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Coded Letters, Concealed Love: The Larger Lives of Harriet Freeman and Edward Everett Hale Paperback – February 26, 2014
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That one can even speculate to this extent is a tribute to Sara Day's writing skill and the extent of her research. The reader will come to feel that he knows these people, and there is in this a curious phenomenon, that is based around a question. How much different was the human mind and heart, in past historical times? Surely, the customs and mores were different. But I think the answer is always going to be that we are not very much changed at all from our ancestors. This makes their actions more easily understood, or perhaps condemned. Certainly, in the abolitionists and the suffragists of the day, we can hear reasoning that is not unlike what are now our own accepted values. So, in the ways in which these two lovers managed to accommodate their times, we can feel very sympathetic to what might be the way they were able to recognize and to live their love, despite the amazing restrictions they faced.
There is something universal in that, and this book reveals it.
History owes a debt to Ms. Day, for getting to the bottom of this long buried story. Harriet Freeman was an amazing woman, by any measure. Her accomplishments in her own time, were subsumed in his own and in many cases were appropriated by Hale. And at the time of his biographies, she was written out of the picture. Then for the last several decades, the coded letters of their correspondence lay untouched in the Library of Congress. This intrepid historian found them, and could not let the secret continue to lay buried. Though Hale's greatness may have faded in time, the story of Harriet Freeman not only deserved to be told, history required it. Generations of women, and men, now have this wonderful book which serves as an example of what must have happened many times over in our history. Too many women have been similarly written out of the story.
What will forever be interesting about Sara Day's book and about this story, is that it was made noteworthy and was revealed by the extensive and successful efforts that these two remarkable individuals took at the time to conceal it.
Deftly charting her course between research and romance, Sara Day tells the story of the covert love affair that was conducted - for over twenty years - between the celebrated Unitarian minister, Edward Everett Hale (who was regarded as a 'bastion of moral rectitude'), and Harriet Freeman, who came of impeccable Cape Cod stock and was twenty-five years his junior. But it is only thanks to Day's discovery of a cache of coded love letters in the archives of the Library of Congress, and her skill at decoding them, that the true nature of their relationship has come to light, thereby adding an extra twist of detective work to what is already a gripping narrative.
As she sets the lives of her central characters against a rich backdrop of social history, Day's breadth of research is impressive, but she always writes with a light touch and although there is an abundance of interesting detail, it never overburdens the text. Day is also admirably forthright about the shortcomings of her two protagonists, especially Hale, who continued to expound reguarly on 'the virtues of devoted marriage' despite his own infidelity. In her excellent epilogue, she confronts Hale's apparent hypocrisy head-on in a wide-ranging discussion on adultery. The one question, however, that she does not consider is the possibility that Hale's relationship with his former secretary was not quite as carnal as it appears from the letters. The sentimental tone of 19th century correspondence can be misleading and if Hale's and Harriet's 'love affair' amounted to little more than kisses and cuddles on the boss's knee, that would at least explain Hale's lack of remorse at the betrayal of his blameless wife and the mother of his nine children. In an era when contraception was a very hit and miss affair, it would also explain why Harriet never became pregnant.
Readers will decide for themselves and, on balance, I am inclined to give Day the benefit of the doubt. After all, she has read every one of the 3,000 letters.But irrespective of whether Hale and Harriet were actually lovers, in the fullest sense of the word, 'Coded Letters, Concealed Love' is a splendid achievement and a book that will delight both scholars and general readers.
researched and beautifully written. While the letters between Hale and
Freeman are the centerpiece of the book - and rightly so as they are so
insightful about all aspects of their lives as well as their affection for
each other, the book is so much more than the sum of the letters. The
history of the period is so well delineated by Ms. Day. I learned about
religious movements, scientific discoveries and inquiries, political
movements, such as abolition, women's suffrage, and immigration, and the
financial ups and downs of the period to mention just a few. The point of
departure is the letters, but the writer has put together an in-depth
depiction of the social, economic and political life of the times in Boston
and then later in Washington, DC. The family lineage of both the
Hales and Freemans is equally fascinating, including Helen Keller,
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, sugar plantations in Cuba, and much more.
I highly recommend this book.