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Novels about Real People

This month the Fiction Book Club discussed Harriet and Isabella by Patricia O’Brien.  It is the third in our six month series of novels about real people.  We began the series in September with The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette by Carolly Erickson and continued with Innocent Traitor:  a novel of Lady Jane Grey by Alison Weir.  This isn’t all about the women though, the second half of the series, which begins next month, is all men: Henry James, Jackie Robinson and Siegfried Sassoon.

Harriet and Isabella is about the relationship between the sisters Harriet Beecher Stowe and Isabella Beecher Hooker and how the prominent Beecher family dealt with the humiliating sex scandal involving their brother Henry Ward Beecher in late 19th century Brooklyn.  There was so much to talk about with this book that the hour went by in a flash in both the evening and morning meetings and we still didn’t get a chance to touch on several topics.  Harriet, as you likely know, wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin and was a significant force in the Abolitionist movement.  Her lesser known sister, Isabella, was deeply involved in the Suffrage movement and their brother, the preacher, was much beloved for his new compassionate and loving god which broke tradition with their father’s strict Calvinist teachings.  They were a large, well-known family, highly respected for their moral character and sometimes compared to the Kennedys for their fame.  When Henry was accused of a sexual relationship outside of his marriage it brought on a feeding frenzy from the media, instigated a draining five month trial and caused a deep twelve year rift between the sisters. 

In the discussion groups we spent a good deal of the time discussing the three main characters and their complex relationships. Did Henry really have the affair?  Why did Harriet and Isabella react so differently?  We also discussed moral ambiguity, symbolism, such as the gold bracelet fashioned after slave fetters; the major movements of the period: Suffrage and Abolitionism, and the wonderful handling of the setting and time period.  Then of course, there was the session long question of what do you think about writing a novel about a real person?  Is that fair?  The book was not without its faults, however.  The time spent on the trial was too long for most in the group and sometimes the structure of the novel and the dialogue were a little too obvious for observant readers.  There was plenty more we could have discussed about betrayal (so many people could be accused of betraying someone), self-righteousness, wasting time holding a grudge with someone you love and so on. 

Next month we will read The Master by Colm Toibin.  “Nineteenth –century writer Henry James is heartbroken when his first play performs poorly in contrast to Oscar Wilde’s The importance of Being Earnest and struggles with subsequent doubts about his sexual identity, his decision not to marry, and his difficulties with emotional intimacy.” If you would like to take part in the discussion, pick up a copy of the book at the reference desk.  We’ll be meeting on Tuesday December 18th at 7 PM and Thursday, December 20 at 10 AM.  Hope to see you there!

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