Julia Ward Howe is renowned as the poet who woke up one night in an inspired state to pen the lyrics of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the song that would become the victorious psalm of the Civil War.
But what few know is that the writer, reformer and mother of six who wrote those stirring words – “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord” – was adrift in a lonely war of her own, against a husband who sought to control every aspect of her life, from what she wrote to what she ate.
In a new biography, The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe, Elaine Showalter, an emeritus professor of English at Princeton University, opens a sympathetic window on the frustrations and unhappiness that scarred Howe’s 33-year-long marriage to the much older Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe.
Dr. Howe, ironically, was in many ways an enlightened man. An abolitionist like his wife, he was also a pioneer in the education of the blind. He even encouraged Florence Nightingale to defy family opposition and take up nursing. But as a husband, he was an arch traditionalist who wanted not an intellectual companion but a wife that would bear him children and run his house.
Except that he interfered in the kitchen as well.
When it came to food, Julia Ward Howe – a prominent feminist in her own time — would be dictated to all her life. First by her wealthy Manhattan banker father, who converted to Calvinism and banished rich food and wine from the table; then by her husband; and finally by her children, who clucked their disapproval when they thought the old woman was helping herself to too much fruitcake.
Dietary impositions were exceedingly galling to the petite Howe, who enjoyed a flute of champagne and a mince pie as much as the next bon vivant.
Married in 1843, the Howes started life on a gastronomic high note. On their honeymoon in England, writes Showalter, Julia and Chev (she called him Chev, short for Chevalier de St. Saviour, the honorary title he was given by the King of Greece for his service during the revolution) were lavishly entertained by Charles Dickens. The poet Samuel Rogers served them plover’s eggs (a Victorian delicacy, now illegal to gather, since the bird is endangered). And even though William Wordsworth served them “a very indifferent muffin,” it was one for Howe’s memoirs.
Back home in South Boston, Howe’s troubles started in earnest.
“Cooking was a particular trial,” writes Showalter. “She spent much of her time in the kitchen, struggling with the aid of Catherine Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book. Chev also wanted to entertain his male friends for dinner every week. … Julia hired cook after cook, but Chev had a tendency to overrule her decisions and fire them, so there was a considerable turnover in the kitchen.”
A pampered young woman who had never entered the kitchen in her life, Howe was an embattled hostess, writes Showalter, who “ordered ice cream delivered for a dinner party and was embarrassed when it was left in a snowdrift and not discovered until the next morning.”
The children watched the sparks of tension between their parents at the dining table. “If the beef were tough, he was capable of swearing at it,” wrote their daughter Laura.
Reduced to a desperate housewife, Howe thumped out a doleful ditty on the piano called Cookery, Bookery, oh! The last verse went:
My husband comes, a saucy elf,
And eyes the saucepan on the shelf;
Says he, “Why don’t you cook yourself?”
Cookery bookery, oh!
The “saucy elf” – who suffered from splitting headaches and constipation – laid down strict rules about what should be cooked in his house. “All ‘fried abominations’ were taboo with him, pastry, high seasoning, ham, cocoanut cakes – all rich foods were anathema maranatha,” writes their daughter Maud in a biography of her mother.
Under the influence of the temperance brigade, Chev forbade wine at parties. Invited to dine, and offered cold water to drink, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow acidly commented, “The doctor does not mean to do his penance alone.”
“Chev gave Julia permission to have her friends over for tea and whist, a concession she found belittling and condescending,” writes Showalter. A furious Julia wrote to her sister Annie, “What an ass he must take me for! Do you think that Giant Despair ever gave tea-parties?”
It was not all war, however. A keen gardener, Dr. Howe set up a bountiful kitchen garden with vegetables and fruit trees. But his Eden was bound by his commandments. A loving but stern father, he drilled into his children that it was “dishonorable to take even a berry without permission,” writes Laura. “I well remember my horror when a visiting child picked up a fallen peach, and ate it without asking permission.”
So how did Howe deal with all these laws? When it came to her writing, she defied her husband by publishing Passion-Flowers, an anonymous collection (though everyone knew who the author was) of poems into which she poured her bitterness and heartbreak.
But was this intelligent, beautiful, wealthy suffragist — who spoke four languages and taught herself Greek at 50 — able to stand up to her husband and eat what she liked?
Showalter indicates that Howe gave in, and Laura writes that her mother would “silently acquiesce” to her father’s wishes. But Maud offers a different view. “From first to last she was frankly a rebel in this matter,” she writes. “In spite of all opposition, she calmly continued to eat whatever she fancied to the end of her life.”
Through the stormiest phases of her marriage, when she felt that Chev “pummeled me until I was black and blue in the soul,” Howe resolutely wore a mask of cheerfulness. She sang at parties, played with her children, and buried Giant Despair deep inside. The feint worked; the children, without any trace of irony, called their ebullient mother “the family champagne.”
Chev’s death in 1876 changed everything. Howe, who was only 57 – Chev was 18 years older than she was – was now free to travel, give speeches, focus on the suffragist movement, and immerse herself in the stimulating worlds of Aeschylus and Goethe.
“Life is like a cup of tea – the sugar is all at the bottom,” she sang out one day to Maud.
Many suffragists were staunch teetotalers and frowned on alcohol – but Howe had had her fill of tea parties. “She took a little light wine with her dinner ‘for her stomach’s sake,’ as she would say, quoting St Paul,” writes Maud. Once, on a demanding women’s assignment at the 1884 World’s Fair in boiling New Orleans, an exhausted Howe gratefully recalled how she “came up upon iced champagne and recovered myself, and became strong again.”
With Chev gone, Howe’s brother, Sam Ward, the celebrated gourmand and Washington lobbyist, showered her with cases of clarets, sherry, Moselle, and vermouth. He seems to have been the only person in Howe’s life who made no attempt to control her food habits. Even her children, despite knowing their mother was a paragon of moderation, and had what Maud called “the digestion of an ostrich,” nagged and scolded.
But with them she was firm. “I have eaten sausages all my life,” she’d say. “They have always agreed with me perfectly!”
“It would be plum cake and mince pie to the end,” writes Showalter, “and she would playfully compete with her grandchildren for the tastiest desserts.”
In 1910, at the age of 91, Howe wrote to her physician for permission to eat ham and pastry, foods her family thought too rich for the summer. Shortly afterwards, at what would turn out to be her last luncheon party, she was virtuously advised against the pâté de foie gras and champagne. Ignoring the busybodies, she helped herself to both.
Nina Martyris is a literary journalist based in Knoxville, Tenn.