An energetic new look at the author of the lyrics for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” finds a modern feminist thread in the heroine’s frustrated marriage.
Accomplished women’s studies scholar and author Showalter (Emerita, English/Princeton Univ.; A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, 2010, etc.) focuses on the unhappy marriage of New York heiress and bluestocking Julia Ward (1819-1910) to the crusading Boston doctor for the blind and handicapped, Samuel Howe, a union that lasted from 1843 until his death in 1876. Ward was a gifted singer and cultured young woman, and she fell for the handsome, moody “knight errant” Samuel despite early signs that he had a controlling, morose temper. The marriage grew increasingly strained through numerous pregnancies—unwanted by Howe, who yearned for an equitable, affectionate companion and dreaded the strictures of motherhood. Samuel, very much a man of his era, believed women should be completely fulfilled by domestic duties and motherhood and was no doubt bewildered and angry by Julia’s restlessness. Showalter can’t help that Howe comes across from her letters as whiny and spoiled and thus not a terribly sympathetic character. After refusing to come home to Boston from a trip to Rome, during which she plunged into her poetry and found her voice, she returned just ahead of a scandalous marital separation and was shocked by the tanned skin and “harsh voices” of the older children she had left behind. Readers may be shocked when reading about submission to her husband’s sexual will in order to avoid scandal (producing yet more children) and her inability to reveal to him her first book of poetry. The power struggle continued with her fame as the lyricist of the “Battle Hymn.” Still, Howe certainly came into her own in later years, embracing women’s suffrage and feminist causes, elements that the author might have dwelt more on.
A rich life well deserving of reconsideration. Showalter provides a solid launching point.