I have been eagerly waiting for The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe to work its way up the hold list at the library ever since I read a little paragraph promoting it. I was intrigued by the suggestion that her own life was a civil war seeking her own emancipation. It is written by Elaine Showalter who writes with an engaging style and who occasionally addresses the reader directly. She knows what we’re asking and she pauses to answer. It is unusual approach and I liked it.
I was captured by the book on page 13 when Julia Ward wrote about first reading George Sand. When she was young, her father carefully censored her reading, only some Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Shelley, and hymns. Her brother came home from a trip to Europe and she snuck some books from his library, including this shocking book by this shocking woman. “We knew our parents would not have us read her, if they knew. Yet we read her at stolen hours…the atmosphere grew warm and glorious about us,—a true human company, a living sympathy crept near us—the very world seemed not the same world after as before.” She began to write and even published a few poems.
One reason it struck me so strongly is that it is possible next January we will have one of those moments when the world will not seem the same world after as before. No matter your partisan opinion, there will be something tectonic about the first woman president, just as reading Sand was for the young Julia Ward.
Well-educated, raised in wealth and privilege, with a quick wit and unconventional beauty (she had red hair which was simply not the thing), Julia Ward captured many hearts but took none seriously until she met Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe. He was a hero of the Greek War of Independence and now ran the Perkins School for the Blind, a school that was successfully training blind people to live normal lives. He was quite famous for having taught Laura Bridgman, a young girl who was both deaf and blind. Annie Sullivan who trained Helen Keller was on the staff for Perkins School and taught with his methods.
They were madly in love with each other, but two people could not be more ill-suited. He was insecure despite his accomplishments and needed a docile, worshipful wife who had no interest other than orbiting his shining star. She was an intellectual and a creative force who needed more than being a domestic drudge and was not callow enough to worship someone.
While Showalter is circumspect in never alleging physical violence, it is clear that he was brutish. He wrote to his friends with his views on marriage and women and thought that sexual desire in a woman was the diabolical and disgusting. This is what Julia Ward Howe wrote on her honeymoon, “Hope died as I was led / unto my marriage bed.” He used pregnancy and sex to control her, insisting that she was being hypochondriacal when she worried about her health, telling her that statistically she should be able to have eight children before it had any effect on her health. When she wrote she was black and blue, when she wrote about his violence, was she being metaphorical? Showalter does not say; she lets us infer from Howe’s language, but I am certain he was abusive physically as well as emotionally. She came into the marriage with wealth, he spent it on bad investments and buying properties he put in his name. Honestly, he was an awful husband, no matter how good he was in public life.
She wrote a book of poems, published anonymously of course because she was a woman. The poems were intensely personal and shockingly honest about her unhappiness. He was furious, threatened her with divorce and forced her to agree to another pregnancy. He also often threatened divorce, threatening to take away her children and, of course, she complied. She nursed her children as long as she could, keeping them in bed with her where their urination left the bed wet, keeping him out of it. Preferring to sleep in urine over sleeping with her husband says a lot about how he approached her physically.
Their circle of friends included Longfellow, Charles Sumner and many other luminaries of politics and art. Interestingly, her husband was one of the Secret Six behind John Brown’s rebellion and he helped fund the rebellion. In a way, ironically, this was liberating for her because it damaged his reputation and sent him running off to Canada for safety for a while. Of course, when the Civil War began she wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and suddenly she was famous and he really hated her for it. His ego could not tolerate being eclipsed by his wife. While she resisted and found a way to enjoy a public life, to continue to write, she always paid a price for it with him. When he eventually died, the day after his funeral, she wrote “Began my new life today.”
It is sad that these two met and married. They would both have been so much more without each other. If he were not attached to her and diminished by her legacy, he might be remembered for his great work on educating the physically and mentally disabled, for his abolitionism and his many good works. He was someone who actively encouraged Florence Nightingale to not limit herself because she was a woman and go ahead and follow her dream. Julia saw this and challenged this contradiction, but he did not see it as a contradiction because he was not married to Nightingale. His rigid demands were not for women, they were for his wife.
She began to study philosophy and write speeches and speak publicly. People went because she wrote the Battle Hymn, but she began to realize she was boring them and “determined to live from experience, from thinking about people and about life, and to think no longer about thoughts.”
Julia was no paragon. She was petty and certainly jealous of other women’s success. While abolitionist, she held many white supremacist views though they evolved and she became active against segregation and racism in her later life. Her big contribution, though, was a feminist, someone who dared to challenge the roles of women in marriage. After her husband died, she began by supporting the suffragette movement, but eventually went beyond the vote to imagining that marriage could be something more like a partnership. By the end of her life, her fame so eclipsed her husband’s that when people wrote of them, they spoke of him as her consort. He would be rolling in his grave.
I think you can tell already that I loved this book. There are so many fascinating details and insights into the times and the people. Because they traveled widely, because they moved among the creative and political sets, they knew many people so the book is full of all sorts of encounters with other people, including Louisa May Alcott who did not like Julia. If you like history, biography or literature, you should read this book.
- The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe from Simon & Schuster