An engaging, revelatory account of the trial of the century—the 19th century—following charges of adultery against Henry Ward Beecher.
The prominent Beecher family has no contemporary equivalent—a large brood of intellectuals, they helped set America’s moral compass. Catherine founded schools for girls, Isabella was a suffragette, Harriet wrote the seminal novel of slavery, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and younger brother Henry was the famous minister of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church, where he advocated the radical notion of a loving and forgiving God. Naysayers might speculate there was a bit too much love on offer at Beecher’s church, and after years of hushed rumor, Henry is accused of adultery (by radical suffragist Victoria Woodhull, out to ruin Henry for his dismissal of her ideas), and finally a suit is brought against Henry by the wronged husband. Though Henry is fascinating—slightly effete yet calculating—the novel centers on the two title sisters, and the rift the trial brought between them. Book ending the novel are the days before Henry’s death in March of 1887. Journalists are encamped on the stoop, the brownstone is filled with friends and family, with the exception of one—Isabella Beecher Hooker. Alienated from the family since the trial 12 years earlier, Isabella is at a nearby boardinghouse, hoping she’ll gain access to her brother before he dies. The story of Harriet and Isabella—with Harriet sure that blind loyalty and upholding the Beecher name is paramount, and Isabella sure that Henry is guilty and will hopefully ask forgiveness from his congregation—is not only one of family but of ideas. What best honors the Beecher name—truth or loyalty? The author manages to make rigid Harriet and foolhardy Isabella come off as admirable, sympathetic women trapped by the expectations of their family’s role in history. This could have easily become a soapy melodrama, but O’Brien (The Glory Cloak, 2004, etc.) smartly blends history about this fascinating family with moral questions that have no easy answers.
A winning piece of historical fiction.