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The Unpublished Love Poems of Sarah Orne Jewett

Josephine Donovan

Editor's Note
This essay is reprinted from Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 4,3 (1979) 26-31, by permission of the University of Nebraska Press, copyright (c) 1979, and of the author. Permission to reprint materials held by the Boston Public Library also was obtained, courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library /Rare Books Department. And manuscripts held by the Houghton Library - bMS Am 1743.25, bMS Am 1743 (255), MS Am 1743.1 (341), bMS Am 1743.26 (7a), bMS1743.26(4) - are reprinted here by permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University.
    This article may not be reprinted without the permission of Josephine Donovan and the University of Nebraska Press. No material quoted from manuscripts may be reprinted without permission of the holder of the manuscript.

The Unpublished Love Poems of Sarah Orne Jewett

Josephine Donovan

     Sarah Orne Jewett is not known as a poet; it is safe to say that she did not think of herself primarily as a poet. She published thirty-six poems in her lifetime.[1] Most of these were printed in her early years -- before 1884. The only collection of her poetic works, Verses, which contains nineteen poems (twelve of which had been previously published), was published posthumously. Nevertheless, among unpublished Jewett materials, [2] there are 140 verse compositions, seventy-three of which are complete or nearly finished poems. The rest are fragments or unfinished, heavily reworked verses. Thirty of these compositions are love poems, or fragments thereof, and appear to have been written to women.

     It is upon these love poems that I wish to concentrate, for they, together with early diaries, provide important new biographical information about this distinguished writer.[3] They should lead us to reevaluate the ongoing critical image of Jewett as a passionless "spinster," an image upon which much mistaken critical evaluation has been founded. They also provide us with yet another illustration of the complex nature of female-female liaisons in the nineteenth century.[4] As information such as this is acknowledged and integrated into our critical awareness, our understanding of the variety and quality of female experience expands, and the sophistication of our critical insights into work by women is thereby refined.

     The realization that Jewett's emotional orientation was lesbian should make us look at her writing in a new light.[5] By "lesbian" I choose to use the definition developed by Blanche Wiesen Cook: "Women who love women, who choose women to nurture and support and to create a living environment in which to work creatively and independently, are lesbians."[6]

     Many of Jewett's works are structured upon relationships between women. Deephaven (1877), her first major work, and The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), considered her masterpiece, are framed upon intense friendships. Even in the most recent criticism, scholars are unclear as to what to make of these relationships. Their comments reveal their discomfort. Writing on Deephaven in 1972, Robert L. Horn complains that the narrator, Helen Denis, "spends too much time . . . trying to get the reader to love and admire her friend Kate Lancaster . . . ."[7] Eugene Hillhouse Pool, in an article entitled "The Child in Sarah Orne Jewett," goes to tortuous lengths to explain away these relationships and to reduce them to a puerile, "undeveloped" level.[8]

     Pool argues that Jewett's female characters' rejection of male suitors in "A White Heron" and A Country Doctor express their author's "repudiation" of "mature, passionate love," and her decision to remain in a state of childlike dependence upon her father. Indeed, he goes so far as to assert that the female friends in The Country of the Pointed Firs and Deephaven really represent Jewett's father. The reason the father is fictionally cast in female form, according to Pool, is because for Jewett "to travel about with a man ... would be socially indecent."

     This interpretation is erroneous. In fact, Jewett was quite aware of the temptation to fictionally disguise female-female relationships as heterosexual love stories, and consciously rejected it. One of her most pointed critical comments to the young Willa Cather was to advise her against doing this kind of "masquerading" in her future work. (See further discussion of Jewett's advice to Cather later in this article.)

     While it is true that Jewett had a strong relationship with her father, it is clear from the poems and the diaries that Jewett's primary relationships were with women. These unpublished poems help to document once and for all the intensity of those ties, and to show that they were of primary significance in her life. Jewett's thirty-year liaison with Annie Adams Fields is well known and alluded to in every Jewett biography. Not so well known is the character of that relationship. Several of the poems appear to relate to their affair -- for affair it was -- and can therefore help us to understand its nature.

     A perennial problem for scholars is reading the past through the meanings and significances of the present. To some degree, this is of course inevitable. Recent analyses of female relationships in the nineteenth century have acknowledged this problem. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg warned against the twentieth-century tendency to see everything in terms of dichotomies -- in this case, between heterosexual and homosexual. "The essential question is not whether these women had genital contact and can therefore be defined as heterosexual or homosexual . . . ." The question is really to enlarge our understanding of these intimate female couples by neither denying their "emotional intensity and [their] sensual and physical explicitness," nor forcing them into twentieth-century definitions.[9]

     Most Jewett scholars have erred in the former way by omitting material or by ignoring the significance of her relationships with women. The first to commit this error was Annie Fields herself in her edition of the Jewett letters published in 1911. The decision to edit out intimate material was made, however, only at the urging of Mark Anthony DeWolfe Howe, an eminent but genteel Boston scholar, who later put forth a heavily edited version of Fields' journals (Memories of A Hostess).

     According to Howe's daughter Helen, "Father laid a restraining editorial hand across [Fields'] enthusiasm . . ."[10] in publishing the Jewett letters. He particularly urged her to delete nicknames, an obvious sign of intimacy, arguing that otherwise "all sorts of people [will read] them wrong. . ." (p. 84). Helen Howe quotes a typical letter from Jewett to Fields which she found, and which had been penciled through in the editing process. ("One sees the gentle pencil has been obediently at work. Miss Jewett's nickname for Mrs. Fields has been obliterated throughout" (p. 85). The original letter, as cited by Howe, reads:

Good night dear dear Fuff --
if you could only dream how
I want to see you!
Your own P[inney] L[awson -- a Jewett nickname] (p. 85)
     This and one other letter which Helen Howe found "tucked" in her father's presentation copy of the Jewett letters were probably written in 1881, because in one of them Jewett mentions having received a copy of Fields' book, Under the Olive, which came out in 1881. Yet these letters were not included in the Fields edition of the Jewett letters; indeed Fields claims in that volume that there exist no extant letters between 1880 and 1882.[11] This was patently not the case, and Fields must have known it. Indeed there are several letters, most of them intimate, written from Jewett to Fields between 1877 and 1882.

     I elaborate this because it shows deliberate falsification, for whatever reasons, on the part of Mark Anthony DeWolfe Howe and Annie Adams Fields. This raises questions as to how Jewett and Fields saw their relationship -- whether each saw it differently, how contemporaries saw it, and whether such views were changing in 1911 when Annie Fields was editing her volume.

     "Boston marriages," -- female couples living in a union similar to marriage -- were relatively common in nineteenth-century Boston. Helen Howe notes that there were several such "marriages" in her father's circle, and that the Jewett-Fields liaison was one of them. In addition to her father's discomfort with the relationship, Helen Howe suggests that Henry James was similarly unnerved by the pair. "What Henry James, whose The Bostonians was published in 1888, found to `catch at' in the friendship between the Charles Street ladies we can only guess" (p. 83).

     The implication here is that the latent lesbian relationship between the characters Olive Chancellor and Verena Tarrant which James satirized in the novel was based on the Jewett-Fields liaison. There are in fact some parallels between the two couples: Olive was older than Verena, more aristocratic; Fields was also older and more urbane than Jewett, a native of rural Maine. Without commenting on this possibility, Leon Edel claims that James was merely reflecting the attitudes of his time in depicting the women so harshly.[12]

     Nan Bauer Maglin argues that The Bostonians was an attempt to discredit the suffrage movement "with the charge of `lesbianism' or perhaps only `intense relationshipism.' "[13] Jewett in fact knew of the intense relationship that existed between Henry's sister Alice and Katherine Loring, commenting in a letter how "Alice James' going has made a great empty place in [Katherine's] life."[14]

     The bulk of the commentaries, including the Frost and the Matthiessen biographies, and Laura Richards' and Willa Cather's remembrances, focus on the two women in the drawing room setting of Fields' 148 Charles Street home.[15] All are in a genteel vein, including Cather's, and none undertakes a critical analysis of the relationship.

     Interestingly enough, however, in the mentor relationship which developed between Jewett and Cather in the latter months of Jewett's life, Jewett strongly suggested to Cather that her writing was weakened by the use of male personae. In criticizing one of Cather's early stories, she notes:

The lover is as well done as he could be when a woman writes in the man's character, -- it must always, I believe, be something of a masquerade. I think it is safer to write about him as you did about the others, and not try to be he! And you could almost have done it as yourself -- a woman could love her in that same protecting way -- a woman could even care enough to wish to take her away from such a life, by some means or other.[16]
It is instructive to compare Cather's My Ántonia (1918) with Jewett's The Country of the PointedFirs (1896 [1898]) in this regard. Both deal with a strong female protagonist and both stories are told by an emotional, nostalgic narrator who was once in love with the central character. In Jewett's book the narrator is a woman; in Cather's, it is a man. The relationship in Jewett's work is far more credible than the awkward bond between Jim Burden and Antonia in the Cather novel. Cather chose to masquerade or encode what was a relationship between two women, whereas Jewett did not.

     Jewett never sought to deny the feminine in literary point of view as Cather did, and as did Gertrude Stein, a contemporary of Cather's. Catharine R. Stimpson has pointed out that Stein, too, seems to have moved toward a male identification in the early years of the twentieth century and a denial of the female.[17] Like Cather she also encoded or "masqueraded" her own lesbian relationships as she transposed them into her fiction.

     Jewett did have, or at least was sensitive to, female role identity problems. The struggle of adopting a male profession but remaining "feminine" is manifest in her autobiographical novel, A [The] Country Doctor (1884). But the struggle seems to have been less intense than with Cather and Stein, and it seems to have been more possible for her to do "male" things while "being" female than it was for her successors. One reason for this, I propose, is that Jewett lived in a society which was "feminized," a process which was being reversed by the early twentieth century.[18]

     The evidence of the following Jewett poems suggests that a world of female behavior existed in nineteenth-century America which has for the most part remained hidden. These poems have been available to researchers for more than forty years; none has chosen to pay them any attention. They come out of a lost world of female behavior that we now re-enter.

     I would like to begin with a poem dated "23 Aug. 1880," on the theory that it is addressed to Annie Adams Fields and that it indicates the beginning of their relationship. It is possible, however, that the "girl" in this poem refers to an earlier romance, Cora Lee Rice. If it is referrent to the Jewett-Fields relationship, the 1880 date comes after the death of Jewett's father (September 20, 1878) and before the death of Annie Fields' husband, James T. Fields (April 23, 1881). These losses were severe emotional blows to each of them and are referred to in another poem. The 1880 poem was written to commemorate the first anniversary of the inception of a relationship between two women. It begins:

Do you remember, darling
   A year ago today
When we gave ourselves to each other
   Before you went away
At the end of that pleasant summer weather
Which we had spent by the sea together?

How little we knew, my darling,
   All that the year would bring!
Did I think of the wretched mornings
   When I should kiss my ring
And long with all my heart to see
The girl who gave the ring to me?
. . .

We have not been sorry darling
   We loved each other so --
We will not take back the promises
  We made a year ago --
. . .
And so again, my darling
   I give myself to you,
With graver thought than a year ago
   With love that is deep and true.(25)[19]
. . .

     A surer documentation of the developing relationship between Jewett and Fields exists in early letters from Jewett to Fields, some of which Helen Howe mentions, and almost all of which were omitted from the 1911 edition of the Jewett letters. The earliest extant letter is a rather formal note dated "4 Dec 1877"; in the next letter, dated "8 Sept 1880," the tone has become warmer and somewhat coy. The next letter, dated "12 Jan 1881," is addressed, "Dear Mrs. Fields," and is again relatively formal. However, the next extant letter, which is undated except for the annotation "1881" penciled at the top (presumably by Annie Fields as she prepared her edition of the Jewett letters), is a letter of intimate friendship. It is addressed "Dearest Fuff" and signed "Pin," both familiar nicknames used by Jewett and Fields for one another.

     Following chronologically is [are] a series of letters, dated 1882 in pencil, which express the passionate love of Jewett for Fields. One, addresses her "darling":

Are you sure you know how much
I love you? If you don't know,
I cannot tell you! but I think of
you and think of you and I am always
being reminded of you. . .
I am yours most lovingly --
          S. O. J.
Another early letter, dated in pencil "June 1882," reads in part:
. . .Oh my dear darling I had
forgotten that we loved each other
so much a year ago -- for it all seems
so new to me every day -- there is so much
for us to remember already --
But a year ago last winter seems
a great way off for we have lived
so much since. . .[20]
     In a (probably) later poem Jewett laments that (presumably) Annie Fields spends more time in charity work than she does with her. Fields was heavily involved in social welfare work in Boston, and founded the Associated Charities of Boston, which she directed from 1879-94.
No time for love! Because your way
Goes all up hill; and every day
Brings beggars for your thought, your time
Until you hear the midnight chime.
     However the poet comes to an appreciation of the loving nature of her friend and concludes, "Because you live so lovingly / Must I your constant lover be" (85).

     Another poem appears to refer to the deaths of their father and husband and attempts to justify their relationship as a compensation for those losses. The reference to "summer days beside the sea" and "winter days when busy city life / Had caught us in its whirl and made us gay" ties the poem to the Jewett-Fields pattern of spending part of the year at the shore and part at Annie Fields' home in Boston. The poet comments on how, during the seasonal cycle, they have

     kept fast hold and could not stray
Out of each other's sight, and could not take
One step or thought but for each other's sake --
In all this time in which we grew more dear
Each to the other, there was nothing missed,
No shadow chilled us and we felt no fear
We were so happy while we loved and kissed.
After this honeymoon-like interlude, the couple fell upon more difficult days: "God took all other pleasure from us then / And when we found each others [?] love alone / was left . . ." (line much reworked) -- an apparent reference to the recent deaths. The poet realizes, however, that out of these adversities their love has grown more secure, concluding, "Our new love is the old love glorified" (64).

     Another fragment reveals that the poet feels inadequate towards her beloved:

For she should have the best of love
And I must all my faults remove
To love her fitly. Pity me
That I always myself must be.
     One poem speaks of the sense of comfort her lover's arms give her, and laments the time they must spend apart.
My darling when you hold me in your arms
So sweet a sense of comfort thrills my heart
. . .
Your love rewards me for all pain I bore
One kiss you give me takes away regret (79).
She concludes on an interesting but mildly heretical theological note,
I think we soon should falter by the way
And grow discouraged oh my dear true friend
If we must wait for heaven till we died
Or miss its glory till we reached the End (79).
The final verses are much reworked but the gist is that God has blessed them with their mutual love. Jewett had broached this idea in her diary of 1872 [21] wherein she described at length her intense feelings for Kate (presumably Kate Birckhead), concluding, finally, "I know that it all comes from God, but I am so glad the 'way' is Kate."

     Several of these unpublished lyrics are on general love themes, and cannot be linked to any specific relationship. A typical complete poem follows:

Shall I ever tire of your kisses?
   I asked myself today:
When your arms had been around me
   And you had gone away

Will the pine-tree tire of the wind that blows
   Through its branches from the sea
And stirs within it its bravest life
   As you do mine in me?

Will the flower that the storm has beaten
    Be tired of the summer sun
That shines out clear and bright and warm
   After the rain is done?

Oh, no, my love, my darling
   You always grow more dear
Our hearts are one heart always now
   And I need never fear (104).

     Many of Jewett's poems read like song lyrics. A good example is a fragment that begins: "Between two nights between two days / I love I love my love always" (17). Jewett did indeed publish one song in her lifetime,[22] and it seems possible that some of these love verses were written to be sung. One describes the lovers in "the moorland" by the sea.
   Because I am your lover
I kissed you lovingly. --

   And no one knew I kissed you
But the white gulls and the sea (76).

     Another describes the loved one wandering in the fields, gathering roses.
Oh come again my true love
    Nor wander far from me
I never loved another girl
   As I do love thee (81).
     In "Together," a published poem,[23] Jewett imagines that the dreams of her friend have been sent telepathically. Jewett's interest in dreams and spiritualism has not been thoroughly examined; testimony to its strength may be seen in a very moving letter Annie Adams Fields wrote shortly after Jewett's death in 1909. Fields noted:
She used to say we must learn not to be so dependent upon bodily presence . . . it is indeed true that having laid aside her beautiful body she now seems very near to me in many loving ways which are all her own and feel greatly comforted & companioned by her.[24]
     It is clear that some of the unpublished poems refer to individuals other than Annie Adams Fields. Some poems are addressed to "C.L.R." (33), probably Cora Lee Rice, an early friend, and to Ellen Francis Mason (138). In addition, a poem entitled "A Flower's Namesake" (32) speaks to a "Julie"; one slightly amended version of this manuscript has "J.M.S." notated at the top of the page. An unfinished scrap which begins, "I saw her first beside the sea" identifies the "her" as "Beautiful Maud" (57).

     Beyond the evidence of the poems, we know from letters and diaries that as a young woman Jewett had close relationships with several women. These included Grace Gordon, Kate Birckhead, Georgie Halliburton, Ella Walworth, and Ellen Mason, the first five names on a list of thirty-one close friends and relatives inserted in her 1874 diary.[25]

     The diary itself records her personal feelings about the friends noted above, especially about Kate on whom she clearly had an intense crush:

24 May [1871-- written after two days spent with Kate in Boston] . . . when I heard her voice on the stairs . . . it gave me the queerest feeling. I have longed to see her, to be with her, for so many months that I could not believe it was real. My dear dear darling Kate!

January 14 [1872 -- written after a four-day visit with Kate in Newport] . . . I think she cared more for me than she used . . . How I wish I could do something for you to show that I love you Kate! When I try to talk about it the only words I can think of, seem such weak silly meaningless ones, & just the same ones which people use when they do not mean half that I do![26]

     Jewett's desire to express her feelings for Kate may have been a primary motivation for her first major composition, Deephaven: the first sketches which were later included in the Deephaven collection were published in the September, 1873 issue of the Atlantic Monthly less than a year after Jewett wrote the above entries in her diary. There seems little doubt that the fictional Kate Lancaster is based upon the Kate of the diaries. Deephaven, then, may well be Sarah Orne Jewett's Orlando.

     We may conclude that beginning as a young woman [27] and continuing through her life Jewett was involved in several intimate relationships with women. At times these reached a level of passionate intensity.

     An understanding of the emotional life of a writer gives a critic a better sense of the author's motivations and intentions. And while these insights should not perhaps be controlling in a critical assessment of an author's work, they should at least prevent patently erroneous judgments.

Josephine Donovan is the author of Sarah Orne Jewett (1980; rev. ed., 2001), New England Local Color Literature (1983), and other books and articles.  A complete list of her publications is available on her web site:  She is Emerita Professor of English, University of Maine.


1. Carl J. Weber, A Bibliography of the Published Writings of Sarah Orne Jewett (Waterville, Maine: Colby College Press, 1949). Subsequent bibliographies list no further poems.

2. I am restricting myself in this article to the unpublished poems in The Houghton Library, Harvard University. There are a few unpublished verses in other manuscript collections, as follows: Boston Public Library, University of Virginia, Colby College, Massachusetts Historical Society. These are, however, largely duplicates of those in the Houghton collection.

3. I do not know why previous biographers and critics have ignored this material, as it has been available to researchers for more than forty years. One can only assume, following Thomas S. Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed., enl. [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1970]), that critics, like scientists, use paradigms which do not allow them to see anomalous "facts" or to recognize their significance.

4. Several excellent articles have initiated this investigation. They include: William R. Taylor and Christopher Lasch, "Two 'Kindred Spirits': Sorority and Family in New England, 1839-1846," New England Quarterly, 36, 1 (March 1963), 23-41; Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, "The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America," Signs, 1, 1 (Autumn 1975), 1-29; Catharine R. Stimpson, "The Mind, the Body, and Gertrude Stein," Critical Inquiry, 3, 3 (Spring 1977), 489-506. Glenda Hobbs, working independently of me, has also analyzed the nature of Jewett's female friendships in her article "Pure and Passionate: Female Friendship in Sarah Orne Jewett's 'Martha's Lady,'" Studies in Short Fiction (forthcoming, Winter 1980).

5. For revised interpretations along these lines, see Josephine Donovan, "A Woman's Vision of Transcendence: A New Interpretation of the Works of Sarah Orne Jewett," The Massachusetts Review (forthcoming Winter 1979), and Josephine Donovan, Sarah Orne Jewett (New York: Frederick Ungar, forthcoming 1980).

6. Blanche Wiesen Cook, "Female Support Networks and Political Activism: Lillian Wald, Crystal Eastman, Emma Goldman," Chrysalis, No. 3 (1977), p. 48.

7. "The Power of Jewett's Deephaven," Colby Library [Literary] Quarterly, 9, 12 (December 1972), 617.

8. Colby Library [Literary] Quarterly, 7, 11 (September 1967), 506, 508.

9. Smith-Rosenberg, 8.

10. Helen Howe, The Gentle Americans, 1864-1960, Biography of a Breed (New York: Harper, 1965), p. 84. All further references to this work are cited by page number in the text.

11. Letters of Sarah Orne Jewett, ed. Annie Fields (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911), p. 12.

12. As reported in Nan Bauer Maglin, "Fictional Feminists in The Bostonians and The Odd Women," in Images of Women in Fiction: Feminist Perspectives, ed. Susan Koppelman Cornillon (Bowling Green: Bowling Green Popular Press, 1972), p. 220. Of course there have been numerous attempts to read [the The] The Bostonians as a roman à clef.

13. Maglin, p. 220.

14. John Eldridge Frost, Sarah Orne Jewett (Kittery Point, Maine: The Gundalow Club, Inc., 1960), p. 95.

15. Frost; F.O. Matthiessen, Sarah Orne Jewett (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1929); Laura Richards, Stepping Westward (New York: Appleton, 1931); Willa Cather, "148 Charles Street" and "Miss Jewett," in Not Under Forty (New York: Knopf, 1936).

16. Letters of Sarah Orne Jewett, pp. 246-47. Cather's story is "On the Gull's Road" published in the December 1908 issue of McClure's Magazine.

17. Stimpson, cited in note 4, above.

18. An excellent theoretical discussion of the transition in women's relationships at the end of the nineteenth century is provided by Nancy Sahli, "Smashing: Women's Relationships Before the Fall," Chrysalis, No. 8 (1979), pp. 17-27.

19. All poems cited, unless otherwise indicated, are from the Houghton Library MS. Am 1743.25. Subsequently, numerals following excerpts indicate the specific item in the verse collection. These works are quoted by permission of The Houghton Library, Harvard University.

20. All these letters are Houghton bMS. Am 1743(255). They are quoted by permission of The Houghton Library, Harvard University.

21. MS. Diary 1871-1879, Houghton MS. Am 1743.1 (341), entry for Jan 14 [1872]. Published by permission of The Houghton Library, Harvard University.

22. "Boat Song," set to music by Richard Hoffman, published in New York by G. Schirmer, c. 1879. See John Austin Parker, "Sarah Orne Jewett's 'Boat Song,'" American Literature, 23, 1 (March 1951), 133-36.

23. Atlantic Monthly, 35 (May 1875), 590.

24. ALS from Annie Adams Fields to Mrs. Charles Fairchild, August 20, 1909. Boston Public Library MS. 605. Cited by courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library.

25. Houghton MS. Am 1743.1 (341). The list is not dated but is inserted in the 1874 section. Another letter list dated 1872 holds twenty names, including these five close friends (Houghton bMS. Am 1743.26 [7a]).

26. Houghton MS. Am 1743.1 (341). Cited by permission of The Houghton Library, Harvard University.

27. In an earlier diary (1 Jan-31 Dec 1869) Jewett's intense attachment to several other friends is documented. These include Cicely Burt, Grace Gordon, Minnie Fiske, and especially Ella Walworth (Houghton bMS. Am 1743.26 [4]).

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