Works of Annie Fields
DAYS WITH MRS. STOWE
from Authors & Friends by Annie Fields
Cambridge: Houghton Mifflin, 1896
In recalling Mrs. Stowe's life, with the remembrance of what she has been to her friends, to her country, and to the world, I am overborne by the sense of a soul instinct from its early consciousness with power working in her beyond her own thought or knowledge or will. Her attitude seemed by nature to be that of contemplation. Her heart was like a burning coal laid upon the altar of humanity; and when she stole up, as it were, in the night and laid it down for the slave with tears and supplications, it awakened neither alarm nor wonder in her spirit that in the morning she saw a bright fire burning there and lighting the whole earth.
Mrs. Stowe had already passed through this great experience when I saw her for the first time in Italy. It was only a few weeks before the war against slavery was openly declared, and she was like one who having "done all" must now "stand." This year indeed was one of the happiest of her life. She did not yet see the terrible feet of War already close upon us, yet she was convinced that the end of slavery was at hand. She was released at last from the toils which poverty had laid upon her over-tasked body. Her children were with her, and she was enjoying, as few persons know how to enjoy, the loveliness of Italy. She delighted, too, in the congenial society of Mr. and Mrs. Browning and the agreeable friends who were that winter grouped around them. After her long trial and her years of suffering she was to have "her day" in the world of beauty and love which lay about her.
In one of her early letters to Georgiana May, in 1833, she says, speaking of some relaxation which had come to her friend: "How good it would be for me to be put into a place which so breaks up and precludes thought. Thought, intense emotional thought, has been my disease. How much good it might do me to be where I could not but be thoughtless." This letter was written when she was twenty-two years old, and there had never been any respite in her life until those sweet Italian days of the winter of 1859 and '60.
It was only about a year later than the date of the above letter when the subject of slavery was first brought under her own observation during a brief visit in Kentucky. Her father had received a call in Boston, where he had been preaching for six years, to go to Cincinnati, which at that period was considered the far West and almost like banishment; but the call was one not to be refused; the need of such preaching as Dr. Beecher's being greatly felt at that distant post. About a year after their arrival an invitation came to Harriet to cross the river and to see something of Kentucky in company with a young friend. She found herself on the estate which was later known as Colonel Shelby's in "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Her companion said later, in recalling their experience: "Harriet did not seem to notice anything in particular that happened, but sat most of the time as though abstracted in thought. When the negroes did funny things and cut up capers, she did not seem to pay the slightest attention to them. Afterwards, however, in reading Uncle Tom, I recognized scene after scene of that visit portrayed with the utmost fidelity, and knew at once where the material for that part of the story had been gathered."
To show how completely her "style" was herself, there is a passage from one of her early letters describing her experience at Niagara which burns with her own fire. "Let me tell you," she says, "if I can, what is unutterable.… I did not once think if it were high or low; whether it roared or didn't roar.… My mind whirled off, it seemed to me, in a new strange world…. That rainbow, breaking out, trembling, fading, and again coming like a beautiful spirit walking the waters. Oh, it is lovelier than it is great; it is like the Mind that made it; great, but so veiled in beauty that we gaze without terror. I felt as if I could have gone over with the waters; it would be so beautiful a death; there would be no fear in it. I felt the rock tremble under me with a sort of joy. I was so maddened I could have gone, too, if that had gone."
The first wife of Mr. Stowe was her most intimate friend, and his suffering at her death moved her to intense pity, which finally ripened into love. At the last moment of her maidenhood she wrote again to Georgiana May: "In about half an hour more your old friend, companion, schoolmate, sister, etc., will cease to be Hatty Beecher and change to nobody knows who. My dear, you are engaged and pledged in a year or two to encounter a similar fate, and do you wish to know how you shall feel? Well, my dear, I have been dreading and dreading the time, and lying awake all last week wondering how I should live through this overwhelming crisis, and lo! it has come and I feel nothing at all."
Her marriage with Professor Stowe was a congenial one. He discovered very early what her career must be and wrote to her once during a brief absence: "God has written it in his book that you must be a literary woman, and who are we that we should contend against God?" His admiration for her was perfect, a feeling which she reciprocated in a somewhat different form. "I did not know," she once wrote to him, "until I came away how much I was dependent upon you for information. There are a thousand favorite subjects on which I could talk with you better than with any one else. If you were not already my dearly loved husband, I should certainly fall in love with you."
She can speak to him with an openness which she uses to no one else; she says, and in this sentence she gives the secret of much which has appeared inexplicable to the world: "One thing more in regard to myself. The absence and wandering of mind and forgetfulness that so often vexes you is a physical infirmity with me. It is the failing of a mind not calculated to endure a great pressure of care, and so much do I feel the pressure I am under, so much is my mind darkened and troubled by care that life seriously holds out few allurements, -- only my children." She used to say laughingly sometimes in later years, "My brother Henry and I are something like anacondas: we have our winter; when we are tired we curl up and disappear, within ourselves, as it were; nobody can get anything out of us; we move about and attend to our affairs and appear like other folks perhaps, but we are not there."
The trouble was that no one could be prepared for these vanishings, not even herself. Perhaps a dinner company of invited guests were eagerly listening to her conversation, when at some suggestion of a new train of ideas, she would suddenly become silent and hardly speak again. Occasionally at a reception she would wander away, only to be found strolling about in the conservatory, if there were one, or quietly observant in some coign of vantage where she was not likely to be disturbed.
My first meeting with Mrs. Stowe found her in one of her absent moods. We were in Florence, and she was delighting herself in the fascinations of that lovely city. Not alone every day but every second as it passed was full of eager interest to her.
She could say with Thoreau, "I moments live who lived but years." We had both been invited to a large reception, on a certain evening, in one of the old palaces on the Arno. There were music and dancing, and there were lively groups of ladies and gentlemen strolling from room to room, contrasting somewhat strangely in their gayety with the solemn pictures hanging on the walls, and a sense of shadowy presence which seems to haunt those dusky interiors. An odd discrepancy between the modern company and the surroundings, a weird mingling of the past and the present, made any apparition appear possible, and left room only for a faint thrill of surprise when a voice by my side said, "There is Mrs. Stowe." In a moment she approached and I was presented to her, and after a brief pause she passed on. All this was natural enough, but a wave of intense disappointment swept over me. Why had I found no words to express or even indicate the feeling that had choked me? Was the fault mine? Oh, yes, I said to myself, for I could not conceive it to be otherwise, and I looked upon my opportunity, the gift of the gods, as utterly and forever wasted. I was depressed and sorrowing over the vanishing of a presence I might perhaps never meet again, and no glamour of light, or music or pictures or friendly voices could recall any pleasure to my heart. Meanwhile, the unconscious object of all this disturbance was strolling quietly along, leaning on the arm of a friend, hardly ever speaking, followed by a group of traveling companions, and entirely absorbed in the gay scene around her. She was a small woman; and her pretty curling hair and far-away dreaming eyes, and her way of becoming occupied in what interested her until she forgot everything else for the time, all these I first began to see and understand as I gazed after her retreating figure.
Mrs. Stowe's personal appearance has received scant justice and no mercy at the hand of the photographer. She says herself, during her triumphal visit to England after the publication of "Uncle Tom:" "The general topic of remark on meeting me seems to be that I am not so bad looking as they were afraid I was; and I do assure you, when I have seen the things that are put up in the shop windows here with my name under them, I have been lost in wondering imagination at the boundless loving-kindness of my English and Scottish friends in keeping up such a warm heart for such a Gorgon. I should think that the Sphinx in the London Museum might have sat for most of them. I am going to make a collection of these portraits to bring home to you. There is a great variety of them, and they will be useful, like the Irishman's guideboard which showed 'where the road did not go.'" I remember once accompanying her to a reception at a well-known house in Boston, where, before the evening was over, the hostess drew me aside, saying, "Why did you never tell me that Mrs. Stowe was beautiful?" And indeed, when I observed her in the full ardor of conversation, with her heightened color, her eyes shining and awake, but filled with great softness, her abundant curling hair rippling naturally about her head and falling a little at the sides (as in the portrait by Richmond), I quite agreed with the lady of the house. Nor was that the first time her beauty had been revealed to me, but she was seldom seen to be beautiful by the great world, and the pleasure of this recognition was very great to those who loved her.
She was never afflicted with a personal consciousness of her reputation, nor was she trammeled by it. The sense that a great work had been accomplished through her only made her more humble, and her shy, absent-minded ways were continually throwing her admirers into confusion. Late in life (when her failing powers made it impossible for her to speak as one living in a world which she seemed to have left far behind) she was accosted, I was told, in the garden of her country retreat, in the twilight one evening, by a good old retired sea captain who was her neighbor for the time. "When I was younger," said he respectfully, holding his hat in his hand while he spoke, "I read with a great deal of satisfaction and instruction 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.' The story impressed me very much, and I am happy to shake hands with you, Mrs. Stowe, who wrote it." "I did not write it," answered the white-haired old lady gently, as she shook the captain's hand. "You didn't?" he ejaculated in amazement. "Why, who did, then?" "God wrote it," she replied simply. "I merely did his dictation." "Amen," said the captain reverently, as he walked thoughtfully away.
This was the expression in age of what lay at the foundation of her life. She always spoke and behaved as if she recognized herself to be an instrument breathed upon by the Divine Spirit. When we consider how this idea absorbed her to the prejudice of what appeared to others a wholesome exercise of human will and judgment, it is not wonderful that the world was offended when she once made conclusions contrary to the opinion of the public, and thought best to publish them.
Mrs. Stowe was a delightful talker. She loved to gather a small circle of friends around a fireside, when she easily took the lead in fun and story telling. This was her own ground, and upon it she was not to be outdone. "Let me put my feet upon the fender," she would say, "and I can talk till all is blue."
It appeared to those who listened most frequently to her conversation that a large part of the charm of her tales was often lost in the writing down; yet with all her unusual powers she was an excellent listener herself. Her natural modesty was such that she took keen pleasure in gathering fresh thought and inspiration from the conversation of others. Nor did the universal homage she received from high and low leave any unworthy impression upon her self-esteem. She was grateful and pleased and humble, and the only visible effect produced upon her was the heightened pleasure she received from the opportunities of knowing men and women who excited her love and admiration. Her name was a kind of sacred talisman, especially in New and Old England. It was a banner which had led men to battle against slavery. Therefore it was often a cause of surprise and social embarrassment when the bearer of this name proved to be sometimes too modest, and sometimes too absent-minded, to remember that anything was expected of her or anything arranged for her special entertainment.
She was utterly taken by surprise once in a foreign city by being invited out to breakfast, as she supposed privately, and finding herself suddenly in a large hall, upon a raised platform crowded with local dignitaries, and greeted before she could get her breath by a chorus of children's voices singing an anthem in her honor, especially composed for the occasion. Her love of fun was greatly excited by this unexpected situation, and she used to relate the anecdote, with details about her unprepared condition which were irresistibly amusing. In a letter home she refers incidentally to the large breakfast party and says: "I could not help wondering if old mother Scotland had put into 'the father of all the tea-kettles' two thousand teaspoonfuls of tea for the company and one for the teapot, as is our good Yankee custom."
The tributes paid to her were ceaseless, and her house in Hartford testifies to many of them. "There," as her friend and neighbor the Reverend Joseph Twichell wrote once in a brief sketch of her -- a sketch full of deep feeling - "there, an observant stranger would soon discover whose house he was in, and be reminded of the world-wide distinction her genius has won and of that great service of humanity with which her name is forever identified. He would, for instance, remark on its pedestal in the bow-window a beautiful bronze statuette by Cumberworth called 'The African Woman of the Fountain,' and on an easel in the back parlor a lovely engraving of the late Duchess of Sutherland and her daughter -- a gift from her son, the present Duke of that name, subscribed 'Mrs. Stowe, with the Duke of Sutherland's kind regards, 1869.' Should he look into a low oaken case standing in the hall, he would find there the twenty-six folio volumes of the 'Affectionate and Christian Address of Many Thousands of Women in Great Britain and Ireland to their Sisters in the United States of America' pleading the cause of the slave, and signed with over half a million names, which was delivered to Mrs. Stowe in person at a notable gathering at Stafford House, in England, in 1853; and with it similar addresses from the citizens of Leeds, of Glasgow, and Edinburgh, presented at about the same time. The house, indeed, is a treasury of such relics, testimonials of reverence and regard, trophies of renown from many lands, enough to furnish a museum, all of the highest historic interest and value…. There are relics, too, of more private sort; for example, a smooth stone of two or three pounds weight, and a sketch or study of it by Ruskin made at a hotel on Lake Neuchâtel, where he and Mrs. Stowe chanced to meet…. One of her most prized possessions is a gold chain of ten links, which, on occasion of the gathering at Stafford House that has been referred to, the Duchess of Sutherland took from her own arm and clasped upon Mrs. Stowe's, saying, 'This is the memorial of a chain which we trust will soon be broken.' On several of the ten links were engraved the great dates in the annals of emancipation in England; and the hope was expressed that she would live to add to them other dates of like import in the progress of liberty this side the Atlantic. That was in 1853. Twelve years later every link had its inscription, and the record was complete."
It was my good fortune to be in Mrs. Stowe's company once in Rome when she came unexpectedly face to face with an exhibition of the general feeling of reverence and gratitude towards herself. We had gone together to the rooms of the brothers Castellani, the world-famous workers in gold. The collection of antique gems and the beautiful reproductions of them were new to us. Mrs. Stowe was full of enthusiasm, and we lingered long over the wonderful things which the brothers brought forward to show. Among them was the head of an Egyptian slave carved in black onyx. It was an admirable work of art, and while we were enjoying it one of them said to Mrs. Stowe, "Madam, we know what you have been to the poor slave. We ourselves are but poor slaves still in Italy: you feel for us; will you keep this gem as a slight recognition of what you have done?" She took the jewel in silence; but when we looked for some response, her eyes were filled with tears, and it was impossible for her to speak.
This feeling often found less refined manifestation. One day when she was shopping in Boston, after making her purchase she gave her name in a low but distinct voice to the clerk who was to send the goods. "Dear me," said a lively woman, audibly by my side, "I should be ashamed to give that name; I should as soon think of giving Angel Gabriel!" Of course we were all greatly amused by this sally, but Mrs. Stowe smiled quietly according to her wont and passed on.
Great human tenderness was one of her chief characteristics. Although she was a reformer by nature there was no sternness in her composition. Forgetfulness of others there was certainly sometimes, arising from her hopeless absent-mindedness and the preoccupation consequent upon her work; but her whole life was swayed and ruled by her affections.
Her love was a sheet anchor which held in the stormiest seas. Of her household devotion it is impossible to speak fitly; but there are few natures that can be said to have been more dependent upon human love. Her tender ways were inexpressibly touching.
Early in life she had written to her brother while hardly more than a girl: "I wish I could bring myself to feel perfectly indifferent to the opinions of others. I believe there never was a person more dependent on the good and evil opinions of those around than I am. This desire to be loved forms, I fear, the great motive for all my actions."
Such a nature was quite unlikely to play the part of a famous woman of the world with any success, and she did not attempt it. She was always reaching out to the friends of her adoption and drawing them closer to her side.
In those days of our early acquaintance in Italy we had ample opportunity to discover the affectionate qualities of her character. If my first interview was a disappointment, her second greeting a few days later had the warmth of old acquaintance. From that moment we (my husband and I) were continually meeting her, in galleries and out of them; at Bellosguardo, which Hawthorne had just quitted, but where Isa Blagden and Frances Power Cobbe still lingered, or in Florence itself with Francesca Alexander and her family; at the Trollopes', or elsewhere, while our evenings were commonly spent in each other's apartments.
As the hours of our European play-days drew near the end, she began to lay plans for returning home in the steamer with those who had grown dear to her, and in one of her notes of that period she wrote to me: --
"On the strength of having heard that you were going home in the Europa June 16th, we also have engaged passage therein for that time, and hope that we shall not be disappointed…. It must be true, we can't have it otherwise…. Our Southern Italy trip was a glory -- it was a rose -- a nightingale -- all, in short, that one ever dreams; but alas! it is over."
It was a delightful voyage homeward in every sense. At that period a voyage was no little matter of six days, but a good fourteen days of sitting together on deck in pleasant summer weather, and having time enough and to spare. Hawthorne and his family also concluded to join the party. Mrs. Hawthorne, who was always the romancer in conversation, filled the evening hours by weaving magic webs of her fancies, until we looked upon her as a second Scheherazade, and the day the head was to be cut off was the day we should come to shore. "Oh," said Hawthorne, "I wish we might never get there." But the good ship moved steadily as fate. Meanwhile, Mrs. Stowe often took her turn at entertaining the little group. She was seldom tired of relating stories of New England life and her early experiences.
When the ship came to shore, Mrs. Stowe and her daughters went at once to Andover, where Professor Stowe had remained at his post during their long absence in Europe. She went also with equal directness to her writing-desk; and though there are seldom any dates upon her letters, the following note must have been written shortly after her return: --
MY DEAR MR. FIELDS, -- "Agnes of Sorrento" was conceived on the spot, -- a spontaneous tribute to the exceeding loveliness and beauty of all things there.
One bright evening, as I was entering the old gateway, I saw a beautiful young girl sitting in its shadow selling oranges. She was my Agnes. Walking that same evening through the sombre depths of the gorge, I met "Old Elsie," walking erect and tall, with her piercing black eyes, Roman nose, and silver hair, -- walking with determination in every step, and spinning like one of the Fates glittering silver flax from a distaff she carried in her hands.
A few days after, our party, being weatherbound at Salerno, had resort to all our talents to pass the time, and songs and stories were the fashion of the day. The first chapter was my contribution to that entertainment. The story was voted into existence by the voices of all that party, and by none more enthusiastically than by one young voice which will never be heard on earth more. It was kept in mind and expanded and narrated as we went on to Rome over a track that the pilgrim Agnes is to travel. To me, therefore, it is fragrant with love of Italy and memory of some of the brightest hours of life.
I wanted to write something of this kind as an author's introduction to the public. Could you contrive to print it on a fly-leaf, if I get it ready, and put a little sort of dedicatory poem at the end of it? I shall do this at least in the book, if not now.
A network of difficulties seems to have closed about her at this time, because in spite of her interest in the new story and the hopeful view which she took of its speedy completion, several months passed by before anything definite came respecting her literary plans.
Meanwhile she had been tempted into beginning a story for "The Independent," which proved to be "The Pearl of Orr's Island," a story good enough, if she had been left to herself and not overridden by greedy editors and publishers, to have added a lustre even to her name. It is to this she refers in the following letter when she speaks of her "Maine story." Unhappily this first number drew off power which belonged to "Agnes of Sorrento," and Agnes served to prevent her from ending "The Pearl of Orr's Island" in a manner worthy of its first promise.
She says, writing in January, 1861, "Authors are apt, I suppose, like parents, to have their unreasonable partialities. Everybody has, and I have a pleasure in writing 'Agnes of Sorrento' that gilds this icy winter weather. I write my Maine story with a shiver, and come back to this as to a flowery home where I love to rest.
"My manuscripts are always left to the printers for punctuation, -- as you will observe, -- I have no time for copying."
Mrs. Stowe's health was not vigorous at this period. Incessant drafts upon her energy had enfeebled her; but her spirit was indomitable, and when she was weary a brief visit to Boston was, she considered, sufficient to restore her nervous force. During these visits she sometimes rehearsed the story of the early days of her married life, when she fought her way through difficulties and under the burden of sorrows which would have crushed many another woman.
The tale of the arrival of the family on a wintry day in Brunswick, Me., where her husband had been appointed to a professorship in Bowdoin College, of the dreary season, the bitter cold, the unopened door of an empty house, their future home, left a vivid impression upon the minds of her listeners; not because of its forlornness, but because of the splendid energy and patience which she brought to the occasion and the light she was able to cast over the grimness of circumstance. Of course, at the date in which this is written, it is difficult to conceive anything like grimness as associated with the comfortable and social town of Brunswick, but we must not fail to remember how rapid the growth of winter comfort has been throughout New England. This house in the village of Brunswick was the birthplace of "Uncle Tom's Cabin;" but long before her pen could be allowed to touch the paper the door of the house must be unlocked, the fire made, and her little children warmed and fed. The walls too must be freshly papered and painted with her own unassisted hands, and a long table spread which could serve as a family dining-table and her own and only place for writing. Here, as Mr. Fields once said in one of his lectures, "A New England woman once wrote a great novel while beset with difficulties, pinched by poverty, and surrounded by hard work from sunrise to mid-night, year in and year out. She was a pallid, earnest, tired little body, who sat in her white cottage down in Brunswick in the state of Maine. She had been busy all day, perhaps painting a room, for her means would not allow her to hire it done. Besides that labor she cooked for the family, and had done all her other household duties, without assistance, and without flinching or groaning. The children were hushed to sleep; all was still about the house, and she trimmed the solitary lamp for a long session at her writing-table.
"Thus she sat many a night and wrote, and wept, and wrote again, until she had poured out her soul before the Lord for humanity's sake. And then came, a little slowly at first, but rolling surely with an awful sound, that great universal response; the voice of the people of the whole earth speaking as one."
The labor, the shock, were past, but the fatigue and the strain of the long struggle for freedom which she carried always on her own heart could never be over-lived. She was already, as Mrs. Hawthorne used to say, "tired far into the future." The woman who had written "Uncle Tom" was not to continue a series of equally exciting stories, but she was to bear the burden and heat of much everyday labor with the patience and the rejoicing of all faithful souls.
We are reminded, as we study Mrs. Stowe's life, of Swinburne's noble tribute to Sir Walter Scott after reading his Journals which appeared in full only five or six years ago. He says: "Now that we have before us in full -- in all reasonable or desired completeness -- the great man's own record of his troubles, his emotions, and his toils, we find it, from the opening to the close, a record, not only of dauntless endurance, but of elastic and joyous heroism… It is no longer pity that any one may presume to feel for him at the lowest ebb of his fortunes or his life; it is rapture of sympathy, admiration, and applause. 'This was a man.'"
The war, the enlistment of her second son, the eldest having already died, filled her heart and mind afresh with new problems and anxieties. She wrote the following hurried note from Hartford in 1862, which gives some idea of her occupations and frame of mind: "I am going to Washington to see the heads of departments myself, and to satisfy myself that I may refer to the Emancipation Proclamation as a reality and a substance, not a fizzle out at the little end of the horn, as I should be sorry to call the attention of my sisters in Europe to any such impotent conclusion…. I mean to have a talk with 'Father Abraham' himself, among others."
Mrs. Stowe lost no time, but proceeded to carry out her plan as soon as practicable. Of this visit to Washington she says little in her letters beyond the following meagre words: "It seems to be the opinion here, not only that the President will stand up to his proclamation, but that the Border States will accede to his proposition for emancipation. I have noted the thing as a glorious expectancy!…To-day to the home of the contrabands, seeing about five hundred poor fugitives eating a comfortable Thanksgiving dinner, and singing, 'Oh, let my people go!' It was a strange and moving sight."
It was left for others to speak of her interview with President Lincoln. Her daughter was told that when the President heard her name he seized her hand, saying, "Is this the little woman who made this great war?" He then led her apart to a seat in the window, where they were withdrawn from other guests, and undisturbed. No one but those two souls will ever know what waves of thought and feeling swept over them in that brief hour.
Afterwards she heard these words pronounced in the Senate Chamber in the Message of President Lincoln; it was in the darkest hour of the war, Mrs. Stowe wrote, when defeat and discouragement had followed the Union armies and all hearts were trembling with fear: "If this struggle is to be prolonged till there be not a home in the land where there is not one dead, till all the treasure amassed by the unpaid labor of the slave shall be wasted, till every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be atoned by blood drawn by the sword, we can only bow and say, 'Just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints'!"
During her Boston visits Mrs. Stowe was always interested to observe the benevolent work going on about her and to lend a hand if it were possible. One incident flavored with a strong touch of the ludicrous still lingers in my memory. We had fallen in somewhere with a poor little waif of a boy, one easily to be recognized by the practiced eye of to-day as a good specimen of the street Arab. This little being was taken up by us and brought home. His arrival was looked upon with horror by the servants, who recognized existing facts and foresaw future miseries veiled from our less educated vision. A visit to the bathroom was at once suggested; but as none of the house maidens offered to take charge of the business, Mrs. Stowe announced herself as more than equal to the occasion, and proceeded to administer the first bath probably ever known to that specimen of the human family. Hawthorne's clasping the leprous child was but a shadow compared to that hour, but happily Mrs. Stowe was not Hawthorne and she combed and scrubbed faithfully.
I cannot recall the precise ending of the tale. I can only remember the whole house being aroused at some unearthly hour of that night by the child's outcries, from his unusual indulgence in a good supper, and Mrs. Stowe's amusement at the situation. She declared the household was far better constituted to look after young cherubim than young male humans. Something of the canary-bird order would be much more in its line, she said. I believe he ran away the next day, probably understanding the fitness of things better than ourselves. At any rate I find a comforting note on the subject from Andover saying: "If we can do no more we must let him go. He certainly stands a better chance in his life's journey for the little good we have been able to put into him. When we try a little to resist the evil current and to pull here and there one out, we learn how dreadful is the downward gravitation, the sweep and whirl of the maelstrom. Let us hope all these have a Father -- who charges himself with them somewhere further on in their eternal pilgrimage when our weak hold fails."
In the autumn of 1862 a plan for leaving Andover altogether was finally matured. She wrote, "You have heard that we are going to Hartford to live, and I am now in all the bustle of house planning, to say nothing of grading, under-draining, and setting out trees around our future home. It is four acres and a half of lovely woodland on the banks of a river and yet within an easy walk of Hartford; in fact, in the city limits; and when our house is done you and yours must come and see us. I would rather have made the change in less troublous times, but the duties here draw so hardly on Mr. Stowe's strength that I thought it better to live on less and be in a place of our own, and with no responsibilities except those of common gentlefolk."
Mrs. Stowe's love of home, of the fireside, and her faith in family ties were marked characteristics of her nature. For the first time in her life she was now to make the material house at least after her own idea, and for many months she was entirely absorbed in the enjoyment of forming plans for her Hartford home.
In November, 1862, she was in Hartford superintending the growing establishment. She wrote: "My house with eight gables is growing wonderfully. I go over every day to see it. I am busy with drains, sewers, sinks, digging, trenching, and above all with manure! You should see the joy with which I gaze on manure heaps in which the eye of faith sees Delaware grapes and D'Angoulême pears, and all sorts of roses and posies, all which at some future day I hope you will be able to enjoy.
"Do tell me if our friend Hawthorne praises that arch-traitor Pierce in his preface and your loyal firm publishes it. I never read the preface, and have not yet seen the book, but they say so here, and I can scarcely believe it of you, if I can of him. I regret that I went to see him last summer. What! patronize such a traitor to our faces! I can scarce believe it."
In the month of May, 1863, came her first letter from the new place. Already we find that the ever-present need has driven her on to print her thoughts about "House and Home."
HARTFORD, OAKWOLD, May 1st.
MY DEAR FRIEND, -- I came here a month ago to hurry on the preparations for our house, in which I am now writing, in the high bow window of Mr. Stowe's study, overlooking the wood and river. We are not moved in yet, only our things, and the house presents a scene of the wildest chaos, the furniture having been tumbled in and lying boxed and promiscuous.
I sent the sixth number of "House and Home" papers a week ago, and, not having heard from it, am a little anxious. I always want faith that a bulky manuscript will go safe, -- for all I never lost one…I should like to show you the result here when we are fairly in, and the spring leaves are out. It is the brightest, cheerfullest, homeliest home that you could see, -- not even excepting yours.
The pursuit of literature under such circumstances is neither natural nor profitable. In Mrs. Stowe's case it proved that she was pursuing, not literature, but the necessities of life. Everything in the household economy now depended upon her; and however strong her tendencies were naturally, she no longer possessed the reserved strength to forge the work from her brain. In the writing of "Uncle Tom," great as were the odds against her, she had been preparing to that end from the moment of her birth. Her father's fiery powers of expression; her mother's nature absorbed in one still dream of love and duty; her own solitary childhood in spite of the enormous household in which she was brought up; above all her brooding nature quietly absorbing and assimilating. the knowledge and thought which were finding expression around her; the first years of married life in Cincinnati, where the slaves were continually harbored and assisted, notwithstanding the risks to life and property; -- everything, in short, within and around her was nourishing the child of her genius which was to leap into being and gather the armies of America.
On the whole we may rather wonder at the high average value of the literary work by which she lived, especially when we follow the hints given in her letters of her interrupted and crowded existence.
In June, 1863, she says: "I wrote my piece in a sea of troubles. I had, as you see, to write by amanuensis, and yet my little senate of girls say they like it better than anything I have written yet." It was a touching characteristic to see how the "senate of girls," or of such household friends as she could muster wherever she might be, were always called in to keep up her courage and to give her a sympathetic stimulus. During the days when she was writing, it was never safe to be far away, for she was rapid as light itself, and before a brief hour was ended we were pretty sure to hear her voice calling "Do come, come and hear, and tell me how you like it."
Her June letter continues: "Can I begin to tell you what it is to begin to keep house in an unfinished home and place, dependent on a carpenter, a plumber, a mason, a bell-hanger, who come and go at their own sweet will, breaking in, making all sorts of chips, dust, dirt, going off in the midst leaving all standing, -- reappearing at uncertain intervals and making more dust, chips, and dirt. One parlor and my library have thus risen piecemeal by disturbance and convulsions. They are now almost done, and the last box of books is almost unpacked, but my head aches so with the past confusion that I cannot get up any feeling of rest. I can't enjoy -- can't feel a minute to sit down and say 'it is done.'
"The fountain plays, the plants flourish, and our front hall minus the stair railing looks beautifully; my pictures are all hung in parlor and library, and yet I feel so unsettled. Well, in a month more perhaps I shall get my brains right side up."
The following year was made memorable in Mrs. Stowe's life by the marriage of her youngest daughter. Again I find that no description can begin to give as clearly as the glimpses in her own letters the multifarious responsibilities which beset her. She says: "I am in trouble, -- have been in trouble ever since my turtledoves announced their intention of pairing in June instead of August, because it entailed on me an immediate necessity of bringing every thing out of doors and into a state of completeness for the wedding exhibition in June. The garden must be planted, the lawn graded, harrowed, rolled, seeded, and the grass up and growing, stumps got out and trees got in, conservatory made over, belts planted, holes filled, -- and all by three very slippery sort of Irishmen who had rather any time be minding their own business than mine. I have back door-steps to be made, and troughs, screens, and what not; papering, painting, and varnishing, hitherto neglected, to be completed; also spring house-cleaning; also dressmaking for one bride and three ordinary females; also ---- and ---- and -----'s wardrobes to be overlooked; also carpets to be made and put down; also a revolution in the kitchen cabinet, threatening for a time to blow up the whole establishment altogether." And so the letter proceeds with two more sheets, adding near the end: "I send you to-day a 'Chimney-Corner' on 'Our Martyrs,' which I have written out of the fullness of my heart .... It is an account of the martyrdom of a Christian boy of our own town of Andover, who died of starvation and want in a Southern prison on last Christmas Day."
Just one month before the marriage she writes again: "The wedding is indeed an absorbing whirlpool, but amid it all I have the next 'Chimney-Corner' in good train and shall send it on to-morrow or next day."
How small a portion of the world outside can understand the lives of writers, actors, and those whose professions compel them to depend directly upon the public! No private joy, no private sorrow, no rest, no change, is recognized by this taskmaster. It is well: on the whole we would not have it otherwise; because those who can minister to the great Public embrace their profession in a spirit of conscious or unconscious self-denial. In either case the result is the same: development, advancement, and sometimes attainment.
The wedding is not two days over when another letter arrives full of her literary work, yet adding that she longs for rest and if we will only tell her where Campton is, whither we had gone, she would gladly join us. "I was a weary idiot," she continues, "by the time the wedding was over, and said 'yes ma'am' to the men and 'no sir' to the women in sheer imbecility."
Nevertheless she did not get to Campton, but kept on, with the exception of a few brief visits at Peekskill and elsewhere until the autumn. In one of her notes she says: "I have returned to my treadmill. A--- is to leave as soon as she can get ready, and I am trying to see her off -- helping her to get her things together, and trying to induce her to take a new stand in a new place and make herself a respectable woman. When she is gone a load will be off my back. If it were not for the good that is still left in our fellows our task would be easier than it is; we could cut them adrift and let them swim; but while we see much that may be turned to good account in them we hang on, or let them hang on, and our boat moves slow. So behold me fighting my good fight of womanhood against dust and disorganization and the universal downward tendency of everybody, hoping for easier times by and by."
With her heroic nature she was always ready to lead the forlorn hope. The child no one else was willing to provide for, the woman the world despised, were brought into her home and cared for as her own. Unhappily, her delicate health at this time (though she was naturally strong), her constant literary labors, her uncertain income, her private griefs, all united, caused her to fall short in ability to accomplish what she undertook; hence there were often crises from sudden illness and non-fulfillment of engagements which were very serious in their effects, but the elasticity of her spirits was something marvelous and carried her over many a hard place.
In the autumn of 1864 she wrote: "I feel I need to write in these days, to keep from thinking of things that make me dizzy and blind, and fill my eyes with tears so that I cannot see the paper. I mean such things as are being done where our heroes are dying as Shaw died. It is not wise that all our literature should run in a rut cut through our hearts and red with our blood. I feel the need of a little gentle household merriment and talk of common things, to indulge which I have devised the following."
Notwithstanding her view of the need and her skillfully devised plans to meet it, she soon sent another epistle, showing how impossible it was to stem the current of her thought.
November 29, 1864.
MY DEAR FRIEND, -- I have sent my New Year's article, the result of one of those peculiar experiences which sometimes occur to us writers. I had planned an article, gay, sprightly, wholly domestic; but as I began and sketched the pleasant home and quiet fireside, an irresistible impulse wrote for me what followed, -- an offering of sympathy to the suffering and agonized whose homes have forever been darkened. Many causes united at once to force on me this vision, from which generally I shrink, but which sometimes will not be denied, -- will make itself felt.
Just before I went to New York two of my earliest and most intimate friends lost their oldest sons, captains and majors, -- splendid fellows physically and morally, beautiful, brave, religious, uniting the courage of soldiers to the faith of martyrs, -- and when I went to Brooklyn it seemed as if I were hearing some such thing almost every day; and Henry, in his profession as minister, has so many letters full of imploring anguish, the cry of hearts breaking that ask help of him….
It was during one of Mrs. Stowe's visits to Boston in the ensuing year that she chanced to talk with greater fullness and openness than she had done with us before on the subject of Spiritualism. In the simplest way she affirmed her entire belief in manifestations of the nearness and individual life of the unseen, and gave vivid illustrations of the reasons why her faith was thus assured. She never sought after such testimony, so far as I am aware, unless it may have been to sit with others who were interested, but her conclusions were definite and unvarying. At that period such a declaration of faith required a good deal of bravery; now the subject has assumed a different phase, and there are few thinking people who do not recognize a certain truth hidden within the shadows. She spoke with tender seriousness of "spiritual manifestations" as recorded in the New Testament and in the prophets. From his early youth her husband had possessed the peculiar power of seeing persons about him who could not be perceived by others; visions so distinct that it was impossible for him to distinguish at times between the real and the unreal. I recall one illustration which had occurred only a few years previous to their departure from Andover. She had been called to Boston one day on business. Making her preparations hurriedly, she bade the household farewell, and rushed to the station, only to see the train go out as she arrived. There was nothing to do but to return home and wait patiently for the next train; but wishing not to be disturbed, she quietly opened a side door and crept noiselessly up the staircase leading to her own room, sitting down by her writing-table in the window. She had been seated about half an hour when Professor Stowe came in, looked about him with a preoccupied air, but did not speak to her. She thought his behavior strange, and amused herself by watching him; at last the situation became so extraordinary that she began to laugh. "Why," he exclaimed, with a most astonished air, "is that you? I thought it was one of my visions!"
It may seem a singular antithesis to say of the writer of one of the greatest stories the world has yet produced that she was not a student of literature. Books as a medium of the ideas of the age, and as the promulgators of morals and religion, were of course like the breath of her life; but a study of the literature of the past as the only true foundation for a literature of the present was outside the pale of her occupations, and for the larger portion of her life outside of her interest. During the riper season of her activity with the pen, the necessity of studying style and the thoughts of others gained a larger hold upon her mind; but she always said, with a twinkle of amusement and pride, that she never could have done anything without Mr. Stowe. He knew everything, and all she had to do was to go to him. Of her great work she has written, in that noble introduction to the illustrated edition of "Uncle Tom" speaking of herself in the third person: "The story can less be said to have been composed by her than imposed upon her…. The book insisted upon getting itself into being, and would take no denial."
It is easily seen that it was neither a spirit of depreciation of knowledge nor lack of power to become a student which made her fail to obtain adjuncts indispensable to great writers, but her feet were led in other paths and her strength was needed for other ends. Madame George Sand said, writing of "Uncle Tom" soon after its publication: "If its judges, possessed with the love of what they call 'artistic work,' find unskillful treatment in the book, look well at them to see if their eyes are dry when they are reading this or that chapter…. I cannot say that Mrs. Stowe has talent, as one understands it in the world of letters, but she has genius, as humanity feels the need of genius, -- the genius of goodness, not that of the rules of letters, but of the saint."
All her life she stimulated the activity of her pen rather by her sympathy with humanity than by studies of literature. In one of her letters she says: "You see whoever can write on home and family matters, on what people think of and are anxious about and want to hear from, has an immense advantage. The success of the 'House and Home Papers' shows me how much people want this sort of thing, and now I am bringing the series to a close I find I have ever so much more to say; in fact, the idea has come in this shape…. A set of papers for the next year to be called 'Christopher's Evenings,' which will allow great freedom and latitude; a capacity of striking anywhere when a topic seems to be in the public mind and that will comprise a little series of sketches or rather little groups of sketches out of which books may be made. You understand Christopher writes these for the winter-evening amusement of his family. One set will be entitled 'An Account of the Seven Little Foxes that spoil the Vines.' This will cover seven sketches of certain domestic troubles. Another set is the 'Cathedral; or, the Shrines of Home Saints,' under which I shall give certain sketches of home characters contrasting with that of the legends of the saints: the shirt-making, knitting, whooping-cough-tending saints, the Aunt Esthers and Aunt Marias…. Hum (her humming bird) is well -- notwithstanding the dull weather; we keep him in a sunny upper chamber and feed him daily on sugar and water, and he catches his own mutton."
Thus in swift succession we find, not only charming little idyls here and there like her story of "Hum the Son of Buzz" in the "Young Folks Magazine," being the tale of her captured and tamed humming-bird, but also "Little Foxes," "The Chimney-Corner," a volume of collected Poems, "Oldtown Folks," "Sam Lawson's Fireside Tales" and others, following with tireless rapidity, bearing the same stamp of living sympathy with difficulties of the time and breathing a spirit of helpfulness and faith.
At this period, as she had an accessible home in the pleasant city of Hartford, strangers and travelers often sought and found her. In one of her familiar notes of 1867 she wrote: "The Amberleys have written that they are coming to us to-morrow, and of all times, accordingly, our furnace must spring a leak. We are hoping to make all right before they get here, but I am really ashamed to show such weather at this time of year. Poor America! It's like having your mother expose herself by a fit of ill temper before strangers…. Do, I beg, write to a poor sinner laboring under a book." And again, a little later: "Thebook is almost done -- hang it! but done well, and will be a good thing for young men to read, and young women too, and so I'll send you one. You'll find some things in it, I fancy, that I know and you don't, about the times before you were born, when I was 'Hush, hush, my dear-ing' in Cincinnati…. I smell spring afar off -- sniff -- do you? Any smell of violets in the distance? I think it comes over the water from the Pamfili Doria."
Among other responsibilities assumed by her at this time was that of getting Professor Stowe to consent to publish a book. This was no laughing matter; at first the book was planned merely as an article on the "Talmud" for the "Atlantic Magazine." Afterwards Professor Stowe enlarged the design. Later in speaking of his manuscript she says: "You must not scare him off by grimly declaring that you must have the whole manuscript complete before you set the printer to work; you must take the three quarters he brings you and at least make believe begin printing, and he will immediately go to work and finish up the whole; otherwise what with lectures and the original sin of laziness, it will all be indefinitely postponed. I want to make a crisis that he shall feel that now is the accepted time, and that this must be finished first and foremost."
And again she says: "My poor Rab has been sick with a heavy cold this week, and if it hadn't been for me you wouldn't have had this article which I send in triumph. I plunged into the sea of Rabbis and copied Mr. Stowe's insufferable chaldonic characters so that you might not have your life taken by wrathful printers…. Thus I have ushered into the world a document which I venture to say condenses more information on an obscure and curious subject than any in the known world -- Hosanna!"
In these busy years she went away upon her Boston trips more and more rarely, but she writes after her return from one of them in 1868: "I don't think I ever enjoyed Boston so much as in this visit. Why was it! Every cloud seemed to turn out its silver lining, everybody was delightful, and the music has really done me good. I feel it all over me now. I think of it with a sober certainty of waking bliss! our little `hub' is a grand 'hub.' Three cheers for it!…. I have had sent me through the War Department a French poem which I think is full of real nerve and strength of feeling. I undertook the reading only as a duty, but found myself quite waked up. The indignation and the feeling with which he denounces modern skepticism, that worst of all unbelief, the denial of all good, all beauty, all generosity, all heroism, is splendid. He is a live man this, and I wish you would read his poem and send it to Longfellow, for it does one's heart good to see the French made the vehicle of so much real heroic sentiment. The description of a slave hunt is splendidly and bitterly satirical and indignant and full of fine turns of language. Thank God that is over. No matter what happens to you and me, that great burden of sin and misery has tumbled off from our backs and rolled into the sepulchre, where it shall never arise more…I have been the most industrious of beings since my return, and am steaming away on the obstacle that stands between me and my story, which I long to be at…. I want to get one or two special bits of information out of Garrison, and so instead of sending my letter at random to Boston I will trouble you (who have little or nothing to do!) to get this letter to him. My own book, instead of cooling, boils and bubbles daily and nightly, and I am pushing and spurring like fury to get to it. I work like a drag-horse, and I'll never get in such a scrape again. It isn't my business to make up books, but to make them. I have lots to say."…
The story which had so taken possession of her mind and heart was "Oldtown Folks," the one which she at the time fancied the best calculated of all her works to sustain the reputation of the author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." The many proofs of her own interest in it seem to show that she had been moved to a livelier and deeper satisfaction in this creation than in any of her later productions. She writes respecting it: "It is more to me than a story; it is my résumé of the whole spirit and body of New England, a country that is now exerting such an influence on the civilized world that to know it truly becomes an object." But there were weary lengths of roads to be traveled by a woman already overladen with responsibilities and in delicate health before such a book could reach its consummation.
"I must cry you mercy," she begins one of the notes to her publisher, "and explain my condition to you as well as possible." The "condition" was frequently to be explained! Proofs were not ready when they were promised, the press was stopped, and both author and publisher required all the tender regard they really had for each other and all the patience they possessed to keep in tune. She says, "I am sorry to trouble you or derange your affairs, but one can't always tell in driving such horses as we drive where they are going to bring up."
She started off in this long journey very hopefully, writing that she would like to begin printing at once, because "to have the first part of my book in type will greatly assist me in the last." A month later she writes: "Here goes the first of my nameless story, of which I can only say it is as unlike everything else as it is like the strange world of folks I took it from. There is no fear that there will not be as much matter as 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' -- there will. There could be an endless quantity if I only said all I can see and think that is strange and curious. I partake in ----'s disappointment that it is not done, but it is of that class of things that cannot be commanded; as my friend Sam Lawson (vide MSS.) says, 'There's things that can be druv and then agin there's things that can't,' and this is that kind -- as had to be humored. Instead of rushing on, I have often turned back and written over with care, that nothing that I wanted to say might be omitted; it has cost me a good deal of labor to elaborate this first part, namely, to build my theatre and to introduce my actors. My labor has all, however, been given to the literary part. My printers always inform me that I know nothing of punctuation, and I give thanks that I have no responsibility for any of its absurdities! Further than beginning my sentence with a capital, I go not, -- so I hope my friend Mr. Bigelow, who is a direct and lineal descendant of 'my Grandmother,' will put those things all right."
Who so well as authors can fully understand and sympathize with the burden of a long story in the head, long bills on the table, tempting offers to write for this and that in order to bring in two hundred dollars from a variety of pleasant editors who desire the name on their list, house and grounds to be looked after, cooks to be pacified, visits to be made; -- it is no wonder that Mrs. Stowe wrote: "The thing has been an awful tax and labor, for I have tried to do it well. I say also to you confidentially, that it has seemed as if every private care that could hinder me as woman and mother has been crowded into just this year that I have had this to do."
Happily more peaceful days were in store for her. Her daughters, now grown to womanhood, were beginning to take the reins of home work and government into their own hands; and as the darkest hour foreruns the dawn, so almost imperceptibly to herself her cares began to fade away from her.
A new era opened in Mrs. Stowe's life when she made her first visit to Florida, in the winter of 1867. She was tired and benumbed with care and cold. Suddenly the thought came to her that she would go to the South, herself, and see what the stories were worth which she was constantly hearing about its condition. In the mean time, if she could, she would enjoy the soft air, and find retirement in which she might continue her book. She says in one of her letters: --
"Winter weather and cold seem always a kind of nightmare to me. I am going to take my writing-desk and go down to Florida to F-----'s plantation, where we have now a home, and abide there until the heroic agony of betweenity, the freeze and thaw of winter, is over, and then I doubt not I can write my three hours a day. Meanwhile, I have a pretty good pile of manuscript…. The letters I have got about blossoming roses and loungers in linen coats, while we have been frozen and snowed up, have made my very soul long to be away. Cold weather really seems to torpify my brain. I write with a heavy numbness. I have not yet had a good spell of writing, though I have had all through the story abundant clairvoyance, and see just how it must be written; but for writing some parts I want warm weather, and not to be in the state of a 'froze and thawed apple.'…The cold affects me precisely as extreme hot weather used to in Cincinnati, -- gives me a sort of bilious neuralgia. I hope to get a clear, bright month in Florida, when I can say something to purpose.
"I did want to read some of my story to you before I went. I have read it to my husband; and though one may think a husband a partial judge, yet mine is so nervous and so afraid of being bored that I feel as if it were something to hold him; and he likes it -- is quite wakeful, so to speak, about it. All I want now, to go on, is a good frame, as father used to say about his preaching. I want calm, soft, even dreamy, enjoyable weather, sunshine and flowers. Love to dear A ----- , whom I so much want to see once more."
Unhappily, she could not get away so soon as she desired. There were contracts to be signed and other business to arrange. These delays made her visit southward much shorter than she intended, but it proved to be only the introduction, the first brief chapter, as it were, of her future winter life in Florida. Before leaving she wrote as follows to her publisher: --
"I am so constituted that it is absolutely fatal to me to agree to have any literary work done at certain dates. I mean to have this story done by the 1st of September. It would be greatly for my pecuniary interest to get it done before that, because I have the offer of eight thousand dollars for the newspaper use of the story I am planning to write after it. But I am bound by the laws of art. Sermons, essays, lives of distinguished people, I can write to order at times and seasons. A story comes, grows like a flower, sometimes will and sometimes won't, like a pretty woman. When the spirits will help, I can write. When they jeer, flout, make faces, and otherwise maltreat me, I can only wait humbly at their gates, watch at the posts of their doors.
"This story grows even when I do not write: I spent a month in the mountains in Stockbridge composing before I wrote a word.
"I only ask now a good physical condition, and I go to warmer climes hoping to save time there. I put everything and everybody off that interferes with this, except 'Pussy Willow,' which will be a pretty story for a child's 'series.' "
At last she sailed away, about the 1st of March, 1867, with that delightful power of knowing what she wanted, and being content when she attained her end, which is too rare, alas! Her letters glowed and blossomed and shone with the fruit and flowers and sunshine of the South. It was hardly to be expected that her literary work could actually reach the printers' hands under these circumstances as rapidly as if she had been able to write at home: therefore it was with no sense of surprise that we received from her, during the summer of 1868, what proved to be a chapter of excuses instead of a chapter of her book: "I have a long story to tell you of what has prevented my going on with my story, which you must see would so occupy all the nerve and brain force I have that I have not been able to write a word except to my own children. To them in their needs I must write chapters which would otherwise go into my novel."
About this period she found herself able to come again to Boston for a few days' visit. There were often long croonings over the fire far into the night; her other-worldliness and abstractions brought with them a dreamy quietude, especially to those whose harried lives kept them only too much awake. Her coming was always a pleasure, for she made holidays by her own delightful presence, and she asked nothing more than what she found in the companionship of her friends.
After her return to Hartford and in December of the same year, I find some curious notes showing how easily she was attracted by new subjects of interest away from the work she had in hand; not that she saw it in that light, or was aware that her story was in the least retarded by such digressions, but her keen sympathy with everything and everybody made it more and more difficult for her to concentrate her power upon the long story which she considered after all of the first importance. She writes to the editor of the "Atlantic Monthly:" "I see that all the leading magazines have a leading article on 'Planchette.'
"There is a lady of my acquaintance who has developed more remarkable facts in this way than any I have ever seen; I have kept a record of these communications for some time past, and everybody is very much struck with them.
"I have material to prepare a very curious article. Shall you want it? And when?"
We can imagine the feeling of a publisher waiting for copy of her promised story on reading this note! Also the following of a few days later: --
"I am beginning a series of articles called 'Learning to Write,' designed to be helpful to a great many beginners…. I shall instance Hawthorne as a model and speak of his 'Note Book' as something which every young author aspiring to write should study…My materials for the 'Planchette' article are really very extraordinary,... but I don't want to write it now when I am driving so hard upon my book…. It costs some patience to you and certainly to me to have it take so long, yet I have conscientiously done all I could, since I began. Now the end of it is in plain sight, but there is a good deal to be done to bring it out worthily, and I work upon it steadily and daily. I never put so much work into anything before."
A week later she says again: --
"I thank you very much for your encouraging words, for I really need them. I have worked so hard that I am almost tired. I hope that you will still continue to read, and that you will not find it dull…. I have received the books. What a wonderful fellow Hawthorne was!"
There is something truly touching to those who knew her in that phrase "almost tired." Indeed, she was truly tired through and through, and these later letters from which I have made the foregoing extracts are all written by an amanuensis.
Happily the time was near for a second flight to Florida, and she wrote with her own rested hand en route from Charleston: --
"Room fragrant with violets, banked up in hyacinths, flowers everywhere, windows open, birds singing."
She enclosed some fans, upon which she had been painting flowers busily during the journey in order to send them back to Boston to be sold at a fair in behalf of the Cretans: "Make them do the Cretes all the good you can," she said.
It appears that by this time "Oldtown Folks" was fairly off her hands, and she was free once more. She evidently found Mandarin very much to her mind, and wrote contentedly therefrom, save for a vision of having to go to Canada in the early spring to obtain the copyright of her story.
The visits to Florida had now become necessary to her health. She saw the next step to take was to surrender her large house in Hartford and pass her winters altogether at the South. She wrote from Florida: "I am leaving the land of flowers on the 1st of June with tears in my eyes, but having a house in Hartford, it must be lived in. I wish you and ---- would just come to see it. You have no idea what a lovely place it has grown to be, and I am trying to sell it as hard as a snake to crawl out of his skin. Thus on, till reason is pushed out of life. There's no earthly sense in having anything, -- lordy massy, no! By the bye, I must delay sending you the ghost in the Captain Brown house till I can go to Natick and make a personal inspection of the premises and give it to you hot."
Her busy brain was again at work with new plans for future books and articles for magazines. "Gladly would I fly to you on the wings of the wind," she says, "but I am a slave, a bound thrall to work, and I cannot work and play at the same time. After this year I hope to have a little rest, and above all things I won't be hampered with a serial to write…. We have sold out in Hartford."
All this routine of labor was to have a new form of interruption, which gave her intense joy. "I am doing just what you say," she wrote, "being first lady-in-waiting on his new majesty. He is very pretty, very gracious and good, and his little mamma and he are a pair…. I am getting to be an old fool of a grandma, and to think there is no bliss under heaven to compare with a baby." Later she wrote on the same subject: "You ought to see my baby. I have discovered a way to end the woman controversy. Let the women all say that they won't take care of the babies till the laws are altered. One week of this discipline would bring all the men on their marrow-bones. Only tell us what you want, they would say, and we will do it. Of course you may imagine me trailing after our little king, -- first granny-in-waiting."
In the summer of 1869 there was a pleasant home at St. John's Wood, in London, which possessed peculiar attractions. Other houses were as comfortable to look at, other hedges were as green, other drawing-rooms were gayer, but this was the home of George Eliot, and on Sunday afternoons the resort of those who desired the best that London had to give. Here it was that George Eliot told us of her admiration and deep regard, her affection, for Mrs. Stowe. Her reverence and love were expressed with such tremulous sincerity that the speaker won our hearts by her love for our friend. Many letters had already passed between Mrs. Stowe and herself, and she confided to us her amusement at a fancy Mrs. Stowe had taken that Casaubon, in "Middlemarch," was drawn from the character of Mr. Lewes. Mrs. Stowe took it so entirely for granted in her letters that it was impossible to dispossess her mind of the illusion. Evidently it was the source of much harmless household amusement at St. John's Wood. I find in Mrs. Stowe's letters some pleasant allusions to this correspondence. She writes: "We were all full of George Eliot when your note came, as I had received a beautiful letter from her in answer to one I wrote from Florida. She is a noble, true woman; and if anybody doesn't see it, so much the worse for them, and not her." In a note written about that time Mrs. Stowe says she is "coming to Boston, and will bring George Eliot's letters with her that we may read them together;" but that pleasant plan was only one of the imagination, and was never carried out. Her own letter to Mrs. Lewes, written from Florida in March, 1876, may be considered one of the most beautiful and interesting pieces of writing she ever achieved.
Although this letter is accessible in a life of Mrs. Stowe published by her son during her life, I am tempted to reproduce a portion of it in these pages for those who have not seen it elsewhere. It is a positive loss to cut such a letter, but it covers too much space to quote in full. She dates in
ORANGE BLOSSOM TIME, MANDARIN,
March 18, 1876.
MY DEAR FRIEND, -- I always think of you when the orange-trees are in blossom; just now they are fuller than ever, and so many bees are filling the branches that the air is full of a sort of still murmur. And now I am beginning to hear from you every month in "Harper's." It is as good as a letter. "Daniel Deronda" has succeeded in awaking in my somewhat worn out mind an interest. So many stories are tramping over one's mind in every modern magazine nowadays that one is macadamized, so to speak. It takes something unusual to make a sensation. This does excite and interest me, as I wait for each number with eagerness. I wish I could endow you with our long winter weather, -- not winter, except such as you find in Sicily. We live here from November to June, and my husband sits outdoors on the veranda and reads all day. We emigrate in solid family; my two dear daughters, husband, self, and servants come together to spend the winter here, and so together to our Northern home in summer. My twin daughters relieve me from all domestic care; they are lively, vivacious, with a real genius for practical life…. It was very sweet and kind of you to write what you did last. I suppose it is so long ago you may have forgotten, but it was a word of tenderness and sympathy about my brother's trial; it was womanly, tender, and sweet, such as at heart you are. After all, my love of you is greater than my admiration, for I think it more and better to be really a woman worth loving than to have read Greek and German and written books….
It seems now but a little while since my brother Henry and I were two young people together. He was my two years junior, and nearest companion out of seven brothers and three sisters. I taught him drawing and heard his Latin lessons, for you know a girl becomes mature and womanly long before a boy…. Then he married and lived a missionary life in the new West, all with a joyousness, an enthusiasm, a chivalry, which made life bright and vigorous to us both. Then in time he was called to Brooklyn…. I well remember one snowy night his riding till midnight to see me, and then our talking, till near morning, what we could do to make headway against the horrid cruelties that were being practiced against the defenseless blacks. My husband was then away lecturing, and my heart was burning itself out in indignation and anguish. Henry told me he meant to fight that battle in New York; that he would have a church that would stand by him to resist the tyrannic dictation of Southern slaveholders. I said: "I, too, have begun to do something; I have begun a story, trying to set forth the sufferings and wrongs of the slaves." "That's right, Hattie," he said; "finish it, and I will scatter it thick as the leaves of Vallombrosa," -- and so came "Uncle Tom," and Plymouth Church became a stronghold….
And when all was over, it was he and Lloyd Garrison who were sent by government once more to raise our national flag on Fort Sumter. You must see that a man does not so energize without making many enemies. Half of our Union has been defeated…and there are those who never saw our faces that to this hour hate him and me. Then he has been a progressive in theology. He has been a student of Huxley and Spencer and Darwin, -- enough to alarm the old school, -- and yet remained so ardent a supernaturalist as equally to repel the radical destructionists in religion. He and I are Christ-worshipers, adoring Him as the Image in the Invisible God and all that comes from believing this. Then he has been a reformer, an advocate of universal suffrage and woman's rights, yet not radical enough to please that reform party who stand where the socialists of France do, and are for tearing up all creation generally. Lastly, he had had the misfortune of a popularity which is perfectly phenomenal. I cannot give you any idea of the love, worship, idolatry, with which he has been overwhelmed. He has something magnetic about him, that makes everybody crave his society, that makes men follow and worship him….
My brother is hopelessly generous and confiding. His inability to believe evil is something incredible, and so has come all this suffering…. But you see why I have not written. This has drawn on my life, -- my heart's blood. He is myself; I know you are the kind of woman to understand me when I say I felt a blow at him more than at myself. I who know his purity, honor; delicacy, know that he has been from childhood of an ideal purity, -- who reverenced his conscience as his king, whose glory was redressing human wrong, who spoke no slander, no, nor listened to it…My brother's power to console is something peculiar and wonderful. I have seen him at deathbeds and funerals, where it would seem as if hope herself must be dumb, bring down the very peace of Heaven and change despair to trust. He has not had less power in his own adversity….
Well, dear, pardon me for this outpour. I loved you, -- I love you, -- and therefore wanted you to know just what I felt ....
This friendship was one that greatly enlisted Mrs. Stowe's sympathies and enriched her life. Her interest in any woman who was supporting herself, and especially in any one who found a daily taskmaster in the pen, and above all when, as in this case, the woman was one possessed of great moral aspiration half paralyzed in its action because she found herself in an anomalous and (to the world in general) utterly incomprehensible position, made such a woman like a magnet to Mrs. Stowe. She inherited from her father a faith in the divine power of sympathy, which only waxed greater with years and experience. Wherever she found a fellow-mortal suffering trouble or dishonor, in spite of hindrance her feet were turned that way. The genius of George Eliot and the contrasting elements of her life and character drew Mrs. Stowe to her side in sisterly solicitude. Her attitude, her sweetness, her sincerity, could not fail to win the heart of George Eliot. They became loving friends.
It was the same inborn sense of fraternity which led her, when a child, on hearing of the death of Lord Byron, to go out into the fields and fling herself, weeping, on the mounded hay, where she might pray alone for his forgiveness and salvation. It is wonderful to observe the influence of Byron upon that generation. It is on record that when Tennyson, a boy of fifteen, heard some one say, "Byron is dead," he thought the whole world at an end. "I thought," he said one day, "everything was over and finished for every one; that nothing else mattered. I remember that I went out alone and carved `Byron is dead' into the sandstone."
From this time forward Mrs. Stowe was chiefly bound up in her life and labors at the South. In 1870, speaking of some literary work she was proposing to herself, she said: "I am writing as a pure recreative movement of mind, to divert myself from the stormy, unrestful present…. I am being châtelaine of a Florida farm. I have on my mind the creation of a town on the banks of the St. John. The three years since we came this side of the river have called into life and growth a thousand peach-trees, a thousand orange-trees, about five hundred lemons, and seven or eight hundred grapevines. A peach orchard, a vineyard, a lemon grove, will carry my name to posterity. I am founding a place which, thirty or forty years hence, will be called the old Stowe place…. You can have no idea of this queer country, this sort of strange, sandy, half-tropical dreamland, unless you come to it. Here I sit with open windows, the orange buds just opening and filling the air with sweetness, the hens drowsily cackling, the men planting in the field, and callas and wild roses blossoming out of doors. We keep a little fire morning and night. We are flooded with birds; and by the bye, it is St. Valentine's Day…. I think a uniform edition of Dr. Holmes's works would be a good thing. Next to Hawthorne he is our most exquisite writer, and in many passages he goes far beyond him. What is the dear Doctor doing? If you know any book good to inspire dreams and visions, put it into my box. My husband chews endlessly a German cud. I must have English. Has the French book on Spiritualism come yet? If it has, put it in…. I wish I could give you a plateful of our oranges…. We had seventy-five thousand of these same on our trees this year, and if you will start off quick, they are not all picked yet. Florida wants one thing, -- grass. If it had grass, it would be paradise. But nobody knows what grass is till they try to do without it."
Three months later she wrote: "I hate to leave my calm isle of Patmos, where the world is not, and I have such quiet long hours for writing. Emerson could insulate himself here and keep his electricity. Hawthorne ought to have lived in an orange grove in Florida…You have no idea how small you all look, you folks in the world, from this distance. All your fusses and your fumings, your red-hot hurrying newspapers, your clamor of rival magazines, -- why, we see it as we see steamboats fifteen miles off, a mere speck and smoke."
Again she writes: "You ought to see us riding out in our mule-cart. Poor 'Fly!' the last of pea-time, who looks like an animated hair-trunk and the wagon and harness to match! It is too funny, but we enjoy it hugely. There are now in our solitude five Northern families, and we manage to have quite pleasant society.
"But think of our church and school-house being burned down just as we were ready to do something with it. I feel it most for the colored people, who were so anxious to have their school and now have no place to have it in. We have all been trying to raise what we can for a new building and intend to get one up by March.
"If I were North now I would try giving some readings for this and perhaps raise something."
It was a strange contrast and one at variance with her natural taste, which brought her before the public as a reader of her own stories in the autumn and winter of 1872-73. She was no longer able to venture on the effort of a long story, and yet it was manifestly unwise for her to forego the income which was extended to her through this channel. She wrote: "I have had a very urgent business letter, saying that the lyceums of different towns were making up their engagements, and that if I were going into it I must make my engagements now. It seems to me that I cannot do this. The thing will depend so much on my health and ability to do. You know I could not go round in cold weather…. I feel entirely uncertain, and, as the Yankees say, 'didn't know what to do nor to don't.' My state in regard to it may be described by the phrase 'Kind o' love to -- hate to -- wish I didn't -- want ter.' I suppose the result will be I shall not work into their lecture system."
In April she wrote from Mandarin: "I am painting a Magnolia grandiflora, which I will show you…. I am appalled by finding myself booked to read. But I am getting well and strong, and trust to be equal to the emergency. But I shrink from Tremont Temple, and ----- does not think I can fill it. On the whole I should like to begin in Boston." And in August she said: "I am to begin in Boston in September…. It seems to me that is a little too early for Boston, isn't it? Will there be anybody in town then? I don't know as it's my business, which is simply to speak my piece and take my money."
Her first reading actually took place in Springfield, not Boston, and the next day she unexpectedly arrived at our cottage at Manchester-by-the-Sea. She had read the previous evening in a large public hall, had risen at five o'clock that morning, and found her way to us. Her next readings were given in Boston, the first, in the afternoon, at the Tremont Temple. She was conscious that her effort at Springfield had not been altogether successful, -- she had not held her large audience; and she was determined to put the whole force of her nature into this afternoon reading at the Tremont Temple. She called me into her bedroom, where she stood before the mirror, with her short gray hair, which usually lay in soft curls around her brow, brushed erect and standing stiffly. "Look here, my dear," she said; "now I am exactly like my father, Dr. Lyman Beecher, when he was going to preach," and she held up her forefinger warningly. It was easy to see that the spirit of the old preacher was revived in her veins, and the afternoon would show something of his power. An hour later, when I sat with her in the anteroom waiting for the moment of her appearance to arrive, I could feel the power surging up within her. I knew she was armed for a good fight.
That reading was a great success. She was alive in every fibre of her being: she was to read portions of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" to men, women, and children many of whom had taken no part in the crisis which inspired it, and she determined to effect the difficult task of making them feel as well as hear. With her presence and inspiration they could not fail to understand what her words had signified to the generation that had passed through the struggle of our war. When her voice was not sufficient to make the audience hear, the people rose from their seats and crowded round her, standing gladly, that no word might be lost. It was the last leap of the flame which had burned out a great wrong. From this period, although she continued to write, she lived chiefly for several winters in the retirement of the Florida orange grove, which she always enjoyed. Her sympathy was strong with the new impetus benevolent work in cities had received, and she helped it from her "grotto" in more ways than one. Sometimes she would write soothing or inspiriting letters, as the case might demand, to individuals.
The following note, written at the time of the Boston fire in 1872, will show how alive she was to the need of that period.
"I send inclosed one hundred dollars to the fund for the Firemen. I could wish it a hundred times as much, and then it would be inadequate to express how much I honor those brave, devoted men who put their own lives between Boston and mine. No soldiers that fell in battle for our common country ever deserved of us all greater honor than the noble men whose charred and blackened remains have been borne from the ruins of Boston; they are worthy to be inscribed on imperishable monuments.
"I would that some such honorary memorial might commemorate their heroism."
Meanwhile, the comfort she drew in from the beauty of nature and the calm around her seemed yearly to nourish and renew her power of existence. Questions which were difficult to others were often solved to her mind by practical observation. It amused her to hear persons agitating the question as to where they should look to supply labor for the South. "Why," she remarked once, "there was a negro, one of those fearfully hot days in the spring, who was digging muck from a swamp just in front of our house, and carrying it in a wheelbarrow up a steep slope, where he dumped it down, and then went back for more. He kept this up when it was so hot that we thought either one of us would die to be five minutes in the sun. We carried a thermometer to the spot where he was working, to see how great the heat was, and it rose at once to one hundred and thirty-five degrees. The man, however, kept cheerfully at his work, and when he went to his dinner sat with the other negroes out in the white sand without a bit of shade. Afterward they all lay down for a nap in the same unsheltered locality. Toward evening, when the sun was sufficiently low to enable me to go out, I went to speak to this man. 'Martin,' said I, 'you've had a warm day's work. How do you stand it? Why, I couldn't endure such heat for five minutes.' 'Hoh! hoh! No, I s'pose you couldn't. Ladies can't, missus.' 'But, Martin, aren 't you very tired?' 'Bress your heart, no, missus.' So Martin goes home to his supper, and after supper will be found dancing all the evening on the wharf near by! After this, when people talk of bringing Germans and Swedes to do such work, I am much entertained."
Many were the pleasant descriptions of her home sent forth to tempt her friends away from the busy North. "Here is where we read books," she said in one of her letters, written in the month of March. "Up North nobody does, -- they don't have time; so if ---- will mail his book to Mandarin, I will 'read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.' We are having a carnival of flowers. I hope you read my 'Palmetto Leaves,' for then you will see all about us…. Our home is like a martin-box…. I cannot tell you the quaint odd peace we have here in living under the oak. 'Behold, she dwelleth under the oak at Mamre.' All that we want is friends, to whom we may say that solitude is sweet. We have some neighbors, however, who have made pretty places near us. Mr. Stowe keeps up a German class of three young ladies, with whom he is reading Faust for the nine hundred and ninety-ninth time, and in the evening I read aloud to a small party of the neighbors. We have made up our home as we went along, throwing out a chamber here and there, like twigs out of the old oak…. The orange blossoms have come like showers of pearl, and the yellow jessamine like golden fleeces, and the violets and the lilies, and azaleas. This is glorious, budding, blossoming spring, and we have days when merely to breathe and be is to be blessed. I love to have a day of mere existence. Life itself is a pleasure when the sun shines warm, and the lizards dart from all the shingles of the roof, and the birds sing in so many notes and tones the yard reverberates; and I sit and dream and am happy, and never want to go back North, nor do anything with the toiling, snarling world again. I do wish I could gather you both in my little nest."
She was like her father, Dr. Lyman Beecher, in many things. The scorching fire of the brain seemed to devour its essence, and she endured, as he did before her, some years of existence when the motive power almost ceased to act. She became "like a little child," wandering about, pleased with flowers, fresh air, the sound of a piano, or a voice singing hymns, but the busy, inspiring spirit was asleep.
Gradually she faded away, shrouded in this strange mystery, hovered over by the untiring affection of her children, sweet and tender in her decadence, but "absent."
At the moment when this brief memorial was receiving a final revision before going to the press, the news reached me of the unloosing of the last threads of consciousness which bound Mrs. Stowe to this world.
The sweetness and patience of her waiting years can only be perfectly told by the daughters who hung over her. She knew her condition, but there was never a word of complaint, and so long as her husband lived she performed the office of nurse and attendant upon his lightest wishes as if she felt herself strong. Her near friends were sometimes invited to dine or to have supper with her at that period, but they could see even then how prostrated she became after the slightest mental effort. It was upon occasion of such a visit that she told me, with a twinkle of the eye, that "Mr. Stowe was sometimes inclined to be a little fretful during the long period of his illness, and said to her one day that he believed the Lord had forgotten him. "Oh, no, He hasn't," she answered; "cheer up! your turn will come soon."
She was always fond of music, especially of the one kind she had known best; and the singing of hymns never failed to soothe her at the last; therefore when the little group stood round her open grave on a lovely July day and sang quite simply the hymns she loved, it seemed in its simplicity and broken harmony a fitting farewell to the faded body she had already left so far behind.
A great spirit has performed its mission and has been released. The world moves on unconscious; but the world's children have been blessed by her coming, and they who know and understand should praise God reverently in her going. "As a teil tree, and as an oak, whose substance is in them, when they cast their leaves: so the holy seed shall be the substance thereof." In the words of the prophet we can almost hear her glad cry: --
"My sword shall be bathed in heaven."
Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College
Works of Annie Fields