Reviewed by Lyn Baines
The only thing I knew about Julia Ward Howe, before reading Elaine Showalter’s new biography, was that she had written The Battle Hymn of the Republic, one of the best-known poems of the 19th century. I discovered that there was a lot more to learn about the woman behind the poem. The Civil Wars in Showalter’s title do not just refer to the conflict between the North and the South in the 1860s.
Julia Ward was born in 1819, to a wealthy New York family. Her father’s fortune was in banking and, despite his strict religious beliefs, he felt no guilt about his wealth and spent it accordingly. After Julia’s mother died of puerperal fever after giving birth to her seventh child at the age of only twenty-seven, Samuel Ward’s grief took the form of stricter religious observance. Julia and her sisters were brought up as accomplished young ladies, while her brothers were sent to school. The Ward girls were taught French, dancing, and music, at which Julia excelled. Their social circle was restricted to family and Sundays were dominated by church services and improving literature. Julia later wrote,
The early years of my youth were passed in seclusion not only of home life, but of a home life most carefully and jealously guarded from all that might be represented in the orthodox trinity of evil, the world, the flesh, and the devil.
When Samuel Ward died in 1839, Julia fell into a depression that lasted almost two years. She became increasingly religious and adopted her father’s strict Calvinist principles. Eventually, after reading and studying more moderate forms of belief, Julia emerged from her depression and her restrictive life and began to enjoy herself. Julia was an heiress. She enjoyed singing (she was known as the Diva) and socializing but she also continued studying and had a reputation as a bluestocking. None of her suitors inspired her affection or respect until she met Samuel Gridley Howe.
Samuel Gridley Howe, known as Chev (short for Chevalier, a reference to his knight-errantry: he impulsively went to Greece as a young man to help in the fight for Greek independence), was eighteen years older than Julia. A handsome, energetic man, a confident horseman who always rode a black horse, Howe was determined to make his mark. He was best known as the Director of the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston. Howe spent a year in Europe observing and studying other institutions before returning to implement his theories. The Institute soon became famous. Charles Dickens visited the school on his visit to America in 1842 and wrote about it in American Notes. Howe and Julia met at social events while she was staying with a Boston friend and he was intrigued by her. She admired his stern manner and his commanding presence. Years later she confessed that she was swept away and they were married in 1844.
The marriage of Julia and Chev is the core of this book. They had completely opposing ideas about what marriage meant and they spent much of their life together in a state of mutual incomprehension and icy antagonism. Julia was a strong-willed woman who had led her own life, albeit within the restrictions of her social class, and believed that marriage could be a meeting of equals. Chev expected that Julia would be an obedient wife and housekeeper, compliant with his wishes. Julia was unhappy living at the Perkins Institute. The Doctor’s Residence was uncomfortable and she was not a confident housekeeper. She felt snubbed by Boston society and, by the time her second daughter was born, Julia had to admit that her marriage was a failure. She wrote to her sister, Louisa, of her despair at her inability to make Chev happy and their growing estrangement,
Is it selfish, is it egotistical to wish that others may love us, take an interest in us, sympathize with us, in our maturer age, as in our youth? Are our hearts to fade and die out with our early bloom, and, in giving life to others, do we lose our own vitality, and sink into dimness, nothingness, and living death? … But then again, what shall I do? Where shall I go to beg some scraps and remnants of affection to feed my hungry heart?
Julia and Chev increasingly led separate lives. Julia left Boston with two of her children, and spent over a year living in Rome. Chev eventually convinced her to return but Julia was frustrated by the constraints of marriage. Julia found childbirth and motherhood difficult and discouraged Chev from coming to her room at night by insisting on having her babies sleep with her. Chev invested Julia’s money in property as though it was his right to do so (as indeed it was, legally) but his investments always failed and Julia resented it. Julia convinced Chev to buy a house, Green Peace, away from the Institute, where she could make a home for the family.
Julia continued writing poetry, although Chev disapproved of her writing and was horrified when she published her first book of poetry, Passion-Flowers, in 1853. The book was a success but the poems were personal and revealed the writer’s unhappiness in her marriage and the restrictions that motherhood had imposed on her life. Chev felt humiliated and his anger frightened Julia. He even threatened divorce and to take custody of the children if she continued to refuse to resume sexual relations. Eventually she felt she had no choice but to concede to his demands. Before long, Julia was pregnant again and Chev decided to move the family back to Perkins, turning Green Peace into an extension of a school for disabled children.
The Howes became involved in the abolitionist movement in the 1850s. Chev was impressed by a meeting with John Brown and was lucky to escape prosecution for his support of Brown’s notorious raid on Harper’s Ferry. During the Civil War, the song ‘John Brown’s Body’ became increasingly popular with the Union troops and someone asked Julia if she could write some other words to go with the popular tune. The result was ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’, the words of which, Julia claimed, came to her in a dream. For the rest of her long life, Julia would be associated and lauded for this one work. After the Civil War ended in 1865, Julia felt a new spirit of independence. She no longer felt that she needed Chev’s approval for her activities and the growing fame of the Battle Hymn led to invitations for Julia to speak at public meetings and she became increasingly involved with the movement for women’s suffrage.
Chev died in 1876 and Julia wrote in her journal, on the day after his funeral, ‘Began my new life today’. She had been married for thirty-three years and would live another thirty-four years. Her career as an advocate for women’s suffrage blossomed and she was involved in committees, conferences, congresses and meetings of all kinds, fundraising and gathering support for the cause. She spent a year travelling in Europe with her youngest daughter, Maud, ignoring the pleas of her other daughters to come home and stop gallivanting. By the time of her death in 1910, Julia Ward Howe was a national institution. A gala festival was organised for her seventieth birthday and a volume of poetry was commissioned by the Boston Authors Club for her eightieth.
Elaine Showalter’s biography is a fascinating insight into the life of a woman who has been lost in the wake of her most famous work. Showalter’s career has focussed on the rediscovery of women writers and I loved her investigation of Julia’s life. I felt the frustration of Julia as Chev squandered her money while denying her any autonomy in the home or even over her own body. Julia’s attempts to carve out her own life didn’t always succeed but she was undaunted by her failures and continued to live her own life as far as she possibly could. When she began her new life after Chev’s death, I could almost hear her loosening her stays, metaphorically at least. The Battle Hymn has kept Julia’s name alive but there was so much more to her life and Elaine Showalter’s biography explores the many sides to this remarkable woman.
Lyn Baines blogs at I Prefer Reading , has no hope of ever getting through the tbr shelves but refuses to let this worry her.
Elaine Showalter, The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe: a biography (London, 2016). 978-1451645903, 303 pp., hardback.
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