"Unfortunate is the hen who hatches a duck but she must make the most of it."

- Harriet Beecher Stowe

in an 1864 letter

Even in a family of eccentrics, young Harriet Beecher was considered a bit odd. Brilliant, but odd.

One minute she was lethargic, dreamy, her mind adrift in an internal world; her appearance dull, her shoulders drooping.

The next, she was animated and entertaining, surprisingly pretty; shrewdly - and often comically - observant of the drama of everyday life.

"A strange, inconsistent being," her stepmother, Harriet Porter Beecher, once called her.

She has a peculiar habit of "owling about," her brother Henry complained.

"She is as odd as she is intelligent and studious," her father, the famous preacher Lyman Beecher, said of his fourth daughter.

In short, Harriet, who was born in 1811, had the makings of a writer as early as age 7 or 8, when she would steal away to the kitchen garret of her family's ramshackle Litchfield home and there, amid the rows of old bonnets, bins of shelled corn and pungent dried herbs, escape into the magical prose of "The Arabian Nights."

A precocious and ambitious student, she easily mastered lessons meant for older students and volunteered at age 9 to write weekly essays.

At 12, her essay titled "Can the Immortality of the Soul be Proved by the Light of Nature?" was selected to be read before all the literati of Litchfield. By 13, she was an inveterate bookworm who had to be startled out of her reveries with a scolding from her father.

As much as Lyman Beecher was bemused by Harriet's strange habits, he also recognized her special talents, noting in a letter when she was only 8, "Harriet is a great genius - I would give a hundred dollars if she was a boy."

Lyman's remark was sexist, but it was also practical. Lyman was a committed Calvinist and wanted to spread the good word. In the Victorian era, only sons could be preachers. Indeed, daughters weren't even allowed to stand up before a group of people, never mind speak to them.

In time, however, Harriet, who received her secondary education in Hartford and spent her later life there, would prove her father's vision limited. From her perch in a family of celebrity ministers and activists, Harriet found a way through her writings - most particularly "Uncle Tom's Cabin" - to preach her views with an eloquence and urgency that had far more impact on the world than any sermonizing done by her seven preacher brothers.

From the mid-19th century through its end, there is hardly a major moral or religious issue that Harriet did not address - whether slavery or women's suffrage or temperance.

She wrote about European art and architecture, efficiency and housework, and about how to avoid spoiling your children.

In 1860, she wrote to her editor at The Atlantic Monthly that she would like the "freedom and latitude" to strike "any where when a topic seems to be on the public mind."

As Edward Wagenknecht wrote in his 1965 biography of Stowe, "All in all, it may be doubted whether any American woman had her say so publicly upon so wide a variety of personal and public questions, and I doubt that any other has matched her in kind since."