The Oxford Harriet Beecher Stowe Reader

By Harriet Beecher Stowe; Joan D. Hedrick | Go to book overview

Christians of America on their knees before the fugitive slave law." 31 She may have imagined that her defense of Lady Byron would be the Uncle Tom's Cabin of women's sexual slavery, but Stowe's politics were too inchoate and her platform too narrow for this to happen. Defending Lady Byron's reputation, Stowe herself was skewered on the contradictions inherent in the cult of true womanhood.

It is notoriously difficult to establish the truth in cases of sexual misconduct, because the only witnesses, as a rule, are the accuser and the accused. The credibility of each depends heavily on the credibility of their sex, for in a sexual crime, sexual stereotypes are often more powerful lenses than individual characters. Stowe's depiction of Lady Byron as an "angel." a type of the suffering Christ, suggests that she was seeing her as an idealization of Victorian womanhood, invested with all the power and nobility of that type. When skeptics asked why Lady Byron would stay with Lord Byron long after her discovery that her husband was regularly committing incest, Stowe responded that she did so out of concern for the state of Lord Byron's soul; she martyred herself in the hope of reclaiming him. To the Nation, this made Lady Byron ridiculous. Stowe responded, "What would Christ say to that? Did not Christ for three years bear daily contact with what he calls an evil and adulterous generation . . .?" 32 To claim that Lady Byron would have fled in horror from the crime is to expect, said Stowe, that she would act like a "common correct English wife," an expectation which "does no justice to her." 33 Stowe's elevation of Lady Byron above self-interest, moral outrage, and jealousy was of a piece with the Victorian strategy of "passionlessness," a strategy that increased nineteenth-century woman's power by insulating her from her husband's sexual demands. 34 But Stowe was inadvertently confirming the very portrait of Lady Byron she aimed to combat: that of the cold and aloof wife who drove her husband into the arms of others. From the point of view of the woman's movement, Stowe's strategy was also seriously flawed; she could not simultaneously hold up Lady Byron as a type of universal womanhood and yet make that womanhood dependent on her superiority to the common English wife. Stowe's maiden attempt at sexual speech was riven by deeply held class assumptions.

Yet it was precisely because Stowe articulated the contradictions of "the plain average" that her voice was so powerful. She reached a broad audience of middle-class Americans concerned about home and family and American values. By passionately espousing the ideal of democracy that supported this bourgeois culture, Stowe also gave voice to the radical promise on which this country was founded, and which a civil war was fought to realize. Although she is thought of as a sentimentalist, she was also a realist. Her insistence on describing the common and ordinary gave her a powerful arsenal of sentimental tools with which to raise the conscience of the nation to the everyday brutalities of slavery. With this same attention to the details of everyday life, to particular accents and local customs, she laid the planks of an American national literature.


Notes
1
Jane Tompkins, "Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Politics of Literary History", in Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1850 ( New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 145.

-17-

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The Oxford Harriet Beecher Stowe Reader
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • A Note on the Text vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Chronkology xi
  • 1: Introduction 1
  • Notes 17
  • Part 1 - Early Essays and Sketches 21
  • Part 2 - Antislavery Writings 47
  • Uncle Tom's Cabin; Or, Life Among the Lowly 78
  • Contents 78
  • Preface 81
  • Index 407
  • Part 3 - Domestic Culture and Politics 477
  • Suggestions for Further Reading 559
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