By Molly Miller
A tour of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house is a nice antidote to the excessive grandeur and lurid extravagance of her Nook Farm neighbor, Mark Twain.
That’s not to say that her home was by any means plain or unimpressive; it was merely more reflective of the prolific, independent-minded woman who lived there.
I ought to preface this with a caveat: I knew almost nothing about Stowe before I toured the home in which she spent the last 23 years of her life. People in every region of the world are reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin in one of the 60 languages it’s been translated into over the years.
I live in the country of its origin, and although I’ve learned about its historical significance, I’ve never actually read it.
I now know a bit more about Stowe than I did before visiting her home, but any statement I make about her character will be brash and highly uninformed.
From what I know of her, I like her quite a bit more than I like Twain. She was from a different generation, and unlike Twain, she was born into a prominent and well-off family, so she lacked the outsider complex that may have led Twain to overcompensate with gaudy furniture and an excessive amount of décor.
Stowe was born into a family of 11 children in Litchfield, Conn. in 1811. Her father, Rev. Lyman Beecher, wanted all of his children to be educated to the same level, regardless of gender. All of Stowe’s brothers became preachers, and Stowe attended, and later taught at, the Hartford Female Seminary.
Her father’s principles might have been what led her to be a supporter of women’s rights.
She believed that women were society’s architects, and she encouraged women to take ownership of their households. This is perhaps why she only had two servants at a time, as opposed to Twain, who had about a dozen servants.
She was considered a “Martha Stewart” of her time, and published books about homemaking. Her expertise in this area showed in every room of the Harriet Beecher Stowe House. In the 19th century, gardening was the only science that women could practice, so of course Beecher practiced it to the fullest extent possible. She kept ivy in the bedroom, in order to bring more oxygen in the house.
Her love of plants and flowers showed not only in her garden and bedroom, but also in her many paintings throughout the house. She painted wildflowers as well as magnolias, and identified with the magnolias’ strength and toughness.
While the house itself is smaller and less elaborate than the Twain House, both houses had a few of the same showy affectations. For instance, the nicest and largest bedroom in both houses was the guest room. Both writers probably wanted their guests to feel welcome and appreciated, but it’s likely that they also wanted to show off their wealth.
It’s not entirely fair for me to evaluate the character of these authors based off of their homes; at least, they can’t be evaluated to the same degree. Stowe lived in her Nook Farm house at the end of her life, while Twain had his house built as he was becoming an established literary figure.
Stowe lived in seven houses before moving to Nook Farm, and while she was living in Hartford, she had another home in Florida where she spent her winters. She went on three tours of Europe, and brought home two Raphael paintings.
She by no means lived humbly, and yet I can’t help but feel like she was a more down-to-earth person than Twain. Her husband, Calvin Stowe, encouraged her to keep her real name as her pen name. He believed it was important for everyone to know that she was “a literary woman,” and this might be why she seems more sensible and less fantastical than Twain.
Like Twain, Stowe used her own experiences to help her writing. She wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin after her 18-month-old son Samuel Charles died of cholera. After losing him, she said she understood what mothers must feel when they lose their children to the slave trade. Like Twain, fewer than half of her children survived her.
But perhaps I was overly critical of Twain. He didn’t grow up with the same educational advantages or privileges as Stowe, and maybe he couldn’t help it if he didn’t have the same level of comfort with his identity as she did.
According to our tour guide, Stowe was Twain’s mentor. I’d rather imagine that they were close friends. In my fantasy world, Twain would bring lemonade and biscuits to Stowe’s front porch. The two would discuss politics, travelling, art, and Nook Farm gossip, making snarky comments about their neighbors passing by on Forest Street.