Author Patricia O’Brien turns to the 1875 “trial of the century” of preacher Henry Ward Beecher for alienation of affection of a parishioner and his wife, Theodore and Elizabeth Tilton, focusing on two of Henry’s sisters, Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Isabella Beecher Hooker, the youngest stepsister.
Their father a renowned Calvinist fire-and-brimstone preacher, heir-to-the pulpit Henry teaches of a kinder, gentler God, a forgiving God who understands man’s weaknesses. In a family of achievers, Henry is the star, but Harriet becomes a national figure with the publication of a novel that gives voice to the evils of slavery. The Beechers become an American institution of sorts, the moral conscience of society.
Harriet and Isabella are close, the younger girl idolizing both her charismatic brother and remarkable sister, frequently the only dissenting voice in family meetings; but then, Isabella is impulsive and passionate by nature. As she matures, Isabella is fascinated by spiritualism and devoted to women’s suffrage, her friends Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, later Victoria Woodhull, a free-love espousing firebrand who joins the movement.
As Harriet has taught Isabella, loyalty is paramount, as is truth. For Isabella, truth is critical. When Woodhull accuses Henry of marital indiscretions with Elizabeth, Theodore Tilton’s wife, the public’s imagination catches fire, such a scandal irresistible as grist for the gossip mill.
But when Woodhull is incarcerated for exercising the right to free speech, Isabella is outraged, understanding that if enemies can silence an advocate of the women’s movement and brand her as emotionally unstable, this tactic can be used on anyone to defeat the cause. Torn between concerns for the volatile Victoria and loyalty to her family, Isabella is in an untenable position. She makes some critical errors in judgment, incurring the wrath of her family, especially Harriet.
A lengthy court trial follows Woodhull’s denunciation of Beecher as a hypocrite, the months as the center of attention grinding down the formerly spirited Beechers, all of them captive to the newspapers that publish daily news of the trial events.
Twelve years later, Henry is on his deathbed, each sister ruminating on the broken sibling relationship and the emotional price of a trial that pitted Henry’s arrogance against an equally stubborn adversary, a morality tale couched in legal jargon, thrilling an audience with salacious details of the rich and powerful exposed to public scorn.
Ostracized from her family since the trial, Isabella suffers greatly, relying on her husband’s support to endure the long years without her family. Harriet remains adamantly inaccessible to her younger sister, clinging to loyalty in the face of increasing doubts about Henry’s veracity. But Harriet cannot allow such thoughts, her entire life tied to Henry’s and the Beecher name. In a drama that features a man of God, a free-thinking suffragette, an indiscreet woman and her equally indiscreet husband, it is Harriet and Isabella who are the victims, loyalty and truth demanding more than either of them can bear.