In this column, Alexis Coe, Lenny's historian at large, will conduct Q&As with specialists in archives across the country, focusing on one primary source. For this post, Alexis spoke with Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney, authors of A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, about the time Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote to George Eliot about a visit with Charlotte Brontë's ghost. Seriously. (Read Alexis's previous columns here.)
Alexis Coe: The bonds of literary men are mythologized to eye-roll-inducing degrees, so I was so excited to learn about lesser-known friendships between women authors in your book! I hate to delay ghost talk, but I need to know a little bit more about the unlikely transatlantic connection between Harriet Beecher Stowe, the American author of the 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, and English novelist George Eliot (the pen name used by Mary Anne Evans), author of Middlemarch, published in 1872?
Emily Midorikawa: By the time 57-year-old Harriet Beecher Stowe and 49-year-old George Eliot began to write to each other, in early 1869, they were arguably the most famous living female writers on either side of the Atlantic. Uncle Tom's Cabin had been the whirlwind best seller of the age, and Eliot had been earning extraordinary fees for her work.
Emma Claire Sweeney: Eliot — now sometimes thought of as so lofty that she couldn't have needed the support of a female friend — actually initiated the friendship. She had long been an admirer of Stowe's writing, and the esteem turned out to be mutual, but both women also felt able to voice outspoken criticism. And, having each borne the brunt of public scandal, they were uniquely well placed to offer each other sympathy. Eliot, who had caused outrage when she made the controversial decision to "live in sin" with a married man, offered comfort to Stowe during a time when the American author had come under attack for having written an article in which she accused the late Lord Byron of incest. Eliot's letter had to function like "a kiss and a pressure of the hand" — as Eliot put it to Stowe — since the ill health of their partners ruled out transatlantic travel.
AC: The letter Stowe sent Eliot on May 11, 1872, starts out innocently enough, with talk of work, health, and home, and then Stowe divulges her spectral flirtations. It all began with a "toy planchette," the Ouija board of the Victorian era, but things had gotten pretty serious since: she'd gotten visits from Charlotte Brontë! Why Charlotte, who had been dead for more than fifteen years, of all the Brontës?
ECS: It's perhaps hard nowadays to understand the commotion caused by Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre when it was first published in 1847. As a devout Christian, married to a biblical scholar, Stowe may well have been interested in the British parson's daughter's controversial depiction of religious life. And, of course, Stowe was no stranger to literary scandal, Uncle Tom's Cabin having even been cited by some as a cause of the American Civil War.
AC: When writers get together, they often talk about writing, and Beecher's conversation with Brontë was no exception. Charlotte's ghost was still smarting over critics who'd called her work "coarse"; Beecher had described it as "peculiar." I'm wondering if this was something Brontë expressed when she was alive, and about Beecher's relationship to critics, too.
EM: Brontë was undoubtedly affected by those who disparaged her. She added a defiant preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre in 1848, in which she took to task those critics whom she regarded as "timorous or carping." An appraisal of her second novel, Shirley, wounded her deeply. The reviewer was George Henry Lewes — George Eliot's future partner. Following his enthusiasm for Brontë's previous novel, and the letters the two had exchanged, she regarded this as a betrayal, and one that made her feel "cold and sick."
ECS: Stowe wasn't afraid to court controversy. Detractors had accused her of fabricating the worst excesses of slavery in Uncle Tom's Cabin, and so she had responded with a nonfiction book, The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, supporting her claims. She did something similar after receiving vitriolic reviews on an article in which she had accused Lord Byron of incest. Eliot let Stowe know that she sympathized with her predicament but not her strategy.
AC: The whole time I was reading the letter, I kept wondering, Does Stowe believe in all this??? And then, toward the end, she answered me: "That spirits unseen have communicated with me I cannot doubt." She was really open to their existence, which was fashionable, right?
EM: She did indeed believe, although Stowe was keen to "make a really philosophic experiment" before coming to her conclusions. Considering Eliot never gave much sign of her being convinced by Stowe's claims, it's perhaps surprising how many of Stowe's missives talk of otherworldly experiences such as these. You're right that there was something of a vogue for these beliefs in Victorian times, though Eliot had wondered if the popularity of these ideas in her friend's home country — so recently ravaged by the Civil War — could be regarded as a kind of collective outpouring of grief "towards the invisible existence of the loved ones."
AC: Stowe basically accuses ghosts of identity theft, and not only that, but she questions the veracity of the claims ghosts make. Let's imagine that's true. Why would this fake ghost visit Stowe?
ECS: It's interesting that you bring this up, because this short paragraph appears to contradict much of the rest of the letter, during which it seems that Stowe really does believe she has been visited by Brontë's ghost and seems intent on convincing Eliot of this too. The moment when Stowe suddenly begins to wonder about these things comes toward the end of the missive, just before she addresses Eliot directly.
Was there perhaps a momentary loss of confidence here as she wondered how the famously rational Eliot might react? If this were the case, any such wavering seems to have passed fairly quickly because, only a few lines later, Stowe appears to be professing wholehearted belief again when she says "I must hope much in this hereafter Charlotte speaks of."
AC: Your book mines primary sources and relationships that have been understudied, meaning you had a good deal of lesser-known sources to choose from. Why this friendship, and this letter? What do you hope readers take away?
ECS: We did initially consider choosing papers that we discovered inside the tiny pockets of Jane Austen's niece's unpublished diaries, where they had been hidden for more than 200 years. These documents shed light on Austen's unlikely literary friend the Austen-family governess and amateur playwright Anne Sharp. Or we could have shared an unpublished letter from Virginia Woolf to Katherine Mansfield that has been quoted out of context to convey a misleading impression of their relationship.
EM: But ultimately, we agreed on this letter between Stowe and Eliot because it deals with such a fascinating and recurring element of their correspondence. Amazingly, despite the fame of both women, a significant portion of Stowe's letters to Eliot never made it into print. As for this particular letter, when Stowe's son included it in his biography of his mother, he made the apparently tactful decision to do away with the long section in which Stowe discussed her experiences with the spirit world and her strange encounter with Brontë's ghost.
This interview has been condensed and edited.