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It’s too late. The trial has made the whole family conspicuous. Tennie revels in the notoriety, but Victoria has been trying to turn the world’s attention from her private life to the public stance she has taken. After this court session the world won’t let her. The New York press discovers that the ménage à trois angle on the Victoria Woodhull story sells more papers than her business accomplishments or political statements. Persons opposed to women’s rights point to Victoria and her two husbands as the licentious result those rights will produce. Henry Bowen, Henry Beecher’s sponsor at Plymouth Church, chides the suffragists for associating with such a character as Victoria. “Mrs. Stanton, Miss Anthony and Mrs. Hooker have been foolish to have given a prominent place to Mrs. Woodhull,” Bowen declares in the Independent. Horace Greeley of the Tribune mocks Victoria and the suffragist leaders together. “Why should any man be the candidate for president of the woman suffragists,” Greeley asks in an open letter to Theodore Tilton, who is up for reelection as president of the American Woman Suffrage Association. “Logically and consistently, I feel that their candidate should be a woman. She ought, moreover, to be one thoroughly emancipated from the ‘absurdity and folly,’ the ‘narrowness,’ and the ‘baleful conservatism,’ which I am now too old to outgrow. Could you not find one who illustrates in her own person and history what you so felicitously term ‘the liberal thought of an enlightened age’? Let her be one who has two husbands after a sort, and lives in the same house with them both, sharing the couch of one but bearing the name of the other (to indicate her impartiality, perhaps), and cause and candidate will be so fitly mated that there will be no occasion, even under the most liberal, progressive, enlightened regime, to sue for their divorce. Could not one of this class be persuaded to overcome her shrinking modesty and nominate herself?”
But it is the Beechers who wag the sternest fingers of disapproval. Catharine Beecher takes Victoria for a carriage ride in Central Park. Marriage is a sacred bond, she says; anyone who undermines it by word or example does society a grave disservice. Women might be the equals of men, but they must exercise their equality indirectly. They must work by moral suasion, and whatever diminishes the moral stature of women jeopardizes their influence. In any event, progress toward women’s rights will come only through the efforts of women of breeding and education.
Victoria bristles at the last slur, but she confines herself to suggesting that the sister of Henry Beecher is in no position to lecture on the sacredness of the marriage bond.
Catharine Beecher recoils as if from a loathsome insect. She has heard the stories of Henry’s straying and has satisfied herself that they are woven of malicious whole cloth; she adamantly refuses to hear them repeated by such a woman as Victoria Woodhull. “I will vouch for my brother’s faithfulness to his marriage vows as though he were myself,” she declares.
Victoria blandly replies that Henry’s affair with Lib Tilton is common knowledge.
“Victoria Woodhull, I will strike you for this!” Catharine Beecher retorts, red-faced and angry. “I will strike you dead!”
“Strike as much and as hard as you please,” Victoria answers. “Only don’t do it in the dark so I cannot know who is my enemy.”
Yet Catharine does strike in the dark. She begins a letter-writing campaign against Victoria. “Just now my sister Catharine is attacking Mrs. W.’s private character infamously,” Isabella Beecher Hooker writes a friend. Word gets back to Victoria, whose opinion of the Beechers declines commensurately.
But it is another Beecher who does Victoria’s reputation the most harm. Harriet Beecher Stowe has been serializing a story of manners and politics, focusing on relations between the sexes. Serialized novels are the rage of the era; they are to the nineteenth century what soap operas will be to a later time. Writers great and modest dole out their tales an episode at a time; American fans of Charles Dickens’s crowd the docks at New York and Boston, crying to the crews of incoming ships to learn whether Little Nell, left hanging in the last installment, has lived or died. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared chapter by chapter in the National Era magazine in the early 1850s; she repeats the formula for her new book, which she calls My Wife and I.
The narrator, Harry Henderson, a young journalist who searches for and eventually finds a wife, explains to readers why his tale takes the form it does. “It is understood that no paper is complete without its serial story, and the spinning of these stories keeps thousands of wheels and spindles in motion,” he says. “It is now understood that whoever wishes to gain the public ear, and to propound a new theory, must do it in a serial story. Hath any one in our day, as in St. Paul’s, a psalm, a doctrine, a tongue, a revelation, an interpretation—forthwith he wraps it up in a serial story, and presents it to the public.” As for the subject of his story: “I chose the subject which is in everybody’s mind and mouth, discussed on every platform, ringing from everybody’s tongue, and coming home to every man’s business and bosom, to wit: MY WIFE AND I. I trust that Miss Anthony and Mrs. Stanton, and all the prophetesses of our day, will remark the humility and propriety of my title. It is not I and My Wife—oh, no! It is My Wife and I.”
Harry acknowledges that his story—of wooing and winning a spouse—is an old one, as old as the species. But an old story serves as well as a new one. “In our modern days, as we have been observing, it is not so much the story as the things it gives the author the chance to say. The history of a young man’s progress toward matrimony, of course brings him among the most stirring and exciting topics of the day, where all that relates to the joint interests of man and woman has been thrown into the arena as an open question, and in relating our own experiences, we shall take occasion to keep up with the spirit of this discussing age in all these matters.”
Harry—that is, Harriet—is as good as his—her—word. The story unfolds chapter by chapter in the pages of the Christian Union, Henry Beecher’s paper, allowing Harriet to comment on the place of men and women in contemporary society. The story is well along when Harry receives an unannounced visitor. “As I was sitting in my room, busy writing, I heard a light footstep on the stairs, and a voice saying, ‘Oh, yes! this is Mr. Henderson’s room—thank you,’ and the next moment a jaunty, dashing young woman, with bold blue eyes, and curling brown hair, with a little wicked looking cap with nodding cock’s-feather set askew on her head, came marching up and seated herself at my writing table. I gazed in blank amazement. The apparition burst out laughing, and seizing me frankly by the hand, said—
“‘Look here, Hal! Don’t you know me? Well, my dear fellow, if you don’t it’s time you did! I read your last ‘thingamajig’ in the Milky Way”—Harriet here jabs Theodore Tilton’s Golden Age—“and came round to make your acquaintance.’”
Harry doesn’t know her, but Harriet’s readers recognize her at once as Victoria Woodhull.
“I gazed in dumb amazement while she went on.”
“‘My dear fellow, I have come to enlighten you,’—and as she said this she drew somewhat near to me, and laid her arm confidingly on my shoulder, and looked coaxingly in my face. The look of amazement which I gave, under these circumstances, seemed to cause her great amusement.
“‘Ha! ha!’ she said. ‘Didn’t I tell ’em so? You ain’t half out of the shell yet. You ain’t really hatched. You go for the emancipation of woman; but, bless you, boy, you haven’t the least idea what it means—not a bit of it, sonny, have you now? Confess!’ she said, stroking my shoulder caressingly.
“‘Really, madam—I confess,’ I said, hesitantly. ‘I haven’t the honor—’
“‘Not the honor of my acquaintance, you was going to say; well, that’s exactly what you’re getting now. I read your piece in the Milky Way, and, said I, that boy’s in heathen darkness yet, and I’m going round to enlighten him.’
“Now, I ask any of my readers, what is a modest young man, in this nineteenth century, having been brought up to adore and reverence woman as a goddess, to do, when he finds himself suddenly vis-à-vis with her, in such embarrassing relations as mine were becoming? I had heard before of Miss Audacia Dangyereyes, as a somewhat noted character in New York circles, but did not expect to be brought so unceremoniously, and without the least preparation of mind, into such very intimate relations with her.
“‘Now, look here, bub!’ she said, ‘I’m just a-going to prove to you, in five minutes, that you’ve been writing about what you don’t know anything about. You’ve been asserting, in your blind way, the rights of woman to liberty and equality; the rights of women, in short, to do anything that men do. Well, here comes a woman to your room who takes her rights, practically, and does just what a man would do. I claim my right to smoke, if I please, and to drink if I please; and to come up into your room and make you a call, and have a good time with you, if I please, and tell you that I like your looks, as I do. Furthermore, to invite you to come and call on me at my room. Here’s my card. You may call me ’Dacia, if you like—I don’t go on ceremony. Come round and take a smoke with me, this evening, won’t you? I’ve got the nicest little chamber that you ever saw. What rent do you pay for yours? Say, will you come round?’
“‘Indeed, thank you, miss—’
“‘Call me ’Dacia for short. I don’t stand on ceremony. Just look on me as another fellow. And now confess that you’ve been tied and fettered by those vapid conventionalities which bind down women till there is no strength in ’em. You visit in those false, artificial circles, where women are slaves, kept like canary birds in gilded cages. And you are afraid of your own principles when you see them carried out in a real free woman. Now, I’m a woman that not only dares say, but I dare do.’”
Dacia departs after extorting a subscription to her own newspaper out of Harry. He goes about his business until one day a conversation he is having with a Mr. Van Arsdel and daughters Ida and Eva is interrupted by the abrupt arrival of Jim Fellows, a friend of Harry’s. “He seemed quite out of breath and excited,” Harry says, “and had no sooner passed the compliments of the evening, than he began. “‘Well,’ said he, ‘Hal, I have just come from the Police Court, where there’s a precious row. Our friend Dacia Dangyereyes is up for blackmailing and swindling; and there’s a terrible wash of dirty linen going on. I was just in time to get the very earliest notes for our paper.’
“‘Good!’ said Mr. Van Arsdel. ‘I hope the creature is caught at last.’
“‘Never believe that,’ said Jim. ‘She has as many lives as a cat. They’ll never get a hold on her. She’ll talk ’em all round.’
“‘Disgusting!’ said Ida.
“‘Ah,’ said Jim, ‘it’s part of the world as it goes. She’ll come off with flying colors, doubtless, and her cock’s feathers will be flaunting all the merrier for it.’
“‘How horribly disagreeable,’ said Eva, ‘to have such women around. It makes one ashamed of one’s sex.’
“‘I think,’ said Ida, ‘there is not sufficient resemblance to a real woman in her to make much trouble on her account. She’s an amphibious animal, belonging to a transition period of human society.’
“‘Well,’ said Jim, ‘if you’ll believe it, Mrs. Cerulean and two or three of the ladies of her set are actually going to invite Dacia to their salon and patronize her.’”
“‘Impossible!’ said Ida, flushing crimson; ‘it cannot be!’
“‘Oh, you don’t know Mrs. Cerulean,’ said Jim. ‘Dacia called on her with her newspaper, and conducted herself in the most sweet and winning manner, and cast herself at her feet for patronage; and Mrs. Cerulean, regarding her through those glory spectacles which she usually wears, took her up immediately as a promising candidate for the latter-day. Mrs. Cerulean didn’t see anything in Dacia’s paper that, properly interpreted, need make any trouble; because, you see, as she says, everything ought to be love, everywhere, above and below, under and over, up and down, top and side and bottom, ought to be love, love. And then when there’s general all-overness and all-throughness, and an entire mixed-up-ativeness, then the infinite will come down into the finite, and the finite will overflow into the infinite, and, in short, Miss Dacia’s cock’s feathers will sail right straight up into heaven, and we shall see her cheek by jowl with the angel Gabriel, promenading the streets of the new Jerusalem. That’s the programme. Meanwhile, Dacia’s delighted. She hadn’t the remotest idea of being an angel, or anything of the sort; but since good judges have told her she is, she takes it all very contentedly.’
“‘But the fact is,’ said Mr. Van Arsdel, ‘Mrs. Cerulean is a respectable woman, of respectable family, and this girl is a tramp; that’s what she is; and it is absolutely impossible that Mrs. Cerulean can know what she is about.’
“‘Well, I delicately suggested some such thing to Mrs. Cerulean,’ said Jim; ‘but, bless me! the way she set me down! Says she, “Do men ever inquire into the character of people that you unite with to carry your purposes? You join with anybody that will help you, without regard to antecedents!’”