- Annie Adams Fields: Woman of Letters, and: The Cultural Work of the Late Nineteenth-Century Hostess: Annie Adams Fields and Mary Gladstone Drew
Born in 1834 into the extended Adams family that had produced two presidents, Annie West Adams married James T. Fields when she was only twenty and he was thirty-seven. As her husband presided over the publishing house of Ticknor & Fields, then the Atlantic Monthly, [End Page 256] Annie Fields was a key factor in his success. Charming and adroit in the drawing room, she also worked behind the scenes as a kind of "silent partner" reading manuscripts and giving editorial advice. Although, like many upper-class women of the period, she lacked a university degree, she was widely read, multilingual, and intellectually curious. Best known as a friend of writers, Fields also had her own literary ambitions and published a novel and several collections of poetry. Influenced by her deep friendship with Charles Dickens, in the 1870 s she increasingly turned her skills to charity work and became particularly interested in the lives of working women. Her book How to Help the Poor, published in 1884 , heralded the emergence of professional social services and Annie Fields's own co-founding of the Associated Charities of Boston.
After James T. Fields's death in 1881 , Annie Fields formed what Susan Harris calls a "companionate union" with Sarah Orne Jewett, then a young Atlantic author. Their partnership, both loving and literary, was widely accepted in a city used to "Boston marriages" and allowed Fields to continue to travel and entertain as she might not have been able to alone. When Jewett died in 1909 , Fields commemorated her companion by editing a volume of her letters, a service similar to that she performed for Stowe and other literary friends. Later, Mark deWolfe Howe commemorated Annie Fields's own life by publishing extracts from her journals and letters in Memoirs of a Hostess (1922). More recently, Judith Roman's 1990 Annie Adams Fields: The Spirit of Charles Street offered a readable overview of her life; its assessment of Fields's particular contributions still seems measured and well-informed. And yet, despite all that we know about Fields, she has remained curiously elusive. Hence scholars will welcome these two new studies, which bring this complex woman into sharper focus by viewing her from more narrowly defined perspectives.
As its title asserts, Rita K. Gollin's study treats Fields primarily as a "woman of letters." The book could serve almost as a narrative encyclopedia of the Anglo-American literary scene from the Civil War to 1915. Drawing on the wealth of archival evidence, Gollin paints Fields as a moderate, intelligent woman struggling to balance her own ambition with her allegiance to nineteenth-century notions of womanly duty and decorum. With a graceful style and much anecdotal detail, Gollin brings this struggle into sharp and affecting relief. However, Gollin at times seems to adopt Fields's reticence and genteel conventions as her own and to hesitate before probing beneath their surface. Her attention to so many different writers also interrupts the chronological flow of the narrative, which occasionally seems becalmed as yet another "dear friend" sails into view. Nevertheless, Gollin has performed a valuable service for scholars of this period, and her book will be an important reference for years to come.
Susan K. Harris takes a very different tack by offering a transatlantic comparative study of one of Fields's major roles: the literary hostess. With admirable sophistication, Harris constructs a theoretical framework within which the "cultural work" of elite women like Fields and her British counterpart, Mary Gladstone (Drew), daughter of the Prime Minister William Gladstone, can be interpreted. Eschewing a full-scale biography in favor of a nuanced case study, Harris succeeds in foregrounding women normally in the background. Her insights into their social...