Biography
Main Contents
.
from MEMORIES OF A HOSTESS:
A CHRONICLE OF EMINENT FRIENDSHIPS DRAWN CHIEFLY FROM
THE DIARIES OF MRS. JAMES T. FIELDS,
by Mark M. A. DeWolfe Howe.
     1922

Complete text


CHAPTER 7: SARAH ORNE JEWETT

     SUCH a statement about Mrs. Fields as that she "was to survive her husband many years and was to flourish as a copious second volume -- the connection licenses the figure -- of the work anciently issued," almost identifies itself, without remark, as proceeding from the same friend, Henry James, whose words have colored a previous chapter of this book. The many years to which he referred were, indeed, nearly thirty-four in number, about a third of a century, or what is commonly counted a generation. For a longer period than that through which she was the wife of James T. Fields, she was thus his widow. Through nearly all of this period the need of her nature for an absorbing affectionate intimacy was met through her friendship with Sarah Orne Jewett. It was with reference to her that Mrs. Fields, in the preface to a collection of Miss Jewett's letters, published in 1911, two years after her death, wrote of "the power that lies in friendship to sustain the giver as well as the receiver." In the friendship of these two women it would have been impossible to define either one, to the exclusion of the other, as the giver or the receiver. They were certainly both sustained by their relation.

     Miss Jewett, born in South Berwick, Maine, in 1849, and continuously identified with that place until her death in 1909, first entered the "Atlantic circle" in 1869, when she was but twenty years old, and Fields was still editor of the magazine. In that year a story by her, called "Mr. Bruce" and credited in the index of the magazine -- for contributions then appeared unsigned -- to "A. C. Eliot," was printed in the "Atlantic." Four years later, Consule Howells, "The Shore House," a second story, appeared over her own name, the practice of printing signatures having meanwhile been instituted. In May, 1875, the "Atlantic" contained a poem by Miss Jewett, which may be quoted, not so much to remind the readers of those stories of New England on which her later fame was based, that in her earlier years she was much given to the writing of verse, as to explain in a way the union -- there is no truer word for it -- that came later to exist between herself and Mrs. Fields.

     Thus it read:----

     TOGETHER

     I wonder if you really send
     Those dreams of you that come and go!
     I like to say, "She thought of me,
     And I have known it." Is it so?

     Though other friends walk by your side,
     Yet sometimes it must surely be,
     They wonder where your thoughts have gone,
     Because I have you here with me.

     And when the busy day is done
     And work is ended, voices cease,
     When every one has said good night,
     In fading firelight, then in peace

     I idly rest: you come to me, --
     Your dear love holds me close to you.
     If I could see you face to face
     It would not be more sweet and true;

     I do not hear the words you speak,
     Nor touch your hands, nor see your eyes:
     Yet, far away the flowers may grow
     From whence to me the fragrance flies;

     And so, across the empty miles
     Light from my star shines. Is it, dear,
     Your love has never gone away?
     I said farewell and -- kept you here.
 

     It was not strange that the writer of just such a poem should have seemed to Fields, before his death in 1881, the ideal friend to fill the impending gap in the life of his wife. He must have known that, when the time should come for readjusting herself to life without him, she would need something more than random contacts with friends, no matter how rewarding each such relationship might be. He must have realized that the intensely personal element in her nature would require an outlet through an intensely personal devotion. If he could have foreseen the relation that grew up between Mrs. Fields and Miss Jewett -- her junior by about fifteen years -- almost immediately upon his death, and continued throughout the life of the younger friend, he would surely have felt a great security of satisfaction in what was yet to be. In all her personal manifestations, and in all her work, Miss Jewett embodied a quality of distinction, a quality of the true aristophile, -- to employ a term which has seemed to me before to fit that small company of lovers of the best to which these ladies preëminently belonged, -- that made them foreordained companions. To Mrs. Fields it meant much to stand in a close relation -- apart from all considerations of a completely uniting friendship -- with such an artist as Miss Jewett, to feel that through sympathy and encouragement she was furthering a true and permanent contribution to American letters. To Miss Jewett, whose life, before this intimacy began, had been led almost entirely in the Maine village of her birth, -- a village of dignity and high traditions that were her own inheritance, -- there came an extension of interests and stimulating contacts through finding herself a frequent member of another household than her own, and that a very nucleus of quickening human intercourse. To pursue her work of writing chiefly at South Berwick, to come to Boston, or Manchester, for that freshening of the spirit which the creative writer so greatly needs, and there to find the most sympathetic and devoted of friends, also much occupied herself with the writing of books and with all commerce of vital thoughts -- what could have afforded a more delightful arrangement of life?

     Even as early as 1881, the year of Fields's death, Miss Jewett published the fourth of her many books, "Country By-Ways," preceded by "Deephaven" (1877), "Play Days" (1878), and "Old Friends and New" (1879). From 1881 onward her production was constant and abundant. In 1881 also began a period of remarkable productiveness on the part of Mrs. Fields. In that very year of her husband's death she published both her "James T. Fields: Biographical Notes and Personal Sketches," and a second edition of "Under the Olive," a small volume in which she had brought together in 1880 a number of poems in which the influence of the Greek and English poets is sometimes manifested -- notably in "Theocritus" -- to excellent purpose. If Mrs. Fields had been a poet of distinctive power, the fact would long ago have established itself. To make any such claim for her at this late day would be to depart from the purpose of this book. It was for the most part rather as a friend than as a daughter of the Muses that she turned to verse, the medium of utterance for so many of that nest of singing-birds in which her life was passed. In 1883 came her little volume "How to Help the Poor," representing an interest in the less fortunate which prepared her to become one of the founders of the Associated Charities of Boston, kept her long active and influential in the service of that organization, and made her at the last one of its generous benefactors. In 1895 and 1900, respectively, appeared two more volumes of verse, "The Singing Shepherd and Other Poems," assembling the work of earlier and later years, and "Orpheus, a Masque," each strongly touched, like "Under the Olive," with the Grecian spirit. From "The Singing Shepherd" I cannot resist quoting one of the best things it contains -- a sonnet, "Flammantis Mœnia Mundi," under which, in my own copy of the book, I find the penciled note, written probably more than twenty years ago: "Mrs. Fields tells me that this sonnet came to her complete, one may almost say; standing on her feet she made it, but for one or two small changes, just as it is, in about fifteen minutes."
 

     I stood alone in purple space and saw
     The burning walls of the world, like wings of flame,
     Circling the sphere; there was no break nor flaw
     In those vast airy battlements whence came
     The spirits who had done with time and fame
     And all the playthings of earth's little hour;
     I saw them each, I knew them for the same,
     Mothers and brothers and the sons of power.
 

     Yet were they changed; the flaming walls had burned
     Their perishable selves, and there remained
     Only the pure white vision of the soul,
     The mortal part consumed, and swift returned
     Ashes to ashes; while unscathed, unstained,
     The immortal passed beyond the earth's control.

 

     For the rest, her writings may be said to have grown out of the life which the pages of her diary have pictured. The successive volumes were these: "Whittier: Notes of his Life and of his Friendship" (New York, 1893); "A Shelf of Old Books" (New York, 1894); "Letters of Celia Thaxter" (edited with Miss Rose Lamb, Boston, 1895); "Authors and Friends" (Boston, 1896); "Life and Letters of Harriet Beecher Stowe" (Boston, 1897); "Nathaniel Hawthorne" (in the "Beacon Biographies," Boston, 1899); "Charles Dudley Warner" (New York, 1909); and, after the death of the friend whose name appears above this chapter, "Letters of Sarah Orne Jewett" (Boston, 1911).

          This catalogue of publications is in itself a dry bit of reading, and to add the titles of all the books produced by Miss Jewett after 1881 would not enliven the record. But the lists, explicit and implicit, will serve at least to suggest the range and nature of the activities of mind and spirit in which the two friends shared for many years. It is no wonder that Mrs. Fields, who abandoned the regular maintenance of her diary in the face of her husband's failing health, resumed it in later years only under the special provocations of travel. In its place she took up the practice of writing daily missives -- sometimes letters, more often the merest notes -- to Miss Jewett whenever they were separated. These innumerable little messages of affection contained frequent references to persons and passing events, but rather as memoranda for talk when the two friends should meet than as records at all resembling the earlier journals. Such local friends as Mrs. Pratt and Mrs. Bell, in whom the spirit and wit of their father, Rufus Choate, shone on for later generations; Mrs. Whitman, mistress of the arts of color and of friendship; Miss Guiney, figuring always as "the Linnet," even as Mrs. Thaxter was "the Sandpiper"; Dr. Holmes, Phillips Brooks, "dear Whittier" -- these and scores of others, young and old, known and unknown to fame, people the scene which the little notes recall. There are, besides, such visitors from abroad as Matthew Arnold and his wife, Mrs. Humphrey Ward and her daughter, M. and Mme. Brunetière, and Mme. Blanc ("Th. Bentzon"), whose article, "Condition de la Femme aux États-Unis," in the "Revue des Deux Mondes" for September, 1894, could not have been written but for the knowledge of Boston acquired through a long visit to the house in Charles Street. Of the salon of her hostess she wrote: "Je voudrais essayer de peindre celui qui se rapproche le plus, par beaucoup de côtés, les salons de France de la meilleure époque, le salon de Mrs. J. T. Fields." She goes on to paint it, and from the picture at least one fragment -- apropos of the portraits in the house -- should be rescued, if only for the piquancy conferred by Mme. Blanc's native tongue upon a bit of anecdote: "Emerson réalize bien, en physique, l'idée d'immatérialité que je me faisais de lui. Mrs. Fields me conte une jolie anecdote: vers la fin de sa vie, il fut prit d'un singulier accès de curiosité; il voulut savoir une fois ce que c'était le whisky et entra dans un bar pour s'en servir: -- Vous voulez un verre d'eau, Mr. Emerson? dit le garçon, sans lui donner le temps d'exprimer sa criminelle envie. Et le philosophe but son verre d'eau, ... et il mourut sans connaître le goût du whisky."

     But if the notes of Mrs. Fields to Miss Jewett, and Miss Jewett's own letters to her friend in Boston, do not provide any counterpart to the diaries which make up the greater portion of this book, there are, in the journals kept by Mrs. Fields on special occasions of travel, records of experiences shared by the two friends which should be given here.

     When they went to Europe together, as early as 1882, the two travellers were happily characterized by Whittier in a sonnet, "Godspeed," as

             her in whom
     All graces and sweet charities unite
     The old Greek beauty set in holier light;
     And her for whom New England's byways bloom,
     Who walks among us welcome as the Spring,
     Calling up blossoms where her light feet stray.
 

     No effort or adventure seemed to daunt the companions in their journeyings. There was an indomitable quality in Mrs. Fields which Miss Jewett used to ascribe to her "May blood," with its strain of abolitionism, and it showed itself when she accepted with enthusiasm, and successfully urged Miss Jewett to accept, an invitation to make a two months' winter cruise in West Indian waters, in company with Mr. and Mrs. Aldrich, on the yacht Hermione of their friend, Henry L. Pierce. The diary of Mrs. Fields records discomforts and pleasures with an equal hand, and gives lively glimpses of island and ocean scenes. At Santo Domingo, for example, the President of the Republic of Haiti dined on the Hermione on St. Valentine's Day, 1896, and talked in a manner to which the impending liberation of Cuba from the Spanish yoke may now be seen to have added some significance.

 

     Anything more interesting than his conversation [wrote Mrs. Fields] would be impossible to find. He ended just before we left the table by speaking of Cuba. He is inclined to believe that the day of Spain is over. The people are already conquerors in the interior and are approaching Havana. Spain will soon be compelled to retire to her coast defenses and she is sure to be driven thence in two years or sooner. Of course, if the Cubans are recognized by the great powers they will triumph all the sooner.

     "Do these island republics take the part of Cuba?" someone asked.

     "I will tell you a little tale of a camel," he said, "if you will allow me -- a camel greatly overladen who lamented his sad fate. `I am bent to the earth,' he said; 'everything is heaped upon me and I feel as if I could never rise again under such a load.' Upon his pack was seated a flea, who heard the lament of the camel. Immediately the flea jumped to the ground. 'See!' he said; 'now rise, I have relieved you of my own weight.' 'Thank you, Mr. Elephant,' said the camel, as he glanced at the flea hopping away. The recognition of these islands would help Cuba about as much," he added laughingly.

     But the President of Haiti, concerning whom much more might be quoted, is less a part of the present picture than Thomas Bailey Aldrich, of whom Mrs. Fields wrote, February 21: --

     T. B. A.'s wit and pleasant company never fail -- he is so natural, finding fault at times, without being a fault-finder, and being crusty like another human creature when out of sorts -- but on the whole a most refreshing companion, coming up from below every morning with a shining countenance, his hair curling like a boy's, and ready for a new day. He said yesterday that he should like to live 450 years -- "shouldn't you?" "No," I said; "I am on tip-toe for the flight." "Ah," he said with a visible shudder, "we know nothing about it! Oddly enough, I have strange impressions of having lived before -- once in London especially -- not at St. Paul's, or Pall Mall, or in any of the great places where I might have been deceived by previous imaginations, -- not at all, -- but among some old streets where I had never been before and where I had no associations." He would have gone on in this vein and would have drawn me into giving some reasons for my faith which would have been none to him, but fortunately we were interrupted. He is full of quips and cranks in talk -- is a worshipper of the English language and a good student of Murray's Grammar, in which he faithfully believes. His own training in it he values as much as anything which ever came to him. He picks up the unfortunates, of which I am chief, who say "people" meaning "persons," who say "at length" for "at last," and who use foolish redundancies, but I cannot seem to record his fun. He began to joke Bridget early in the voyage about the necessity of being tattooed when she arrived at the Windward Islands, like the rest of the crew! Fancying that he saw a sort of half idea that he was in earnest, he kept it up and told her that the butter-mark of Ponkapog should be the device! The matter had nearly blown over when yesterday he wanted her suddenly and called, "Bridget," at the gangway rather sharply. "Here, sir," said the dear creature running quickly to mount the stairs. "The tattoo-man is here," said T. B. With all seriousness Bridget paused a moment, wavered, looked again, and then came on laughing to do what he really wanted. "That man will be the death of me -- so he will," said B. as she went away on her errand. She is his slave; gets his clothes and waits upon him every moment; but his fun and sweetness with her "désennuie de service," and more, charges it with pleasantness.

     T. B. A. is a most careful reader and a true reporter upon the few good books of which he is cognizant. He has read Froude's history twice through, and Queen Mary's reign three times. He has read a vast number of novels, hundreds and hundreds, -- French and English, -- but his knowledge of French seems to stop there. He also once knew Spanish, but that seems to have dropped -- he never, I think, could speak much of any language save his own. Being a master there is so much more than the rest of us achieve that we feel he has won his laurels.

 

          On a later journey, in 1898, Mrs. Fields and Miss Jewett, visiting England and France in company with Miss Jewett's sister and nephew, were on more familiar and more suitable ground -- if indeed that word can be used even figuratively for the unstable deck of a yacht. In London there were many old and new friends to be seen. In Paris Mme. Blanc opened for the travellers the doors of many a salon not commonly accessible to visiting Americans. But from all the abundant chronicle of these experiences, it will be enough to make two selections. The first describes a visit to the Provençal poet, Mistral, with his "Boufflo Beel" dog and hat; the second, a glimpse of Henry James at Rye.

     It was in May of 1898, that Mrs. Fields and Miss Jewett, finding Paris cold and rainy, determined to strike for sunshine, and the South. A little journey into Provence, and a visit to Mistral, followed this decision. The following notes record the visit.

 

     A perfect time and perfect weather in which to see the country of Provence. Fields of great white poppies and other flowers planted for seed in this district made the way beautiful on either hand. Olive trees with rows of black cypress and old tiled-roofed farmhouses, and the mountains always on the horizon, filled the landscape. The first considerable house we reached was the home of the poet. A pretty garden which attracted our attention with a rare eglantine called La Reine Joanne, and other charming things hanging over the wall made us suspicious of the poet's vicinity. Turning the corner of this garden and driving up a short road, we found the courtyard and door on the inner side as it were. We heard a barking dog. "Take care," said the driver, "there is a dangerous dog inside." We waited until Mistral himself came to meet us from the garden; he was much amused. There was an old dog tied, half asleep, on a bench and a young one by his side. He said laughing, "These are all, and they could not be less dangerous. The elder" (he let them loose while he spoke and they played about us), "the elder I call Bouffe, from Boufflo Beel " (Mistral does not speak any English, nor does his wife) "and the reason is because I happened to be in the neighborhood of Paris once just after Buffalo Bill had passed on toward Calais with his troupe. I saw a little dog, unlike the dogs of our country, who seemed to be lost, but the moment he saw me, he thought I was 'Boufflo Beel' and adopted me for his master. You see I look like him," he said, putting his wide felt hat a little more on one side! Yes, we did think so. "Well, the little dog has been with us ever since. He possesses the most wonderful intelligence and understands every word we say. One day I said to him, `What a pity such a nice dog as you should have no children!' A few days later the servant said to me, `Bouffe has been away nearly two days, but he has now come back bringing his wife.' `Ah!' I said, `take good care of them both.' In due time this other little dog, his son, arrived in the world, and shortly after Bouffe carried his wife away again, but kept the little dog. He is a wonderful fellow, to be sure."

     We went into the house and sat down to talk awhile about poetry and books. There was a large book-case full of French and Provençal literature here, but it was rather the parlor and everyday sitting-room than his work-room. Unhappily, they have no children. Evidently they are exceedingly happy together and naturally do not miss what they have never had. She opened the drawing-room for us, which is the room of state. It is full of interesting things connected with Provence and their own life, but perfectly simple, in accord with the country-like fashion of their existence. There is a noble bas-relief of the head of Mistral, the drum or "tambour" of the Félibre, or for the Farandole, and, without overloading, plenty of good things -- photographs, one or two pictures, not many, for the house is not that of a rich man, plaster casts, and one or two busts, -- perhaps the presents of artists, -- illustrations of "Mirèio," and things associated with their individual lives or the life of Provence. Presently Mistral gave me his arm and we went across the hall. Standing in the place of honor opposite the front door and in the large corner made by the staircase, is a fine copy of the bust of Lamartine, crowned with an olive wreath. We paused a moment here while Mistral spoke of Lamartine, and always with the sincere reverence which he has expressed in the poem entitled "Élégie sur la mort de Lamartine." x...

     The dining-room was still more Provençal, if possible, than the rooms we had visited. The walls were white, which, with the closed green blinds, must give a pleasant light when the days are hot, yet bright even on grey days. Specimens of the pottery of the country hang around, decorated with soft colors. The old carved bread-mixing-and-holding affair, which belonged in every well-to-do house of the old time, was there, and one or two other old pieces of furniture, while the chairs, sofa, and table were of quaint shape, painted green with some decorations.

     The details are all petty enough, but they proved how sincerely Mistral and his wife love their country and their surroundings and endeavor to ennoble them and make the most of them. After sitting at table and enjoying their hospitality, we went out again into the garden where Madame Mistral gathered "Nerto" (myrtle) for us, beside roses and other more beautiful but more formidable things. "Nerto" is the title of one of his last books (I hear) and the wife doubtless believed that we should cherish a branch of her myrtle especially in memory of the visit. She was quite right, but these things which are "to last" -- how frail they are; the things that remain are those which are written on the heart.

     We cannot forget these two picturesque beings standing in their garden, filling our hands with flowers and bidding us farewell. As we drove away into the sunny plain once more, we found it speaking to us with a voice of human kindness echoing from that poetic and friendly home. In a more personal vein, the address to Lamartine by Mistral expresses better his mood of the afternoon when we stood together looking at the bust and recalling each our personal remembrance of the man.

 

     An excursion from London, on September 12, devoted to a day with Henry James, gave Mrs. Fields a memorable glimpse of the son of an old friend, and an honest pleasure in learning at first hand of his appreciation of Miss Jewett's writings.

 

     Monday, September 13, 1898. -- We left London about 11 o'clock for Rye, to pass the day with Mr. Henry James. He was waiting for us at the station with a carriage, and in five minutes we found ourselves at the top of a silent little winding street, at a green door with a brass knocker, wearing the air of impenetrable respectability which is so well known in England. Another instant and an old servant, Smith (who with his wife has been in Mr. James's service for 20 years), opened the door and helped us from the carriage. It was a pretty interior -- large enough for elegance, and simple enough to suit the severe taste of a scholar and private gentleman.

          Mr. James was intent on the largest hospitality. We were asked upstairs over a staircase with a pretty balustrade and plain green drugget on the steps; everything was of the severest plainness, but in the best taste, "not at all austere," as he himself wrote us.

     We soon went down again after leaving our hats, to find a young gentleman, Mr. McAlpine, who is Mr. James's secretary, with him, awaiting us. This young man is just the person to help Mr. James. He has a bump of reverence and appreciates his position and opportunity. We sat in the parlor opening on a pretty garden for some time, until Mr. James said he could not conceive why luncheon was not ready and he must go and inquire, which he did in a very responsible manner, and soon after Smith appeared to announce the feast. Again a pretty room and table. We enjoyed our talk together sincerely at luncheon and afterward strolled into the garden. The dominating note was dear Mr. James's pleasure in having a home of his own to which he might ask us. From the garden, of course, we could see the pretty old house still more satisfactorily. An old brick wall concealed by vines and laurels surrounds the whole irregular domain; a door from the garden leads into a paved courtyard which seemed to give Mr. James peculiar satisfaction; returning to the garden, and on the other side, at an angle with the house, is a building which he laughingly called the temple of the Muse. This is his own place par excellence. A good writing-table and one for his secretary, a typewriter, books, and a sketch by Du Maurier, with a few other pictures (rather mementoes than works of art), excellent windows with clear light, such is the temple! Evidently an admirable spot for his work.

          After we returned to the parlor Mr. James took occasion to tell Sarah how deeply and sincerely he appreciated her work; how he re-reads it with increasing admiration. "It is foolish to ask, I know," he said, "but were you in just such a place as you describe in the `Pointed Firs'?" "No," she said, "not precisely; the book was chiefly written before I visited the locality itself." "And such an island?" he continued. "Not exactly," she said again. "Ah! I thought so," he said musingly; and the language -- "It is so absolutely true -- not a word overdone -- such elegance and exactness." "And Mrs. Dennet -- how admirable she is," he said again, not waiting for a reply. I need not say they were very much at home together after this.

          Meanwhile the carriage came again to the door, for he had made a plan to take us on a drive to Winchelsea, a second of the Cinq Portes, Rye itself also being one. The sea has retreated from both these places, leaving about two miles of the Romney Marsh between them and the shore. Nothing could be more like something born of the imagination than the old city of Winchelsea.... Just outside the old gate looking towards Rye and the sea from a lonely height is the cottage where Ellen Terry has found a summer resting-place and retirement. It is a true home for an artist -- nothing could be lovelier. Unhappily she was not there, but we were happy to see the place which she described to us with so great satisfaction.

          From Winchelsea Mr. James drove us to the station, where we took the train for Hastings. He had brought his small dog, an aged black and tan terrier, with him for a holiday. He put on the muzzle, which all dogs just now must wear, and took it off a great many times until, having left it once when he went to buy the tickets and recovered it, he again lost it and it could not be found; so as soon as he reached Hastings, he took a carriage again to drive us along the esplanade, but the first thing was to buy a new muzzle. This esplanade is three miles long, but we began to feel like tea, so having looked upon the sea sufficiently from this decidedly unromantic point of view, we went into a small shop and enjoyed more talk under new conditions. "How many cakes have you eaten ?" "Ten," gravely replied Mr. James -- at which we all laughed. "Oh, I know," said the girl with a wise look at the desk. "How do you suppose they know?" said Mr. James musingly as he turned away. "They always do!" And so on again presently to the train at Hastings, where Mr. McAlpine appeared at the right instant. Mr. James's train for Rye left a few moments before ours for London. He took a most friendly farewell and having left us to Mr. McA. ran for his own carriage. In another five minutes we too were away, bearing our delightful memories of this meeting.

 

     Not because they record momentous events and encounters, but merely as little pictures of the life which Mrs. Fields and Miss Jewett led together, these passages are brought to light. They are the last to be presented here. For more than another decade beyond the summer of 1898, Miss Jewett, sorely invalided through the final years as the result of a carriage accident, remained the central personal fact in Mrs. Fields's interest and affections. Soon after her death, in June, 1909 Mrs. Fields wrote about her to a common friend: "Of my dear Sarah -- I believe one of her noblest qualities was her great generosity. Others could only guess at this, but I was allowed to know it. Not that she made gifts, but a wide sympathy was hers for every disappointed or incompetent fellow creature. It was a most distinguishing characteristic! Governor Andrew spoke of Judge B____ once as `A friend to every man who did not need a friend'! Sarah's quick sympathy knew a friend was in need before she knew it herself; she was the spirit of beneficence, and her quick delicate wit was such a joy in daily companionship!"

     Of this daily companionship an anonymous contributor to the "Atlantic Monthly" for August, 1909, had been a fortunate witness. I need not ask his permission to repeat a portion of what he then wrote: -

 

     "There is but one familiar portrait of Miss Jewett. It has been so often reprinted that many who have seen it, even without seeing her, must think of her as immune from change, blessed with perpetual youth, with a gracious, sympathetic femininity, with an air of breeding and distinction quite independent of shifting fashions.

     "This portrait is intimately symbolic of her work. It typifies with a rare faithfulness the quality of all the products of her pen. In them one found, and finds, the same abiding elements of beauty, sympathy, and distinction. The element of sympathy -- perhaps the greatest of these -- found its expression in a humor that provoked less of outward laughter than of smiles within, and in a pathos the very counterpart of this delicate quality. The beauty and the distinction may be less capable of brief characterization, but they pervaded her art....

     "This work of hers, in dealing with the New England life she knew and loved, was essentially American, as purely indigenous as the pointed firs of her own countryside. The art with which she wrought her native themes was limited, on the contrary, by no local boundaries. At its best it had the absolute quality of the highest art in every quarter of the globe. And the spirit in which she approached her task was as broad in its scope and sympathy as her art in its form. It was precisely this union of what was at once so clearly American and so clearly universal that distinguished her stories, in the eyes of both editor and reader, as the best -- so often -- in any magazine that contained them.

     "Her constant demand upon herself was for the best. There were no compromises with mediocrity, either in her tastes or in her achievements. It was the best aspect of New England character and tradition on which her vision steadily dwelt. She was satisfied with nothing short of the best in her interpretation of New England life. The form of creative writing in which she won her highest successes -- the short story -- is the form in which Americans have made their most distinctive contributions to English literature; and her place with the few best of these writers appears to be secure.

          "If the familiar portrait typifies her work, it is equally true to the person herself. The quick, responsive spirit of youth, with all its sincerity, all its enjoyment in friendship or whatever else the day might hold, was an immutable possession. So were all the other qualities for which the features spoke. Through the recent years of physical disability, due in the first instance to an accident so gratuitous that it seemed to her friends unendurable, there was a noble patience, a sweet endurance, that could have sprung only from an heroic strain of character."

 

     For nearly six years Mrs. Fields survived Miss Jewett, bereaved as by the loss of half her personal world, yet indomitable of spirit and energy, so long as her physical forces would permit any of the old accustomed exercises of hospitality and friendship. The selection and publication of Miss Jewett's letters was a labor of love which continued the sense of companionship for the first two of the remaining years. Through the four others there was a failing of bodily strength, though not at all of mental and spiritual eagerness; and in her outward mien through all the later years, there was that which must have recalled to many the ancient couplet: --

     No Spring, nor summer's beauty hath such grace
     As I have seen in one autumnal face.
 

     Towards the end there was a brief return to the keeping of a sporadic diary. Its final words, written January 25, 1913, were these: "The days go on cheerfully. I have just read Mark Twain's life, the life of a man who had greatness in him. I am now reading his `Joan of Arc.' I hope to wait as cheerfully as he did for the trumpet call and as usefully, but I am ready."
     When Mrs. Fields died and the Charles Street door was finally closed, at the beginning of 1915, the world had entered upon its first entire year of a new era. It is an era as sharply separated from that of her intimate contemporaries, the American Victorians, as any new from any old order. The figures of every old order take their places by degrees as "museum pieces," objects of curious and sometimes condescending study. But let us not be too sure that in parting with the past we have let it keep only that which can best be spared. We would not wish them back, those Victorians of ours. They were the product of their own day, and would be hardly at ease -- poor things -- in our twentieth-century Zion. Even some of us who inhabit it gain a sense of rest in reëntering their quiet, decorous dwelling-places. As we emerge again from one of them, may it be with a renewed allegiance to those lasting things that are more excellent," which belong to every generation of civilized men and women.


Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College.
 
 

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