The idea for this series began at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center library while I was researching a story on the 150th anniversary of the publication of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." As I sifted through personal letters, journals and manuscripts, I was struck by the fact that Stowe was a 40-year-old mother of seven - one a newborn - when she wrote the book.
Just how could she do it? In 1851, no less, and in a household where money was always in short supply?
Catharine, the oldest sister, who had never married and had no children, had moved in with the Stowe family to help with child care so that Harriet could write, often with the baby in a basket at her feet.
"I am trying to get Uncle Tom out of the way," Catharine said in a letter from Maine, where the book was written, to her sister Mary, whose home in Hartford was considered the family's homestead. "At 8 o'clock we are thro' with breakfast & prayers & then we send off Mr. Stowe & Harriet both to his room at the college. There was no other way to keep her out of family cares & quietly at work."
Half-sister Isabelle had urged Harriet to write, and Isabelle and Mary served as transcribers as Harriet completed each page. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was introduced in installments in 1851 in the abolitionist paper The National Era and was published as a book in 1852.
Letter by letter it became clear that this article could not be simply about the woman who wrote the most famous book of the 19th century, a book of unrivaled influence. This was a story about the family - the dynamic, eccentric, meddlesome Beechers - that shaped Stowe into the writer she became.
These profiles of Harriet and her sisters tell only part of the story of the Beecher family, headed by the Rev. Lyman Beecher, who had 11 children who survived to adulthood, with two wives he outlived. (His third wife survived him.)
The boys grew up to be preachers. The girls grew up to be women who endured great tragedies to make their mark on American life, in writing, education, religion, feminism - not to mention abolition.
Much of the research was done at the library of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center on Forest Street in Hartford, part of what once was known as the literary colony of Nook Farm. It was Stowe and the extended Beecher family who attracted the popular young writer Mark Twain to move to Nook Farm with his family.
Today, thousands of people tour Twain's home, which looms like a steamship over what remains of the lush grounds of Nook Farm. Only a fraction of them cross the lawn to Stowe's Victorian home, which is also open for tours.
Valerie Finholm is a staff writer for The Hartford Courant.