interviewed present-day members of Plymouth Church, to see what they thought of the Beecher scandal. While some members of the congregation thought that Beecher never had an affair, I’m with O’Brien in terms of wondering what really happened. And the author does a fine job in this novel of presenting both sides of the scandal. Isabella’s point of view is the focus of this novel, but it’s equally about Harriet and her struggle, both personally and professionally.
The author spent a long time wandering the neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights; as a former resident of the neighborhood, I was very pleased by the fact that everything in terms of geography was described in minute detail. Since I know the neighborhood so well, I could just see in my mind’s eye the conversations that took place in this book on the lawn in front of Plymouth Church, or the tea shop on the corner of Montague and Hicks.
I wasn’t crazy about the inconsistency in terms of past/ present tense. And there are an awful lot of flashbacks. But altogether, I enjoyed this wonderful book about the power of forgiveness.