BOOK REVIEW / Petticoat governor: Christina Hardyment on a sympathetic biography of Uncle Tom's sprightly creator: Harriet Beecher Stowe - Joan Hedrick: Oxford, pounds 25

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The Independent Culture
When he met Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862, Abe Lincoln greeted her with the words: 'So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.' Uncle Tom's Cabin sold 30,000 copies in its first week when it came out in 1852, and 300,000 by the end of the year. By 1893 it had been translated into 42 different languages, including Armenian, Welsh and Javanese.

But the story first made itself felt in 1851, when it was drip-fed into the national consciousness over 12 months through the most powerful opinion-forming medium of the age, the weekly serial. Such magazines as the National Era, the Independent and the Atlantic Monthly were influential forums for ideas, debates, exposes and exhortations. They featured pious sermons, scientific essays, aggressive letter columns and, most popular of all, fiction.

Joan Hedrick's excellent biography, affectionate but scholarly, reveals that Uncle Tom's Cabin was not just a one off: it was the zenith of a happy-go-lucky, generous and idealistic woman's startlingly successful literary career. Born in 1811, Stowe came from the deeply religious and intellectual Beecher clan, teachers, writers and ministers all, who saw their composite mission as saving the souls of the emerging nation by educating them in the true faith. In 1836 she married the theologian Calvin Stowe after the death of his first wife Eliza, a close friend of hers; all three were members of a sprightly Cincinnati literary society called the Semi-Colons.

Beechers were used to being influential - they ran newspapers and gave family members a fast track to their editorial pages. It was this assumption that her message would be heard that gave Harriet the confidence both to write Uncle Tom's Cabin and to defend it hotly against criticism. Her timing was perfect. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which forced committed antislavery northerners to return runaways or risk being classed as criminals themselves, created widespread indignation. This tinder was set alight in earnest by the heart-stopping excitement of Stowe's novel with its heroic escape across the ice-floes of the Ohio river, and its Christ-like Uncle Tom.

Stowe wrote from the heart. Her folksy anecdotal style developed from the long letters exchanged between dispersed family and friends, a mix of practical domesticities with moral issues, both personal and more broadly political. The intent was didactic, but it was a flexible tool. Besides reducing the nation to sobs at the death of Little Eva, it could have them hooting with laughter at the escapades of children in The Little Foxes or looking into the mirror wryly as they read of Christopher Crowfield's marital problems in House and Home Papers.

Hedrick's biography makes use of a great deal of new material, notably the extraordinarily frank letters which Calvin and Harriet exchanged over fifty years of marriage. 'My arms and bosom are hungry,' he wails when she announces that a few more months of the water cure are absolutely necessary to her nerves (not least as a contraceptive, one suspects, as baby followed baby, starting with twins nine months after the wedding). 'I am often made sensible how warmly and fervently my heart stiil clings to you,' she wrote to him later. 'It drinks up all my strength to care and provide for all this family, to try and cure the faults of all, harmonise all - alas it is too much for me and aching head and heart often show it.'

This thought-provoking and wide-ranging book is not just the story of America's first massively popular author. Hedrick maps a larger literary adventure. For half a century, she points out, the hands that rocked the cradle also pushed pens that rocked the world. 'It is women who read,' wrote Nathaniel Willis in 1859. 'It is women who give or withhold a literary reputation. It is the women who regulate the style of living . . . It is the women who exercise the ultimate control over the Press.'

Her thesis is that this literary petticoat government rose to its height in the Sixties, then quite suddenly declined as more and more men realised that with a mass market and faster communications, writing could offer a career and world-wide fame, not just pin money and local notoriety. The women who had invented the profitable profession of parlour literature found themselves left out in the cold. Stimulating mixed-sex literary nurseries like the Semi-Colon Club faded away, and men gathered to drink, smoke and define art on their own.

Hedrick sees the rise and fall of Stowe's career as evidence of this male takeover of a sphere invented and furnished by women, and offers the young Henry James's crushing review of Stowe's 1869 Oldtown Folks as Exhibit A. Her case would be stronger if so many of the later books, including that one, had not been positively bad. Harriet's conservatism made it impossible for her to join the brave new cause that followed anti-slavery, women's suffrage. Instead, she countered feminist diatribes against man the oppressor with a shrewd backhander on traditional feminine wiles (Pink and White Tyranny) and backtracked into nostalgia for the good old days 'before the pauper populations of Europe landed on our shores'.

And was she pushed out, or did she go willingly? Harriet Beecher Stowe was no Mrs Jellaby; for her, home and her seven children always came first. Putting such a high value on the domestic sphere is currently unfashionable, but there could yet come a time when Stowe's House and Home Papers and her immensely popular book on bringing up children, The Little Foxes, both interestingly aware of the dilemmas that face dual-career families today, are seen to be as seminal as John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women.

(Photograph omitted)