Harriet Beecher Stowe and George Eliot’s long-distance relationship

The George Eliot of popular imagination is something of a contradiction – an “honorary man” upon whom the Victorians bestowed the status of literary greatness, even as they flinched at the illegitimacy of her “marriage” to George Henry Lewes. And while Eliot’s lofty status – combined with her “living in sin” – prevented her from maintaining close ties with some of the era’s supposedly more respectable female writers, one author in particular went out of her way to befriend her.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was the literary celebrity of the age. Her book, a phenomenon in Britain as well as America, had inspired popular songs, unofficial porcelain figurines, and was cited by some as a cause of the American Civil War. Since each was then the most famous female author on their respective side of the Atlantic, it stands to reason that the two would have felt they had something special in common. Yet many biographers have written off the relationship as merely that of casual correspondents. As part of the research for our new book on female literary friendships, we decided to seek out the pair’s letters to put this assumption to the test.

Remarkably, a significant portion of Stowe’s correspondence to Eliot has never made it into print, remaining stored in a locked researchers’ room deep within the New York Public Library. But when pieced together with Eliot’s published letters, it reveals that, while the two never met, they established an epistolary bond that was not only deeply personal but historically significant.

Even in the greeting of her first letter to Eliot, dated April 1869, Stowe – then fifty-seven – addressed her recipient warmly as “My Dear Friend”. Suggesting that she already knew the forty-nine-year-old Eliot intimately through extensive readings of her books, Stowe wasted no time in giving the British writer a frank appraisal of her personality – which she characterized as “thoroughly English” – and even offered both praise and criticism of Eliot’s writing style. Stowe applauded the morality of Eliot’s writing while suggesting that her novels had not, as of yet, lived up to the best aspects of her shorter stories.

When Eliot received these pages several weeks later, she did not take offence. Indeed, she warmed to Stowe’s ebullient personality, delighting in the description of her winter home amid an orange grove in Florida.

Although she was more reserved by nature than Stowe, Eliot replied soon afterwards in strikingly candid fashion. She alluded to her own frequent bouts of depression and –surprisingly for a modern audience aware of her legacy – to her lapses in confidence about her literary abilities. Stowe’s words, she said, had assured her that her own work had been “worth doing”. Stowe’s original letter to Eliot, while unexpected, had not come entirely unbidden. The women had a mutual friend in the American writer Annie Adams Fields and, through her, Eliot had sent a message to Stowe some time before. But rather than writing immediately, as she had originally intended, Stowe had left it many months before getting in touch.

What was her reason for making contact then? Stowe’s new novel, Oldtown Folks, was about to be published, and, since she would send a copy to Eliot soon afterwards, it looks as if Stowe might have been hoping to engineer some kind of endorsement from her fellow author. It wasn’t long before Stowe looked again to Eliot for help – and this time in a much more controversial matter.

A decade-and-a-half before, during her first tour of Britain, Stowe had got to know Lady Anne Isabella Byron, the widow of the famous poet. At that time, Lady Byron had shared with Stowe the secret that her late husband had engaged in incest with his half-sister. Lady Byron was considering speaking out on the subject, but a shocked Stowe had counselled her friend to continue to keep her “sacred veil of silence”.

But in May 1869, with Lady Byron now deceased, Stowe had begun to rethink this advice. She had just discovered a new book about the poet’s life written by his final mistress, Teresa, Contessa Guiccioli, which depicted Lady Byron as a cold and unreasonable woman. Stowe was angered by this characterization of her late friend, who had already suffered much anguish and humiliation. Armed with the explosive rumour, Stowe set out to put the record straight in an essay published simultaneously in America’s Atlantic Monthly and Macmillan’s in Britain.

There may well have been some truth in Stowe’s claim. But critics on both sides of the ocean – appalled that such an unseemly allegation should have been aired in this way – poured scorn on her essay, “The True Story of Lady Byron’s Life”. Stowe sent an advance copy of the article to Eliot, who shuddered at its contents. Rather than publicly support her new friend, as Stowe might have hoped, Eliot wrote to her privately to say she felt the “‘Byron question’ should not have been brought before the public”.

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