The Battles Over Julia Ward Howe

Julia Ward Howe; portrait begun by John Elliott, circa 1910, finished by William Henry Cotton, circa 1925
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Julia Ward Howe; portrait begun by John Elliott, circa 1910, finished by William Henry Cotton, circa 1925

Nobody can know another’s marriage from the inside. Even with people we know well, the relationship we see is merely the deceptive outward show, the public illusion; at home the marriage shifts into some other mode entirely, with intimate deployments of coldness or affection, manipulation or control, altering the balance at every moment. No outsider can tell with any certainty what is really going on.

Faced with this reality, Elaine Showalter has bravely taken on the task of examining the inner workings of a marriage that ended nearly a century and a half ago. That she succeeds as well as she does is a tribute not only to her scholarly diligence, but also to her proven historical curiosity and her fluent prose.

Even during the Victorian period, an era noteworthy for its odd marriages, the partnership of Julia Ward Howe and Samuel Gridley Howe was viewed as unusual. There was, to begin with, the celebrity of both parties. They did not become famous at the same time or in the same fields but they achieved great renown nonetheless. And in part because the public eye was already upon them, the cracks in their marriage became known even during their lifetimes. That Julia Ward Howe was the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and a noted activist on behalf of women’s rights only gave further fuel to the idea of a vocal if not strident woman whose life had been inhibited by a demanding and repressive husband. These rumors of marital strain were fed rather than quashed by Julia’s own publications, and they were further publicized after her death by the accounts of their surviving children, three out of four of whom became writers.

When they married in 1843, it was Samuel who was by far the more famous. As a doctor just out of Harvard Medical School, he’d joined the Greek War of Independence in 1824, the same year Byron died in that conflict. Howe stayed in Greece for six years, fighting and supplying medical help, for which service he was eventually named a Chevalier of the Order of St. Saviour—a title that gave rise to his lifelong nickname, Chev. Upon his return to Boston, he was appointed head of the new Perkins School for the Blind, an institution he made famous by promoting the accomplishments of a deaf-blind girl named Laura Bridgman. (Chev’s and Laura’s much-chronicled achievements as teacher and student were eclipsed only when a subsequent pair from the Perkins School, Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller, became even greater celebrities after Chev’s death.) By the time the New York heiress Julia Ward first met…

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