A couple of weeks ago I read my first book about Annie Fields. With four titles to choose from, the selection process was interesting. I started by reading all of the Fields-Jewett-Cather chapters in Rachel Cohen’s “A Chance Meeting,” along with a few more short chapters in the book, and I put it away thinking that it was superficial and not very well done, but I’ve been reconsidering that opinion. Next I read the first two chapters of Rita Gollin’s “Annie Adams Fields: Woman of Letters,” which seemed the most substantial and recent book about Fields, but that was disappointing as well. It seemed to jump ahead to her marriage at 20 to James T. Fields, and the first thing I wanted to know about was childhood and background and her relation, if any, to the Adams political family. I glanced at Susan K. Harris’ “The Cultural Work of the Late Nineteenth-Century Hostess” (2002), looking in long enough to discover that Mary Gladstone Drew was WE Gladstone’s daughter (and hostess). Harris writes a nice introduction about how she stumbled onto her topic while she was visiting St. Deinol’s Library in Wales, which house Gladstone’s 40,000 books from his nearby estate, and started reading Mary’s diary. I’m eager to learn more about Gladstone’s estate, his library, his daughter, and her diary, but first things first.
So I somehow settled in with Judith A. Roman’s “Annie Adams Fields: The Spirit of Charles Street,” from 1990, which I would have originally tabbed as the least likely choice. Its early chapters were most readable and informative, however, and it does an extremely capable job. As I was reading it I reconsidered my frustrations with Carson and Gollin’s books, thinking I had been impatient and hasty. All in good time.
And it may turn out that the problem isn’t with the biographers, but with Mrs. Fields herself. I’m a little disappointed, but only because the Annie Fields I found has a fair number of limitations. I’m probably just a little spoiled at this point. My recent literary explorations have tracked very solidly established second-tier writers, going through my own blindspots. But they’ve all been relatively significant and fairly accessible literary figures with a reasonably substantial body of work, and at least one great book. I’m talking about Mary McCarthy, Richard Yates, Sarah Orne Jewett, and I can add Olive Schreiner to that list. I knew that Annie Fields wasn’t going to be on the same level. But I was curious about her “salon” and her hostess days and relationships with the famous Victorian and American Renaissance authors, and how her role and life changed as she mated with the younger Jewett, lived up to World War I and the beginnings of modernism, and became close with Willa Cather. That all sounds promising enough, right?
My expectation for her literary work was low, but I’m still interested to look at her essays about the great mid-century authors that she knew so well. I was hoping that her obscure novel “Asphodel,” shunned by Sophia Hawthorne, might be a hidden gem, but it appears that it was not. I can say, I suppose, that I got enough from this initial sudy of Annie Fields simply because of the way that the story of her relationship with Jewett informs the primary characters of “Country of the Pointed Firs”–it seems possible that I could reread that book, which I really loved, in a deeper and completely different way now. Fields was still a very interesting woman, and she goes in and out as being a compelling subject for study. She was a dynamic “hostess,” which is a more complex task than appears at first glance, and her role wasn’t far from managing a literary salon (Harris’ book will say more about this, I’m sure). The energy, commitment, and leadership that she brought to her pioneering charity work was extremely impressive. And that “social worker” period of her life actually marks the climax, of sorts, of what turns out to be the most dramatic section of her life.
It’s easiest to divide Annie Fields’ life into two distinct halves, split by the death of her husband James T. Fields. She was born in 1834 and married Fields when she was 20. He was 37, an established dynamic publisher and literary man, a midcentury Boston mover-and-shaker who had strong relationships, many of them quite close, with virtually all of the American and British authors of the day. James and Annie were married for 25 years, until he died in 1881 at age 63. Annie Fields was almost 47 years old at the time. She lived for another 34 years, dying in 1915 at age 81. It appears that Annie grew close to Sarah Jewett during the final year of Fields’ life, when he was quite ill. His death was still rather sudden and Annie went through months of isolated mourning, but a year later she embarked on an extended European trip with Jewett, which was Jewett’s first trip abroad. Annie Fields and Sarah Jewett were companions and partners for the next 27 years, until Jewett’s death in 1909. There’s an unsubstantiated assertion that Fields identified Jewett as a suitable companion and life partner for Annie, and there also appears to have been some spiritualism and seance stuff, popular at the time, where Fields, from the “beyond,” approved of the AAF-SOJ union. It all has strong hints of 19th century truth and gloss to it, but both Annie Fields and Sarah Jewett seem to have been thoroughly capable of choosing their own intimate partners and relationships. I’ll try to consider and write about this second half of AAF’s life some other time, along with Jewett’s involvement and view of her, but count this as an introductory post, and the next post will be about the dramatic sequence of in AAF’s story that turned around my initial disappointment.