In Chapter 15 (18 September 1851), the reader learned that Augustine St. Clare has persuaded his Vermont cousin, Miss Ophelia, to come with him to New Orleans to help take care of his household. Stowe describes Ophelia in that chapter as “a living impersonation of order, method, and exactness,” as a woman who regards “shiftlessness” as “the great sin of sins,” and “conscientiousness” as the “strongest principle of her being”: “Nowhere is conscience so dominant and all-absorbing as with New England women,” Stowe writes. Then, in Chapters 16 and 19 (25 September 1851 and 16 October 1851), Ophelia begins to make her opinions concerning slavery known and to challenge her cousin, becoming in the process a trustworthy sounding board for St. Clare’s view of slavery.
In light of the seriousness of the subject of slavery and Miss Ophelia’s moral repugnance for the system, in Chapter 18 (9 Oct. 1851), the novel may initially appear to step back from its main topic. The installment focuses on Miss Ophelia’s “invasion” of Aunt Dinah’s domain, the Northern woman’s attempt to “put everything in order” in Aunt Dinah’s kitchen, and in small, both applauds the way Miss Ophelia “thoroughly reformed every department of the house in a systematic pattern” and at the same time suggests how little she understands either Dinah, Dinah’s approach to her kitchen, or the complexities of Southern life in the St. Clare household. The language Stowe uses to describe Miss Ophelia’s approach is mock-heroic—that is, language that would more appropriately describe the grandeur and sweep of an epic struggle but here applies to the domestic sphere. For example, Miss Ophelia “prepared for a vigorous onslaught on the cupboards and closets of the establishment of which she had the keys”; as she makes her “awful review” of housekeeping, “hidden things of darkness were brought to light to an extent that alarmed all the principalities and powers of kitchen and chamber”; and Old Dinah, “the head cook, and principal of all rule and authority in the kitchen department, was filled with wrath. . .” In her resistance to Miss Ophelia, Dinah chooses the path of standing “on defensive and conservative ground—mentally determined to oppose and ignore every new measure.” Both Stowe and St. Clare defend Dinah. Although Dinah’s kitchen “generally looked as if it had been arranged by a hurricane blowing through it,” the narrator writes that her dinner would come out “in perfect order, and in a style of preparation with which an epicure could find no fault.” St. Clare tells his cousin, “‘I think it really sublime, the way she manages. . . Let her go her own way.’” In the subsequent installment, St. Clare refers back to the struggle between Miss Ophelia and Old Dinah, suggesting that his cousin’s brief view into slavery in his household is “‘like looking too close into the details of Dinah’s kitchen.’”
As subsequent events in the novel will demonstrate, even though cousin Ophelia has much to learn about the St. Clare household and her too-quick judgment of—in this chapter—Old Dinah’s kitchen, she nevertheless becomes invaluable to the family and not at all a comic figure. At the biographical level, she resembles Stowe’s own Aunt Esther, Lyman Beecher’s unmarried half-sister, who moved into the Beecher household after the death of Stowe’s mother Roxana. In her biography, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life, Joan Hedrick describes Aunt Esther and her influence on the young Harriet. Aunt Esther possessed the skills of managing an orderly household and she also read, wrote, and thought deeply about ideas. “Harriet believed Aunt Esther knew the sum of knowledge in the world, for never did she fail to answer a question put to her,” Hedrick writes.[i] Throughout their lives as adults, the Beecher children relied on Aunt Esther at crucial moments. When Stowe’s husband Calvin, who had been teaching at Lane Seminary in Cincinnati since the early 1830s, accepted a faculty position at Bowdoin College and Harriet travelled in advance of Calvin to set up housekeeping during the spring of 1850, Aunt Esther accompanied her and her three oldest children. Hedrick quotes from Aunt Esther’s letters: “‘There is to be no gentleman in our party,’ Esther remarked, ‘but as I told Eunice an Old Maid at the heart of a party of females will be as efisicent (sic) to keep off all intruders as half a dozen mastiffs’” (quoted in Hedrick, 193). When Stowe began writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin in early 1851, she had a ready model for Miss Ophelia in Aunt Esther.
Immediately upon completing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe began The Pearl of Orr’s Island, a novel set in Maine that she would set aside for almost a decade, returning to it in 1861. In Chapter 4 of Pearl, a novel that begins with the death of the heroine’s mother, Aunts Roxy and Ruey take over the care of the infant and of the household. This novel allowed Stowe to develop Miss Ophelia’s character and to continue to honor the values she associated with her Aunt Esther. She describes Roxy and Ruey as “two brisk old bodies of the feminine gender and singular number” and says about them that they are “‘cunning women,’” that is, “gifted with an infinite diversity of practical ‘faculty,’ which made them an essential requisite in every family for miles and miles around.”[ii] Hedrick writes that Aunt Esther’s death in 1855 “caused [Stowe] to reflect on the meaning of this single woman’s life” and to eulogize New England women “as exemplars of simplicity, frugality, and ‘faculty’” (255). In Stowe’s portrait of Miss Ophelia, however, the reader can see her already reflecting on Aunt Esther’s influence and on the values that the single woman of “faculty” brings to the domestic scene—even as she also grants Miss Ophelia the honor of representing Northern attitudes and challenges to Southern slavery
[i] New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994, p. 22. Subsequent references to this book will appear parenthetically in the text.