Works of Annie Fields
MR. AND MRS. JAMES T. FIELDS
BY HENRY JAMES
Atlantic Monthly 116 (July 1915) 21-31.
IF at such a time as this a man of my generation finds himself on occasion revert to our ancient peace in some soreness of confusion between envy and pity, I know well how best to clear up the matter for myself at least and to recover a workable relation with the blessing in eclipse. I recover it in some degree with pity, as I say, by reason of the deep illusions and fallacies in which the great glare of the present seems to show us as then steeped; there being always, we can scarce not feel, something pathetic in the recoil from fond fatuities. When these are general enough, however, they make their own law and impose their own scheme; they go on, with their fine earnestness, to their utmost limit, and the best of course are those that go on longest. When I think that the innocent confidence cultivated over a considerable part of the earth, over all the parts most offered to my own view, was to last well-nigh my whole lifetime, I cannot deny myself a large respect for it, cannot but see that if our illusion was complete we were at least insidiously and artfully beguiled. What we had taken so actively to believing in was to bring us out at the brink of the abyss, yet as I look back I see nothing but our excuses; I cherish at any rate the image of their bright plausibility. We really, we nobly, we insanely (as it can only now strike us) held ourselves comfortably clear of the worst horror that in the past had attended the life of nations, and to the grounds of this conviction we could point with lively assurance. They all come back, one now recognizes, to a single supporting proposition, to the question when in the world peace had so prodigiously flourished. It had been broken, and was again briefly broken, within our view, but only as if to show with what force and authority it could freshly assert itself; whereby it grew to look too increasingly big, positively too massive even in its blandness, for interruptions not to be afraid of it.
It is in the light of this memory, I confess, that I bend fondly over the age -- so prolonged, I have noted, as to yield ample space for the exercise -- in which any challenge to our faith fell below the sweet serenity of it. I see that by any measure I might personally have applied, the American, or at least the Northern, state of mind and of life that began to develop just after the Civil War formed the headspring of our assumption. Odd enough might it have indeed appeared that this conception should need four years of free carnage to launch it; yet what did that mean, after all, in New York and Boston, into which places remembrance reads the complacency soon to be the most established -- what did that mean unless that we had exactly shed the bad possibilities, were publicly purged of the dreadful disease which had come within an inch of being fatal to us, and were by that token warranted sound forever, superlatively safe? -- as we could see that during the previous existence of the country we had been but comparatively so. The breathless campaign of Sadowa, which occurred but a year after our own sublime conclusion had been sealed by Lee's surrender, enlarged the prospect much rather than ruffled it; and though we had to confess that the siege of Paris, four years later, was a false note, it was drowned in the solidification of Germany, so true, so resounding and, for all we then suspected to the contrary, so portentously pacific a one. How could peace not flourish, moreover, when wars either took only seven weeks or lasted but a summer and scarce more than a long-drawn autumn? -- the siege of Paris dragging out, to our pitying sense, at the time, but raised before all the rest of us, preparing food-succor, could well turn round, and with the splendid recovery of France to follow so close on her amputation that violence fairly struck us as moving away confounded. So it was that our faith was confirmed -- violence sitting down again with averted face, and the conquests we felt the truly golden ones spreading and spreading behind its back.
It was not perhaps in the purest gold of the matter that we pretended to deal in the New York and the Boston to which I have referred; but if I wish to catch again the silver tinkle at least, straining my ear for it through the sounds of to-day, I have but to recall the dawn of those associations that seemed then to promise everything, and the last declining ray of which rests, just long enough to be caught, on the benign figure of Mrs. Fields, of the latter city, recently deceased and leaving behind her much of the material out of which legend obligingly grows. She herself had the good fortune to assist, during all her later years, at an excellent case of such growth, for which nature not less than circumstance had perfectly fitted her -- she was so intrinsically charming a link with the past and abounded so in the pleasure of reference and the grace of fidelity. She helped the present, that of her own actuality, to think well of her producing conditions, to think better of them than of many of those that open for our wonderment to-day: what a note of distinction they were able to contribute, she moved us to remark, what a quality of refinement they appeared to have encouraged, what a minor form of the monstrous modern noise they seemed to have been consistent with!
The truth was of course very decidedly that the seed I speak of, the seed that has flowered into legend, and with the thick growth of which her domestic scene was quite embowered, had been sown in soil peculiarly grateful and favored by pleasing accidents. The personal beauty of her younger years, long retained and not even at the end of such a stretch of life quite lost; the exquisite native tone and mode of appeal, which anciently we perhaps thought a little 'precious,' but from which the distinctive and the preservative were in time to be snatched, a greater extravagance supervening; the signal sweetness of temper and lightness of tact, in fine, were things that prepared together the easy and infallible exercise of what I have called her references. It adds greatly to one's own measure of the accumulated years to have seen her reach the age at which she could appear to the younger world about her to 'go back' wonderfully far, to be almost the only person extant who did, and to owe much of her value to this delicate aroma of antiquity.
My title for thus speaking of her is that of being myself still extant enough to have known by ocular and other observational evidence what it was she went back to and why the connection should consecrate her. Every society that amounts, as we say, to anything has it own annals, and luckless any to which this cultivation of the sense of a golden age that has left a precious deposit happens to be closed. A local present of proper pretensions has in fact to invent a set of antecedents, something in the nature of an epoch either of giants or of fairies, when literal history may in this respect have failed it, in order to look other temporal claims of a like complexion in the face. Boston, all letterless and unashamed as she verily seems to-day, needs luckily, for recovery of self-respect, no resort to such make-believes -- to legend, that is, before the fact; all her legend is well after it, absolutely upon it, the large, firm fact, and to the point of covering, and covering yet again, every discernible inch of it. I felt myself during the half-dozen years of my younger time spent thereabouts just a little late for history perhaps, though well before, or at least well abreast of, poetry; whereas now it all densely foreshortens, it positively all melts beautifully together, and I square myself in the state of mind of an authority not to be questioned. In other words, my impression of the golden age was a first-hand one, not a second or a third; and since those with whom I shared it have dropped off one by one, -- I can think of but two or three of the distinguished, the intelligent and participant, that is, as left, -- I fear there is no arrogance of authority that I am not capable of taking on.
James T. Fields must have had about him when I first knew him much of the freshness of the season, but I remember thinking him invested with a stately past; this as an effect of the spell cast from an early, or at least from my early, time by the 'Ticknor, Reed and Fields' at the bottom of every title-page of the period that conveyed, however shyly, one of the finer presumptions. I look back with wonder to what would seem a precocious interest in title-pages, and above all into the mysterious or behind-the-scenes world suggested by publishers' names – which, in their various collocations, had a color and a character beyond even those of authors, even those of books themselves; an anomaly that I seek not now to fathom, but which the brilliant Mr. Fields, as I aspiringly saw him, had the full benefit of, not less when I first came to know him than before. Mr. Reed, Mr. Ticknor, were never at all to materialize for me; the former was soon to forfeit any pertinence, and the latter, so far as I was concerned, never so much as peeped round the titular screen. Mr. Fields, on the other hand, planted himself well before that expanse; not only had he shone betimes with the reflected light of Longfellow and Lowell, of Emerson and Hawthorne and Whittier, but to meet him was, for an ingenuous young mind, to find that he was understood to return with interest any borrowed glory and to keep the social, or I should perhaps rather say the sentimental, account straight with each of his stars. What he truly shed back, of course, was a prompt sympathy and conver- sability; it was in this social and personal color that he emerged from the mere imprint, and was alone, I gather, among the American publishers of the time in emerging. He had a conception of possibilities of relation with his authors and contributors that I judge no other member of his body in all the land to have had; and one easily makes out for that matter that his firm was all but alone in improving, to this effect of amenity, on the crude relation – crude, I mean, on the part of the author. Few were our native authors, and the friendly Boston house had gathered them in almost all: the other, the New York and Philadelphia houses (practically all we had) were friendly, I make out at this distance of time, to the public in particular, whose appetite they met to abundance with cheap reprints of the products of the London press, but were doomed to represent in a lower, sometimes indeed in the very lowest, degree the element of consideration for the British original. The British original had during that age been reduced to the solatium of publicity pure and simple; knowing, or at least presuming, that he was read in America by the fact of his being appropriated, he could himself appropriate but the complacency of this consciousness.
To the Boston constellation then almost exclusively belonged the higher complacency, as one may surely call it, of being able to measure with some closeness the good purpose to which they glittered. The Fieldses could imagine so much happier a scene that the fond fancy they brought to it seems to flush it all, as I look back, with the richest tints. I so describe the sweet influence because by the time I found myself taking more direct notice the singularly graceful young wife had become, so to speak, a highly noticeable feature; her beautiful head and hair and smile and voice (we wonder if a social circle worth naming was ever ruled by a voice without charm of quality) were so many happy items in a general array. Childless, what is vulgarly called unencumbered, addicted to every hospitality and every benevolence, addicted to the cultivation of talk and wit and to the ingenious multiplication of such ties as could link the upper half of the title-page with the lower, their vivacity, their curiosity, their mobility, the felicity of their instinct for any manner of gathered relic, remnant or tribute, conspired to their helping the 'literary world' roundabout to a self-consciousness more fluttered, no doubt, yet also more romantically resolute.
To turn attention from any present hour to a past that has become distant is always to have to look through overgrowths and reckon with perversions; but even so the domestic, the waterside museum of the Fieldses hangs there clear to me; their salon positively, so far as salons were in the old Puritan city dreamed of by -- which I mean allowing for a couple of exceptions not here to be lingered on. We knew in those days little of collectors; the name of the class, however, already much impressed us, and in that long and narrow drawing-room of odd dimensions -- unfortunately somewhat sacrificed, I frankly confess, as American drawing-rooms are apt to be, to its main aperture or command of outward resonance -- one learned for the first time how vivid a collection might be. Nothing would reconcile me at this hour to any attempt to resolve back into its elements the brave effect of the exhibition, in which the inclusive range of 'old' portrait and letter, of old pictorial and literal autograph and other material gage or illustration, of old original edition or still more authentically consecrated current copy, disposed itself over against the cool sea-presence of the innermost great basin of Boston's port. Most does it come to me, I think, that the enviable pair went abroad with freedom and frequency, and that the inscribed and figured walls were a record of delightful adventure, a display as of votive objects attached by restored and grateful mariners to the nearest shrine. To go abroad, to be abroad (for the return thence was to the advantage, after all, only of those who could not so proceed) represented success in life, and our couple were immensely successful.
Dickens at that time went a great way with us, the best of him falling after this fashion well within the compass of our life; and Thackeray, for my own circle, went, I think, a greater way still, even if already, at the season I recall, to a more ghostly effect and as a presence definitely immortalized. The register of his two American visits was piously, though without the least solemnity, kept in Charles Street; which assisted, however, at Dickens's second visit to the States and a comparatively profane contemporaneity. I was not to see him there; I was, save for a brief moment elsewhere, but to hear him and to wonder at his strange histrionic force in public; nevertheless the waterside museum never ceased to retain, for my earnest recognition, certain fine vibrations and dying echoes of all that episode. I liked to think of the house, I could n't do without thinking of it, as the great man's safest harborage through the tremendous gale of those even more leave-taking appearances, as fate was to appoint, than we then understood; and this was a fact about it, to my taste, which made all sorts of other, much more prolonged and reiterated, facts comparatively subordinate and flat. The single drawback was that the intimacies and privileges it witnessed for in that most precious connection seemed scarce credible; the inimitable presence was anecdotically enough attested, but I somehow rather missed the evidential sample, 'a feather, an eagle's feather,' as Browning says, which I should, ideally speaking, have picked up on the stairs.
I doubtless meanwhile found it the most salient of all the circumstances that the Atlantic Monthly had at no ancient date virtually come into being under the fostering roof, and that a charm, or at least a felt soft weight, attached to one's thinking of its full-flushed earlier form as very much edited from there. There its contributors, or many of them, dined and supped and went to tea, and there above all, in many a case, was almost gloriously revealed to them the possible relation between such amenities and hospitalities and the due degree of inspiration. It would take me too far to say how I dispose of J. R. Lowell in this reconstruction, the very first editor as he was, if I mistake not, of the supremely sympathetic light miscellany that I figure; but though I have here to pick woefully among my reminiscences I must spare a word or two for another presence too intimately associated with the scene, and too constantly predominant there, to be overlooked.
The Atlantic was for years practically the sole organ of that admirable writer and wit, that master of almost every form of observational, of meditational, and of humorous ingenuity, the author of The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table and of Elsie Venner. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes had been from the first the great 'card' of the new recueil, and this with due deference to the fact that Emerson and Longfellow and Whittier, that Lowell himself and Hawthorne and Francis Parkman, were prone to figure in no other periodical (speaking thus of course but of the worthies originally drawn upon). Mr. Longfellow was frequent and remarkably even, neither rising above nor falling below a level ruled as straight as a line for a copybook; Emerson, on the other hand, was rare, but, to make up for it, sometimes surprising; and when I ask myself what best distinction the magazine owed to our remaining hands I of course remember that it put forth the whole later array of The Biglow Papers, and that the impressions and reminiscences of England gathered up by Hawthorne into Our Old Home had enjoyed their first bloom of publicity from month to month under Fields's protection. These things drew themselves out in delightful progression, to say nothing of other cognate felicities -- everything that either Lowell or Hawthorne published in those days making its first appearance, inveterately, in the Atlantic pages. Lowell's serious as well as his hilarious, that is his broadly satiric, verse was pressed into their service; though of his literary criticism, I recall, the magazine was less avid -- little indeed, at the same time, as it could emulate in advance its American-born fellows of to-day in apparent dread of that insidious appeal to attention. Which remarks, as I make them, but throw into relief for me the admirable vivacity and liberality of Dr Holmes's Atlantic career, quite warranting, as they again flicker and glow, no matter what easy talk about a golden age. The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, the American contribution to literature, that I can recall, most nearly meeting the conditions and enjoying the fortune of a classic, quite sufficiently accounts, I think, for our sense not only at the time, but during a long stretch of the subsequent, that we had there the most precious of the metals in the very finest fusion. Such perhaps was not entirely the air in which we saw Elsie Venner bathed -- since if this too was a case of the shining substance of the author's mind, so extraordinarily agile within its own circle of content, the application of the admirable engine was yet not perhaps so happy; in spite of all of which nothing would induce me now to lower our then claim for this fiction as the charmingest of the 'old' American group, the romances of Hawthorne of course always excepted.
The new American novel -- for that was preparing -- had at the season I refer to scarce glimmered into view; but its first seeds were to be sown very exactly in Atlantic soil, where my super-excellent friend and confr?re W. D. Howells soon began editorially to cultivate them. I should find myself crossing in this reference the edge of a later period, were I moved here at all to stiff discriminations; which I am so far from being that I absolutely like to remember, pressing out elated irony in it, that the magazine seemed pleased to profit by Howells, whether as wise editor or delightful writer, only up to the verge of his broadening out into mastership. He broadened gradually, and far-away back numbers exhibit the tentative light footprints that were to become such firm and confident steps; but affectionate appreciation quite consciously assisted at a process in which it could mark and measure each stage -- up to the time, that is, when the process quite outgrew, as who should say, the walls of the drill-ground itself.
By this time many things, as was inevitable, -- things not of the earlier tradition, -- had come to pass; not the least of these being that J. T. Fields, faithfully fathering man, had fallen for always out of the circle. What was to follow his death made for itself other connections, many of which indeed had already begun; but what I think of in particular, as his beguiled loose chronicler straightening out a little -- though I would not for the world overmuch -- the confusion of old and doubtless, in some cases, rather shrunken importances, what I especially run to earth is that there were forms of increase which the 'original' organ might have seemed to grow rather weak in the knees for carrying. I pin my remembrance, however, only to the Fieldses -- that is, above all, to his active relation to the affair, and to the image left with me of guiding and nursing pleasure shown always as the intensity of personal pleasure. No confident proprietor can ever have drawn more happiness from a cherished and computed value than he drew from Dr. Holmes's success, which likewise provided so blest a medium for the Autocrat's own expansive spirit that I see the whole commerce and inspiration in the cheerful waterside light.
I find myself couple together the two Charles Street houses, though even with most weight of consideration for that where The Autocrat, The Professor, Elsie Venner, and the long and bright succession of the unsurpassed Boston pi?ces de circonstance in verse, to say nothing of all the eagerest and easiest and funniest, all the most winged and kept-up, most illustrational and suggestional, table-talk that ever was, sprang smiling to life. Ineffaceably present to me is all that atmosphere, though I enjoyed it of course at the time but as the most wonderstruck and most indulged of extreme juniors; and in the mere ghostly breath of it old unspeakable vibrations revive. I find innumerable such for instance between the faded leaves of Soundings from the Atlantic, and in one of the papers there reprinted, 'My Hunt for the Captain,' in especial, the recital of the author's search among the Virginia battlefields for his gallant wounded son; which, with its companions, evokes for me also at this end of time, and mere fond memory aiding, a greater group of sacred images than I may begin to name, as well as the charm and community of that overlooking of the wide inlet which so corrected the towniness. The Autocrat's insuperable instinct for the double sense of words, when the drollery of the collocation was pointed enough, has its note in the title of the volume I have just mentioned (where innumerable other neglected notes would respond again, I imagine, to the ear a bit earnestly applied); but the clue that has lengthened out so far is primarily attached, no doubt, to the eloquence of the final passage of the paper, in which the rejoicing father, back from his anxious quest, sees Boston bristle again on his lifelong horizon, the immemorial signs multiply, the great dome of the State House rise not a whit less high than before, and the Bunker Hill obelisk point as sharply as ever its beveled capstone against the sky.
The charm I thus rake out of the period, and the aspect of the Fieldses as bathed in that soft medium -- so soft after the long internecine harshness -- gloss over to my present view every troubled face of my young relation with the Atlantic; the poor pathetic faces, as they now pass before me, being troubled for more reasons than I can recall, but above all, I think, because from the first I found 'writing for the magazines' an art still more difficult than delightful. Yet I doubt whether I wince at this hour any more than I winced on the spot at hearing it quoted from this proprietor of the first of those with which I effected an understanding that such a strain of pessimism in the would-be picture of life had an odd, had even a ridiculous, air on the part of an author with his mother's milk scarce yet dry on his lips. It was to my amused W. D. H. that I owed this communication, as I was to owe him ever such numberless invitations to partake of his amusement; and I trace back to that with interest the first note of the warning against not 'ending happily' that was for the rest of my literary life to be sounded in my ear with a good faith of which the very terms failed to reach me intelligibly enough to correct my apparent perversity. I labored always under the conviction that to terminate a fond aesthetic effort in felicity had to be as much one's obeyed law as to begin it and carry it on in the same; whereby how could one be anything less than bewildered at the non-recognition of one's inveterately plotted climax of expression and intensity? One went so far as literally to claim that in a decent production -- such as one at least hoped any particular specimen of one's art to show for -- the terminal virtue, driven by the whole momentum gathered on the way, had to be most expressional of one's subject, and thereby more fortunately pointed than whatever should have gone before. I remember clinging to that measure of the point really made even in the tender dawn of the bewilderment I glance at and which I associate with the general precarious element in those first Atlantic efforts. It really won me to an anxious kindness for Mr. Fields that though finding me precociously dismal he yet indulgently suffered me -- and this not the less for my always feeling that Howells, during a season his sub-editor, must more or less have intervened with a good result.
The great, the reconciling thing, however, was the easy medium, the generally teeming Fields atmosphere, out of which possibilities that ravished me increasingly sprang; though doubtless these may speak in the modern light quite preponderantly of the young observer's and devourer's irrepressible need to appreciate -- as compared, I mean, with his need to be appreciated, and a due admixture of that recognized. I preserve doubtless imperfectly the old order of these successions, the thrill sometimes but blandly transmitted, sometimes directly snatched, the presented occasion and the rather ruefully missed, the apprehension that in such a circle -- with centre and circumference, in Charles Street, coming well together despite the crowded, the verily crammed, space between them -- the brush of aesthetic, of social, of cultural suggestion worked, when most lively, at the end of a long handle that had stretched all the way over from Europe. How it struck me as working, I remember well, on a certain afternoon when the great Swedish singer Christine Nielsen, then young and beautiful and glorious, was received among us -- that is, when she stood between a pair of the windows of the Fields museum, to which she was for the moment the most actual recruit, and accepted the homage of extremely presented and fluttered persons, not one of whom could fail to be dazzled by her extraordinary combination of different kinds of lustre. Then there was the period of Charles Fechter, who had come over from London, whither he had originally come from Paris, to establish a theatre in Boston, where he was to establish it to no great purpose, alas! and who during the early brightness of his legend seemed to create for us on the same spot an absolute community of interests with the tremendously knowing dilettanti to whom he referred. He referred most of course to Dickens, who had directed him straight upon Charles Street under a benediction that was at first to do much for him, launch him violently and to admiration, even if he was before long, no doubt, to presume overmuch on its virtue.
Highly effective too, in this connection, while the first portents lasted, was the bustling virtue of the Fieldses -- on that ground and on various others indeed directly communicated from Dickens's own, and infinitely promoting the delightful roused state under which we grasped at the aesthetic freshness of Fechter's Hamlet in particular. Did n't we react with the finest collective and perceptive intensity against the manner of our great and up to that time unquestioned exponent of the part, Edwin Booth? – who, however he might come into his own again after the Fechter flurry, never recovered real credit, it was interesting to note, for the tradition of his 'head,' his facial and physiognomic make-up, of a sudden quite luridly revealed as provincial, as formed even to suggest the powerful support rendered the Ophelia of Pendennis's Miss Fotheringay. I remember, in fine, thinking that the emissary of Dickens and the fondling of the Fieldses, to express it freely, seemed to play over our classic, our livid ringletted image a sort of Scandinavian smoky torch, out of the lurid flicker of which it never fully emerged.
These are trivial and perhaps a bit tawdry illustrations; but there were plenty of finer accidents: projected assurances and encountered figures and snatched impressions, such as naturally make at present but a faded show, and yet not one of which has lost its distinctness for my own infatuated piety. I see now what an overcharged glory could attach to the fact that Anthony Trollope, in his habit as he lived, was at a given moment literally dining in Charles Street. I can do justice to the rich notability of my partaking of Sunday supper there in company with Mrs. Beecher Stowe, and making out to my satisfaction that if she had, of intensely local New England type as she struck me as being, not a little of the nonchalance of real renown, she 'took in' circumjacent objects and more agitated presences with the true economy of genius. I even invest with the color of romance, or I did at the time, the bestowal on me, for temporary use, of the precursory pages of Matthew Arnold's Essays in Criticism, honorably smirched by the American compositor's fingers, from which the Boston edition of that volume, with the classicism of its future awaiting it, had just been set up. I can still recover the rapture with which, then suffering under the effects of a bad accident, I lay all day on a sofa in Ashburton Place and was somehow transported, as in a shining silvery dream, to London, to Oxford, to the French Academy, to Languedoc, to Brittany, to ancient Greece; all under the fingered spell of the little loose smutty London sheets. And I somehow even felt in my face the soft side wind of that 'arranging' for punctualities of production of the great George Eliot, with whom our friends literally conversed, to the last credibility, every time they went to London, and, thanks to whose intimate confidence in them, does n't it seem to me that I enjoyed the fragrant foretaste of Middlemarch? -- roundabout which I patch together certain confused reminiscences of a weekly periodical, a younger and plainer sister of the Atlantic, its title now lost to me and the activity of which was all derivative, consisting as it did of bang-on-the-hour English first-fruits, 'advance' felicities of the London press. This must all have meant an elated season during which, in the still prolonged absence of an international copyright law, the favor of early copy, the alertness of postal transmission, in consideration of the benefit of the quickened fee, was to make international harmony prevail. I retain but an inferential sense of it all, yet gilded again to memory by perusals of Trollope, of Wilkie Collins, of Charles Reade, of others of the then distinguished, quite beneath their immediate rejoicing eye and with double the amount of quality we had up to that time extracted oozing gratefully through their pores.
Mrs. Fields was to survive her husband for many years and was to flourish as a copious second volume -- the connection licenses the free figure -- of the work anciently issued. She had a further and further, a very long life, all of infinite goodness and grace, and, while ever insidiously referring to the past, could not help meeting the future at least half-way. And all her implications were gay, since no one so finely sentimental could be noted as so humorous; just as no feminine humor was perhaps ever so unmistakingly directed, and no state of amusement, amid quantities of reminiscence, perhaps ever so merciful. It was not that she could think no ill, but that she could n't see others thinking it, much less doing it; which was quite compatible too with her being as little trapped by any presumptuous form of it as if she had had its measure to the last fineness. It became a case of great felicity; she was all the gentle referee and servant, the literary and social executor, so to speak, of a hundred ghosts, but the scroll of her vivid commission had never been rolled up, so that it hung there open to whatever more names and pleas might softly inscribe themselves. She kept her whole connection insistently modern, in the sense that all new recruits to it found themselves in concert with the charming old tone, and, only wanting to benefit by its authority, were much more affected by it than it was perhaps fortunately in certain cases affected by them. Beautiful the instance of an exquisite person for whom the mere grace of unimpaired duration, drawing out and out the grace implanted, established an importance that she never lifted so much as a finger to claim, and the manner of which was that, while people surrounded her, admiringly and tenderly, only to do in their own interest all the reminding, she was herself ever as little as possible caught in the more or less invidious act. It was they who preferred her possibilities of allusion to any aspect of the current jostle, and her sweetness under their pressure made her consentingly modern even while the very sound of the consent was as the voice of a time so much less strident.
My sense of all this later phase was able on occasion to renew itself, but perhaps never did so in happier fashion than when Mrs. Fields, revisiting England, as she continued to embrace every opportunity of doing, kindly traveled down to see me in the country bringing with her a young friend of great talent whose prevailing presence in her life had come little by little to give it something like a new centre. To speak in a mere parenthesis of Miss Jewett, mistress of an art of fiction all her own, even though of a minor compass, and surpassed only by Hawthorne as producer of the most finished and penetrating of the numerous 'short stories' that have the domestic life of New England for their general and their doubtless somewhat lean subject, is to do myself, I feel, the violence of suppressing a chapter of appreciation that I should long since somewhere have found space for. Her admirable gift, that artistic sensibility in her which rivaled the rare personal, that sense for the finest kind of truthful rendering, the sober and tender note, the temperately touched, whether in the ironic or the pathetic, would have deserved some more pointed commemoration than I judge her beautiful little quantum of achievement, her free and high, yet all so generously subdued character, a sort of elegance of humility or fine flame of modesty, with her remarkably distinguished outward stamp, to have called forth before the premature and overdarkened close of her young course of production. She had come to Mrs. Fields as an adoptive daughter, both a sharer and a sustainer, and nothing could more have warmed the ancient faith of their confessingly a bit disoriented countryman than the association of the elder and the younger lady in such an emphasized susceptibility. Their reach together was of the firmest and easiest, and I verily remember being struck with the stretch of wing that the spirit of Charles Street could bring off on finding them all fragrant of a recent immersion in the country life of France, where admiring friends had opened to them iridescent vistas that made it by comparison a charity they should show the least dazzle from my so much ruder display. I preserve at any rate the memory of a dazzle corresponding, or in other words of my gratitude for their ready apprehension of the greatness of big 'composed' Sussex, which we explored together almost to extravagance -- the lesson to my own sense all remaining that of how far the pure, the peculiarly pure, old Boston spirit, old even in these women of whom one was miraculously and the other familiarly young, could travel without a scrap of loss of its ancient immunity to set against its gain of vivacity.
There was vivacity of a new sort somehow in the fact that the elder of my visitors, the elder in mere calculable years, had come fairly to cultivate, as it struck me, a personal resemblance to the great George Eliot -- and this but through the quite lawful art of causing a black lace mantilla to descend from her head and happily consort with a droop of abundant hair, a formation of brow and a general fine benignity; things that at once markedly recalled the countenance of Sir Frederick Burton's admirable portrait of the author of Romola and made it a charming anomaly that such remains of beauty should match at all a plainness not to be blinked even under the play of Sir Frederick's harmonizing crayon. Other amplified aspects of the whole legend, as I have called it, I was afterwards to see presented on its native scene -- whereby it comes back to me that Sarah Jewett's brave ghost would resent my too roughly Bostonizing her: there hangs before me such a picture of her right setting, the antique dignity -- as antiquity counts thereabouts -- of a clear colonial house, in Maine, just over the New Hampshire border, and a day spent amid the very richest local revelations. These things were not so much of like as of equally flushed complexion with two or three occasions of view, at the same memorable time, of Mrs. Fields's happy alternative home on the shining Massachusetts shore, where I seem to catch in latest afternoon light the quite final form of all the pleasant evidence. To say which, however, is still considerably to foreshorten; since there supervenes for me with force as the very last word, or the one conclusive for myself at least, a haunted little feast as of ghosts, if not of skeletons, at the banquet, with the image of that immemorial and inextinguishable lady Mrs. Julia Ward Howe, the most evidential and most eminent presence of them all, as she rises in her place, under the extremity of appeal, to declaim a little quaveringly, but ever so gallantly, that 'Battle-hymn of the Republic,' which she had caused to be chanted half a century before and still could accompany with a real breadth of gesture, her great clap of hands and indication of the complementary step, on the triumphant line,
'Be swift my hands to welcome him, be jubilant my feet!'
The geniality of this performance swept into our collective breast again the whole matter of my record, which I thus commend to safe spiritual keeping.
Works of Annie Fields