Sunday, April 21, 2013

Harriet Beecher Stowe

"In 1862, the century's two most prominent women writers published novels which took as their major historical event the fall of Girolamo Savonarola, the fifteenth-century monk who attempted to bring social and religious reform to Florence. Harriet Beecher Stowe finished the serialization of Agnes of Sorrento in the May issue of Cornhill Magazine(FN1) and, in the issue immediately following, George Eliot began publication of Romola.(FN2) Although both novelists adhered to the historiographical tradition which saw Savonarola as a great precursor of the Protestant Reformation--an "Italian Luther" as Stowe calls him,(FN3) neither made Savonarola the central figure of her novel. Nor did they follow their beloved Sir Walter Scott by making an ordinary man into the hero.(FN4) Instead they refuted one of the central tenets of the nineteenth-century historical novel by selecting young women as their protagonists: Agnes, a country girl who is sheltered by the spiritual peace of a nearby convent, and Romola, educated daughter of a Florentine humanist who lives "in learned seclusion from the interests of actual life."(FN5) Beautiful, virtuous, and vulnerable, both characters seem destined for romance. But despite the appearance of handsome and mysterious suitors--a dispossessed Italian prince in Agnes and a shipwrecked Greek scholar in Romola--Stowe and Eliot insist that their heroines will be influenced by Savonarola's teaching and caught up in the forces of change sweeping through Italy. Although Agnes and Romola are passionately attracted to the men who appear so suddenly in their lives, they are also eager to share in Savonarola's mission. Like the authors, Agnes and Romola are poised between the demands of history and the dreams of romance.
Through a comparative study of the two novels, I will explore the relationship between "history" and "romance," recognizing that the boundaries of history have changed dramatically during the past twenty years and that definitions of "romance" have always been difficult to fix.(FN6) Stowe jubilantly casts history aside for the benefit of her heroine. "All dates shall give way to the fortunes of our story," she declares in the Preface. "And our lovers shall have the benefit of fairyland; and whoso wants history will not find it here, except to our making, and as it suits our purpose" (ix). Thus, she writes in the tradition of William Gilmore Simms, an American historical novelist who declared that the artist should not be constrained by facts: "Each man becomes his own historian ... Dates and names which, with the mere chronologist are everything, with us are nothing."(FN7) Presenting Agnes of Sorrento as a story of romantic love, Stowe promises an ending that will satisfy the heroine's desires--irrespective of historical circumstances…
...By writing historical fiction, Stowe and Eliot challenged a genre which was "predominantly masculine." George Dekker notes the celebration of male feats and male relationships, the relative absence of women, and the denigration of the courtship plot, while Avrom Fleishman assumes that nineteenth-century novelists would choose ordinary men as their heroes.
The historical novel is pre-eminently suited to telling how individual lives were shaped at specific moments of history, and how this shaping reveals the character of those historical periods ... The individuals selected for heroic (or at least specially marked) status are not likely to be world-historical figures ... The typical man of an age is one whose life is shaped by world-historical figures and other influences in a way that epitomizes the processes of change going forward in the society as a whole ... The heroes of historical fiction represent not only Renaissance man or Edwardian man but man in general, conceived as a historical being who is subject to the forces of one historical age or another. The ultimate subject of the historical novel is, then, man in history.(FN11)
Writing in 1971, Fleishman might claim to have been using "man" in its universal sense. However, subsequent research, such as Joan Kelly-Gadol's classic 1977 essay "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" has shown that generalizations about "man in history" do not apply to women.(FN12) Raising many of the same issues as feminist historians, Stowe and Eliot commit to "her story" by deciding that the protagonists whose lives are "shaped by world-historical figures" would be women. Granting heroic status to exceptional individuals rather than to a collective group such as the female peasantry may be, as Alison Booth has argued, the legacy of aristocratic romance,(FN13) but it is nonetheless a significant intervention in a predominantly male tradition.
It is not clear at what point during the process of composition that the authors decided to link the young girl's story with the fall of the great Florentine leader. Agnes of Sorrento was inspired by Stowe's trips to Italy during 1857 and 1859-60; these journeys gave her increased sympathy for medieval Catholicism, a passion for Italy's lush natural landscape, and a vision of her heroine. Despite the rabid anti-Catholicism of her father, Calvinist preacher Lyman Beecher, Stowe had come to believe that the Catholicism of the late Middle Ages provided several benefits lost to the modern Protestant world, including a protective system of monasteries and convents; a splendid artistic heritage; and an awareness of the feminine element in religion, evident in the teachings regarding Mary, in artistic representations of female holiness, and in metaphors (the Church as "a tender nursing mother," for example [Agnes, 275]). Relishing the glorious beauty of the Italian countryside, Stowe described Agnes of Sorrento as "a spontaneous tribute to the exceeding loveliness and beauty of all things there ... it is fragrant with love of Italy and memory of some of the brightest hours of life."(FN14) Stowe told her publishers that the story originated with the sight of a beautiful young girl sitting at her orange stand under the old arched gateway of Sorrento. Later, Stowe entertained her traveling companions with tales about the innocent country girl whom she named Agnes. Savonarola is not even mentioned until Chapter 8, where the narrator describes him as the person "who perfectly represented the attitude of the highest Christian of those times" (72)..."
*The rest of the article can be found at:

                Harriet Beecher Stowe was an abolitionist and an author, who wrote novels and stories about strong historical dismays.
             This academic journal shows how Harriet Beecher Stowe and another popular woman writer approached the same writing idea, while using different approaches. Stowe used the history of Girolamo Savonarola and the ideas of romance, in a novel, to expose his teaching and the changes through Italy.
              As you read on you learn that Stowe approaches this with an unprecedented style. She chooses to break the theme of most historic novels by using a young woman as her protagonist. Throughout the rest of the reading you also see that her views of romance are not typical. She says that romance is “difficult to fix”, which supports how it is common for readers to see Stowe writing about unique relationships that don’t fit the cliché romance that many people tend to think of.  

           This piece provides evidence of Stowe helping develop the realm of realism through her ability to intrigue readers with writing that is far from the norm. It would seem most attractive to people that enjoy writing with a strong voice about world issues. A more common piece that uses the same approach is Uncle Tom’s Cabin, due to her exposing the struggles of slavery and the ability of people to make a change. Her voice causes readers to contemplate real life situations, which is what makes it so interesting. This reading clearly represents that, along with the fact that Stowe, as a writer, represents a new outlook on the world.

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