Posted by: zhiv | September 7, 2008

Annie Fields and Charles Dickens

Continuing from the last post, I want to start by going back to 1854, when AAF was married at age 20.  She was immediately ushered as a beautiful young bride into relationships with Longfellow, Emerson, and many others.  Soon after the wedding, however, her father, a noted physician (like SO Jewett’s father, remembered in “A Country Doctor”), died very suddenly.  She and Fields began to build their home on Charles Street, with its famous 2nd floor library/salon, which stretched the length of the house, from the streetfront to the view of the river out the back and gardens below.  Within a year of the wedding, before the house was built, AAF and Fields went on her first trip to Europe, which became something of a 19th century literary lady’s Grand Tour.  Fields combined business with pleasure as he introduced AAF to Tennyson and his circle, to Dickens and Thackeray, and to Hawthorne and his wife Sophia Peabody.  Hawthorne had taken a consul position after writng his Bowdoin classmate Franklin Pierce’s campaign biography.  While AAF and JTF were in Europe, Fields’ partner George Ticknor purchased the Atlantic Monthly, and JTF took over its editorship from James Russell Lowell when he returned home.  In his capacity of editor and publisher, James T. Fields played a vital role in the development of American Literature, and his efforts on behalf of international compyright helped him befriend (and enrich) the major British authors of the day.  JTF was firmly established in the business of literary publishing when he married Annie, but the combination of assuming an editor’s role and presenting a cultural hostess and salon accelerated his influence and rise.  Annie quickly became his clandestine partner in editing the Atlantic Monthly, reading manuscripts and supporting authors old and new.

With her classical education at George Emerson’s new academy for young women, Annie was more sophisticated in certain respects than her husband, who had started working at Ticknor’s bookstore when he was 13.  I haven’t done any real research on this, but it seems as if Fields was in the forefront of a major shift in “magazine” publishing at a critical time.  Lowell’s original Atlantic contained longer critical essays, closer to the periodical tradition of the first part of the century.  JTF may have been more aggressive than Lowell in serializing novels and new authors.  At any rate, JTF somehow made the Atlantic more accessible, while still maintaining a relatively high literary tone.  I know that Thackerary started the Cornhill Magazine about this time, along similar lines.  Like I said, I don’t know many specifics about this and don’t have the dates or any analysis in front of me.  But it seems as if Fields geared the Atlantic to his own taste and that of his young wife, with her own considerable help, and it turned into a hit and a long-running success.  The editorship was eventually passed on to a contemporary of Annie’s (younger than JTF and the other luminaries), William Dean Howells.

There’s a dramatic and even slightly cinematic side to the sweep of these events on a woman in her early 20’s.  My qualifier, however, is that fact that Annie Fields seems to have been more than a little earnest, preachy, and moralistic as she filled this extraordinary role.  This isn’t surprising, at the height of the Victorian Age and in Boston, where you can only hope for so much feminism and enlightenment, although Megan Marshall’s biography of the Peabody sisters and especially Elizabeth Peabody shows that things can go pretty far.  Annie Fields was childless, which promoted her commitment to the literary world and her “hostess” role.  Her ambition as a writer was thwarted, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.  She had a belief in her “poetic” spirit, but her poetry was apparently second rate at best (and let’s not forget that she was hanging out with Tennyson, Browning, and Longfellow, so the bar for even the second tier was rather high), and she discovered that she wasn’t a novelist.  Her diary could well have been an extraordinary literary work, and perhaps it is better than I can guess at this point, but presumably it is unpublished and somewhat obscure, like AAF herself, for a reason.  In reading about Annie Fields we hear about she how she wasn’t able to give the diary the attention and time that she knew that it deserved.  It seems as if she started the diary a bit later in her “career,” and she worked on poetry and the novel in her early years.  Still, she was able to use the diary for her later biographical/critical essays about the famous writers she had known so well years before, and these are still readable (we’ll see about that), even if there’s no real reason to seek them out.  I’ll save some notes of interes that came up about the state of biography when AAF published JTF’s letters after his death and the later years when she wrote her essays.  Her second partnership, with Jewett, was much more successful in terms of writing, as the two women seemingly gave each other strong support, and Jewett blossomed into a first-rate novelist, and Annie Fields was able to write satisfying biographical essays.

And so, as I was doing this slightly out of the way bit of literary spelunking, there seemed to be nothing in the story of Annie Fields that possessed a heightened charge.  She was young and beautiful and living and working in an extraordinary world, but her early work was stilted or incomplete (her diary), and her attitude seems to have been slightly worse, quite earnest and precious.

And then Charles Dickens shows up.

Suddenly, the story of James and Annie Fields is hit by a bolt of lightning and becomes completely compelling.  They both lose their minds when Dickens arrives for his second American tour, and they become obsessed to a dangerous degree.  The danger, as it turns out, is to Dickens.  I have old memories of the last part of Dickens’ lifestory, how he virtually killed himself in his public readings in America, working himself and hushed overflow crowds into a frenzy with his version of Bill Sykes murdering Nancy.  He was sick when he began the tour, and by the end he was a shell with no hope to regain his healthy.  It’s fascinating to read even a generalized account of this from the close and intimate perspective of the Fields.  Dickens stayed with them, and there were with him constantly, forming a sotr of ritual for his preparation for and semi-recovery from the readings, which included a constant flow of very high octane punch.

Annie fell madly in love with Dickens, at least as much as a married Boston hostess could, and her husband Jams wasn’t far behind.  They both felt that they were living on intimate terms with a charismatic historical figure worthy of Shakespeare.  His personality was powerfully magnetic, his energy boundless even with his ill-health, and they seem not to have noticed that he was exhausting himself.  When you add in the fact that Annie was–at this point, it really must be said–a young hottie of the highest order, well, there you have just about everything you need for a literary-dramatic, and cinematic story.  I try to avoid this type of thing, but I’m picturing Robert Downey Jr. as Dickens (he was so great as Chaplin, and he’s a movie star again), and Nathalie Portman as Annie Fields.

There’s more.  Annie and James were both devastated after Dickens sailed away.  Life wasn’t the same.  Within a year they traveled to England to see him.  He was clearly dying, and it’s at this point that they seem to have finally realized the high cost of his American tour and readings.  He was still able to show Annie and James some of the English social problems and remedies that he was famous for highlighting.  And this seems to have changed her life.  Uncertain about and frustrated by her limited literary gifts, she returned to Boston determined to tranlate the inspiration she had received from the great man into a commitment to social work and charity.  The dynamic intelligence and organizational effort that had gone into her writing and work as a cultural hostess was now turned to charity.  Annie Fields adopts all of the the latest theory and practices of the time to organize social work in Boston in a systematic way, becoming in a short time a pioneer and leader in the field alongside Jane Addams and others.  In a previous Jewett post I mentioned how I bought a copy of Jewett’s Irish Stories.  Glancing at the introduction, it talks about how Jewett’s sensitive and sympthetic portrayal of the Irish in these stories is a radical departure from the caricatures in the authors of the previous generation.  I havent’ gotten to reading therou the intoroduction or into the stories yet, but I have to guess that Jeewett’s attitude must have been informed by Annie Fields’ extensive work with the Boston poor.  So the end of this particular story is that the young literary woman was led by no less a personage than Dickens to find a new challenge and calling, and she used her impressive energy and skills to address social ills.


  1. Thanks so much for these last two posts. They were fascinating! I knew absolutely nothing about Annie Fields and her husband, only some of the “minor” characters were known to me.

    For some time I was completely absorbed in reading your posts, but I suppose I do have to get back to work now. 😉

  2. Myrthe–
    Thank you for this nice comment. For the most part I write these things out very happily as part of my own rambling literary explorations, but the Jewett-Fields file, which I’ve been spending a fair amount of time on, has been quite silent in terms of comment. So it’s great to hear that you found this readable and even somewhat “absorbing” –thanks!

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