On 14 January 1876, the day after her husband’s funeral, Julia Ward Howe wrote in her diary, “Began my new life today.” Julia Ward Howe, known today mainly for her poem “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” is often depicted in popular culture as a dainty Victorian grandmother. But Howe was also a novelist, critic, and a fiery advocate for abolition and women’s suffrage, who spent most of her life under the ruthless control of her much-older husband, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe.
In her new biography, The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe, literary critic Elaine Showalter explores Howe’s heartbreaking history. A New York society belle in her youth, Howe married her husband, a doctor famous for both his work with the blind and his service during the Greek Revolution, believing that he would support her literary ambitions. Unfortunately, Dr. Howe believed that women should remain in the home. Although she had six children, Julia Ward Howe spent much of her three-decade marriage fighting with Dr. Howe about her desire to have a career beyond motherhood. In addition to several volumes of poetry, Howe also wrote (in secret) a novel called The Hermaphrodite. Discovered decades after her death, The Hermaphrodite explores themes of sexuality and gender while challenging the patriarchy of 19th-century America. Howe also campaigned extensively for abolition and women’s suffrage in the second half of her life.
Showalter’s outstanding biography captures the complexity of Howe’s life and work, restoring her to her rightful place as one of the foremost thinkers – female or male – of the 19th century.
Review Submitted by: Kaitlyn Grigsby
Rating: Highly Recommended
Challenge: Published in 2016