Located in Hartford, the Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe houses are a must-see for any literature students visiting Connecticut.
Twain and his wife Olivia commissioned the New York architect Edward Tuckerman Potter to design their elaborate home in 1873, and they moved in during September 1874. The house was as fancy and huge as we were promised it would be. Taking photographs inside was strictly prohibited (sorry to disappoint). So too was touching anything except the handrail on the stairs which, as it happened, was so low that it didn’t feel safe to lean down and hold onto, so I declined to take part in that sensory experience of Twain’s former home. The house has been restored to resemble the decadence that Twain decided it was necessary for his family to live in. The walls of the entrance hall were hand stencilled with intricate silver patterns, the house was full of fancy paintings, the woodwork and the handrail on the stairs were gorgeously carved-put it this way, you’d only see beautiful things as you plummeted to your death from the third floor. Twain was apparently dissatisfied with any other home he lived in after financial difficulties meant the family had to leave Hartford in the 1890s, and I can understand why after seeing it for myself.
The best part of the house was Twain’s writing room which doubled up as his pool, booze and cigar room, of course. He did face his desk – the desk where he wrote such books as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn-towards the wall though, so he wasn’t distracted by what he could be doing instead. Overall it was a fascinating and strange place made all the more thrilling by our tour guide, who pointed to every single item and room in the whole house using the words ‘yonder’, ‘yinder’ and, wait for it, ‘yupper’. At first we thought he was joking about ‘looking yonder’ then ‘seeing what was yinder’ in order to give us an old-timey feeling, but no, that’s just how he spoke. Oh, also there’s a Mark Twain made out of Lego in the entrance to the museum.
We also had the chance to visit the home of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her house is located but a stones throw from Twain’s on the same Nook Farm site, which in its time was the “place to be”, much as The Hamptons is today. Her home was decidedly more modest than Twain’s despite her fame (women writers, hey?), and as it is currently in the planning stages of its restoration we could only imagine what it once looked like. The tour of the house and Beecher Stowe information centre were really insightful and gave a great sense of her work and its legacy in American culture. We were shown a number of documents produced by Abolitionists, as well as the 1853 British anti-slavery petition, which was presented to Harriet Beecher Stowe. It is one of twenty six volumes of signatures by British women which urged American women to work towards abolition.
It was fascinating to learn about Stowe’s life and see the dining room table where she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin whilst caring for her children – she later invested in a proper writing desk. The museum has a great focus on the way literature can, and has, effected change throughout the world and one of my favourite displays there was the wall of ‘Words That Changed The World’, and obviously I enjoyed feeling smug and nerdy about how many of them I have read. There is no Lego model of Harriet (yet…), which is a very great shame.