“If I have any model in fiction, it is Mrs. Stowe.”

Lavinia Goodell, April 21, 1860

Lavinia Goodell’s acquaintance with Congregationalist preacher Henry Ward Beecher has already been chronicled, but she was also an avid reader of the prose produced by two of Henry’s sisters, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Catharine Beecher.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher was born in 1811. After teaching for several years, in 1832 she accompanied her father, Congregational minister Lyman Beecher,  to Cincinnati, Ohio when he became the president of Lane Seminary. In Cincinnati, Harriet met reformers and abolitionists and in 1833 published her first book, Primary Geography. In 1836 she married Calvin Stowe, a professor at Lane Seminary. Calvin encouraged Harriet’s writing. Harriet wrote many articles and thirty books.

In 1849, the Stowes’ son died in a cholera epidemic. Stowe later said that the loss of her child inspired great empathy for enslaved mothers whose children had been sold away from them. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which legally required Northerners to return runaway slaves, infuriated Harriet and impelled her to write her most famous work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The book was originally serialized in the National Era. Harriet viewed it as a call to arms for Northerners to defy the Fugitive Slave Act. Uncle Tom’s cabin was released as a book in 1852 and sold 300,000 copies in the United States in the first year. Stowe gave talks about the book and donated some of her earnings to help the abolitionist cause. She wrote extensively on behalf of abolition.

Lavinia Goodell ranked Harriet Beecher Stowe as one of her very favorite writers. In 1860, Lavinia wrote to her sister Maria, “If I have any model in fiction, it is Mrs. Stowe. She is so … deep. Her writings come nearer my ideal than any others.” And in 1861, Lavinia asked Maria, “Have you seen that story of Mrs. Stowe’s which is going the rounds of the papers? I think it capital.” Lavinia even mentioned Stowe in one of the short stories she wrote for the Principia, referring to “that wonderful kitchen that Mrs. Stowe has immortalized.”

In 1869, both Lavinia and her mother had the opportunity see Stowe in person. Clarissa Goodell saw the famous author in Hartford, Connecticut in September, and her daughter Maria was envious, writing her mother, “You really saw Mrs. Stowe! It was worth the whole trip to Hartford. Oh! How I would like to behold that wonderful woman with my own eyes.”  In November, it was Lavinia’s turn, and her mother wrote her, “So you have seen that wonderful woman Mrs. H.B. Stowe…. I see she is writing a book on Mr. Byron. I shall want to see it.”

The women in the Goodell family also kept up with the writings of Catharine Beecher, Harriet’s eldest sibling.

Catharine Beecher

Catharine was born in 1800. After her mother died of tuberculosis in 1816, Catharine became a surrogate mother to the younger children. When Catharine was in her early twenties, her fiancé died in a shipwreck off the coast of Ireland. Catharine never married. She promoted education for women and, with another sister, founded a school for young women in Hartford, Connecticut, which became the Hartford Female Seminary. In the 1840s, Catharine worked to recruit teachers for schools on the western frontier.

Unlike Harriet and their famous brother, Henry, who advocated for women’s rights, including suffrage, Catharine was a vocal proponent of the nineteenth century notion that a woman’s sphere of influence was in the home, and she firmly opposed women’s suffrage. This put her at odds not only with her siblings but also with the Goodells. In February of 1870, Catharine published an article titled, “Is Woman Suffrage Contrary to Common Sense?” in the Christian Union, a publication to which the Goodells subscribed. Lavinia’s mother commented about the piece in a letter to Lavinia, saying, “I think Mrs. Stanton will have to put her wits to work to answer Miss Beecher.” The following year, perhaps in response to reading Catharine’s book An Address on Female Suffrage, Lavinia wrote to her mother, “Catharine Beecher is foolish to go on so. Henry would not. Mrs. Stowe & Edward and Mrs. Hooker [two other Beecher siblings] are all Women Righters.”

In 1870 and 1871, the Christian Union published a serialized version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, “My Wife and I, or Harry Henderson’s History,” which advocated for women having a life outside of the home. Lavinia loved the story, saying, “I like Mrs. Stowe’s ideas as she developed them in her story in the Chr. Union. She is a splendid woman.” And Lavinia’s cousin, Sarah Thomas, who was teaching in Virginia, was even more enthusiastic, writing Lavinia. “I am in raptures over Mrs. Stowe’s story.

When Catharine Beecher died in 1878, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle praised her as “one of the most remarkable and useful women of her time.”  Upon Harriet Beecher Stowe’s death in 1896, the New York Times wrote:

The death of Harriet Beecher Stowe is more than the ending of a woman’s life of whatever degree of fame. It marks the extinction of genius in a family, and is one of the closing leaves in an era of our century. The more famous children of a famous father leave worthy descendants, but none of their own mental gifts or rank. Rarely, indeed, is there so much in a single life so memorable or so interesting as in that of the writer of probably the most widely read work of fiction ever penned.

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s letters to Maria Frost (April 21, 1860; January 6, 1861; January 24, 1861); Lavinia Goodell’s letters to Clarissa Goodell (January 28, 1871; March 21, 1871); “Meditations on Sweeping a Room,” published the Principia, February 25, 1860; Maria Frost’s letter to Clarissa Goodell (October 15, 1869); Clarissa Goodell’s letters to Lavinia Goodell (November 20, 1869; February 1870); Sarah Thomas’s letter to Lavinia Goodell (March 4, 1871); “Is Woman Suffrage Contrary to Common Sense?” Christian Union, February 12, 1870; Brooklyn Daily Eagle (May 12, 1878); New York Times (July 2, 1896); harrietbeecherstowecenter.org; https://connecticuthistory.org/catharine-beecher-champion-of-womens-education/


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