BOOK REVIEW: The Howe Dynasty: The Untold Story of a Military Family and the Women Behind Britain’s Wars for America by Julie Flavell (Liveright, 2021)
In The Howe Dynasty: The Untold Story of a Military Family and the Women Behind Britain’s Wars for America, Julie Flavell offers fresh insight into the Howe family as told from a woman’s perspective. Although often considered inscrutable, Flavell demonstrates that much of what has been considered mysterious or unknowable about the Howe brothers, the general and the admiral who figured so prominently in the American Revolution, is told in a largely untapped source: the letters of their sister Caroline Howe. Although one of the largest letter collections in the British Library, most of the correspondence has been neglected except for small snippets that historians have lifted that directly mention the goings-on of the Howe brothers on their military campaigns. As Flavell’s careful use of this expansive and valuable resource shows, the brothers’ history told from a male perspective has both limited our understanding of the Howes as well as excluded the women from their key family positions that featured intricate political and social maneuvering.
This book weds the domestic to the larger political arc of the times in ways that readers will be familiar with thanks to similar undertakings of some of America’s key founders. However, this is a unique approach in examining one of Britain’s first families of the Georgian period. After a somewhat slow start, the narrative picks up as the Howe family finds itself thrust into the public eye in Britain following the death of their oldest brother, George, in the Seven Years’ War. While Britain sympathized with the loss of their brother, the Howes worked themselves into important positions and the women of the family played a key role in securing and maintaining status for the family. Flavell brings the family to center stage and illustrates the way in which the family—including the women—demonstrated both political and social savviness. In one memorable instance, Caroline Howe’s letters reveal that she worked behind the scenes to facilitate her brother’s activities in a secret government peace initiative on the eve of the Revolution, an event that is chronicled in Benjamin Franklin’s “Journal of Negotiations in London” but has otherwise remained a mysterious happening (page 136).
As Flavell unravels the history of this family from Caroline’s letters, stereotypes of the Howes crumble under the evidence found therein. Moreover, Flavell considers the context of the origins of the Howe stereotypes and finds that they often originated from the pen of a nemesis who had a vested interest in dismantling the Howe reputation. For example, the depiction of William Howe at Bunker Hill and his resultant trauma from the experience as a reason for his inability to conquer George Washington’s army is one that has persisted. This seems to originate from the pen of Light Horse Harry Lee, but when placed in context of William Howe’s long military career, Flavell contends that it does not make much sense. Considering Howe’s previous fighting in the Seven Years’ War, Flavell suggests that the sudden development of PTSD at an advanced stage of his career would be surprising. Flavell further disputes that the experience at Bunker Hill colored the way Howe strategized and instead asserts that it was Howe’s experiences in the Seven Years’ War that influenced his strategy in the Revolution (167).
Flavell similarly debunks other common criticism of the Howes by placing their actions in context. For example, rather than delaying the start of the New York campaign as the Howes pushed a peace commission beforehand, Flavell argues that the campaign began as soon as feasibly possible. Moreover, she asserts that the Howes pushed this peace initiative as a means to appease British popular opinion and were not surprised at George Washington’s rejection of the letter with their proposal (215-216). Another persistent Howe-ism that has survived in most accounts is the alleged affair with Mrs. Elizabeth Loring, which is frequently credited with distracting General Howe to the extent that it compromised his ability to effectively carry out his duties. Flavell not only denies the accusation in the face of absence of evidence of the affair, but in fact puts forth evidence of the long-standing relationships between William, Mrs. Loring, and her relatives to demonstrate that while they knew each other well, the nature of the relationship was not likely romantic. Flavell does speculate that William may have had an affair with someone, but disputes that it was Mrs. Loring who was partner to his illicit activity. Similar to many of the other controversies related to the Howes, much of the gossip came from the pens of adversaries. Specifically, Flavell contends that the rumors of an affair with Mrs. Loring were started by angry New York loyalists who became agitated over the prolonged duration of the war (291-292). Repeatedly, this book shows that the Howes were victims of verbal campaigns which both contributed to their downfall and created the persistent caricatured portrayals of the brothers.
The book covers a lot of ground in the Howe family history. Parts of it read like a family history while other parts are heavily focused on military history. The writing style is accessible and the narrative proceeds at a decent clip, providing plenty of evidence to support the author’s claims while not bogging the reader down with too much minutiae. Depending on individual reader’s interests, some parts of the book will be more interesting than others based upon the particular focus of those sections. Flavell deftly weaves together social, political, and military history and presents a whole picture of the Howe family that discredits some of the criticism of the Howes while elevating the value put upon history as told from a woman’s perspective. Overall, the book is an entertaining read and an enlightening reminder of the place of the woman’s voice in deciphering events that are typically considered from a male perspective.