Not Under Forty, by Willa Cather

148 Charles Street

Late in the winter of 1908 Mrs. Louis Brandeis conducted me along a noisy street in Boston and rang at a door hitherto unknown to me. Sometimes entering a new door can make a great change in one’s life. That afternoon I had set out from the Parker House (the old, the real Parker House, before it was “modernized”) to make a call on Mrs. Brandeis. When I reached her house in Otis Place she told me that we would go farther: she thought I would enjoy meeting a very charming old lady who was a near neighbour of hers, the widow of James T. Fields, of the publishing firm of Ticknor and Fields. The name of that firm meant something to me. In my father’s bookcase there were little volumes of Longfellow and Hawthorne with that imprint. I wondered how the widow of one of the partners could still be living. Mrs. Brandeis explained that when James T. Fields was a man in middle life, a publisher of international reputation and a widower, he married Annie Adams, then a girl of nineteen. She had naturally survived him by many years.

When the door at 148 Charles Street was opened we waited a few moments in a small reception-room just off the hall, then went up a steep, thickly carpeted stairway and entered the “long drawing-room,” where Mrs. Fields and Miss Jewett sat at tea. That room ran the depth of the house, its front windows, heavily curtained, on Charles Street, its back windows looking down on a deep garden. Directly above the garden wall lay the Charles River and, beyond, the Cambridge shore. At five o’clock in the afternoon the river was silvery from a half-hidden sun; over the great open space of water the western sky was dove-coloured with little ripples of rose. The air was full of soft moisture and the hint of approaching spring. Against this screen of pale winter light were the two ladies: Mrs. Fields reclining on a green sofa, directly under the youthful portrait of Charles Dickens (now in the Boston Art Museum), Miss Jewett seated, the low tea-table between them.

Mrs. Fields wore the widow’s lavender which she never abandoned except for black velvet, with a scarf of Venetian lace on her hair. She was very slight and fragile in figure, with a great play of animation in her face and a delicate flush of pink on her cheeks. Like her friend Mrs. John Gardner, she had a skin which defied age. As for Miss Jewett — she looked very like the youthful picture of herself in the game of “Authors” I had played as a child, except that she was fuller in figure and a little grey. I do not at all remember what we talked about. Mrs. Brandeis asked that I be shown some of the treasures of the house, but I had no eyes for the treasures, I was too intent upon the ladies.

That winter afternoon began a friendship, impoverished by Miss Jewett’s death sixteen months later, but enduring until Mrs. Fields herself died, in February 1915.

In 1922 M. A. De Wolfe Howe, Mrs. Fields’ literary executor, published a book of extracts from her diaries under the title Memories of a Hostess, a book which delighted all who had known her and many who had not, because of its vivid pictures of the Cambridge and Concord groups in the ‘60s and ‘70s, not as “celebrities” but as friends and fellow citizens. When Mr. Howe’s book appeared, I wrote for The Literary Review an appreciation of it, very sketchy, but done with genuine enthusiasm, which I here incorporate without quotation marks.

In his book made up from the diaries of Mrs. James T. Fields, Mr. De Wolfe Howe presents a record of beautiful memories and, as its subtitle declares, “a chronicle of eminent friendships.” For a period of sixty years Mrs. Fields’ Boston house, at 148 Charles Street, extended its hospitality to the aristocracy of letters and art. During that long stretch of time there was scarcely an American of distinction in art or public life who was not a guest in that house; scarcely a visiting foreigner of renown who did not pay his tribute there.

It was not only men of letters, Dickens, Thackeray, and Matthew Arnold, who met Mrs. Fields’ friends there; Salvini and Modjeska and Edwin Booth and Christine Nilsson and Joseph Jefferson and Ole Bull, Winslow Homer and Sargent, came and went, against the background of closely united friends who were a part of the very Charles Street scene. Longfellow, Emerson, Whittier, Hawthorne, Lowell, Sumner, Norton, Oliver Wendell Holmes — the list sounds like something in a school-book; but in Mrs. Fields’ house one came to believe that they had been very living people — to feel that they had not been long absent from the rooms so full of their thoughts, of their letters, their talk, their remembrances sent at Christmas to the hostess, or brought to her from foreign lands. Even in the garden flourished guelder roses and flowering shrubs which some of these bearers of school-book names had brought in from Cambridge or Concord and set out there. At 148 Charles Street an American of the Apache period and territory could come to inherit a Colonial past.

Although Mrs. Fields was past seventy when I was first conducted into the long drawing-room, she did not seem old to me. Frail, diminished in force, yes; but, emphatically, not old. “The personal beauty of her younger years, long retained, and even at the end of such a stretch of life not quite lost,” to quote Henry James, may have had something to do with the impression she gave; but I think it was even more because, as he also said of her, “all her implications were gay.” I had seldom heard so young, so merry, so musical a laugh; a laugh with countless shades of relish and appreciation and kindness in it. And, on occasion, a short laugh from that same fragile source could positively do police duty! It could put an end to a conversation that had taken an unfortunate turn, absolutely dismiss and silence impertinence or presumption. No woman could have been so great a hostess, could have made so many highly developed personalities happy under her roof, could have blended so many strongly specialized and keenly sensitive people in her drawing-room, without having a great power to control and organize. It was a power so sufficient that one seldom felt it as one lived in the harmonious atmosphere it created — an atmosphere in which one seemed absolutely safe from everything ugly. Nobody can cherish the flower of social intercourse, can give it sun and sustenance and a tempered clime, without also being able very completely to dispose of anything that threatens it — not only the slug, but even the cold draught that ruffles its petals.

Mrs. Fields was in her own person flower-like; the remarkable fineness of her skin and pinkness of her cheeks gave one the comparison — and the natural ruby of her lips she never lost. It always struck one afresh (along with her clear eyes and their quick flashes of humour), that large, generous, mobile mouth, with its rich freshness of colour. “A WOMAN’S mouth,” I used to think as I watched her talking to someone who pleased her; “not an old woman’s!” One rejoiced in her little triumphs over colour-destroying age and its infirmities, as at the play one rejoices in the escape of the beautiful and frail from the pursuit of things powerful and evil. It was a drama in which the heroine must be sacrificed in the end: but for how long did she make the outward voyage delightful, with how many a divertissement and bright scene did she illumine the respite and the long wait at Aulis!

Sixty years of hospitality, so smooth and unruffled for the recipients, cost the hostess something — cost her a great deal. The Fieldses were never people of liberal means, and the Charles Street house was not a convenient house to entertain in. The basement kitchen was a difficulty. On the first floor were the reception-room and the dining-room, on the second floor was the “long drawing-room,” running the depth of the house. Mrs. Fields’ own apartments were on the third floor, and the guest-rooms on the fourth. A house so constructed took a great deal of managing. Yet there was never an hour in the day when the order and calm of the drawing-room were not such that one might have sat down to write a sonnet or a sonata. The sweeping and dusting were done very early in the morning, the flowers arranged before the guests were awake.

Besides being distinctly young on the one hand, on the other Mrs. Fields seemed to me to reach back to Waterloo. As Mr. Howe reminds us, she had talked to Leigh Hunt about Shelley and his starlike beauty of face — and it is now more than a century since Shelley was drowned. She had known Severn well, and it was he who gave her a lock of Keats’ hair, which, under glass with a drawing of Keats by the same artist, was one of the innumerable treasures of that house. With so much to tell, Mrs. Fields never became a set story-teller. She had no favourite stories — there were too many. Stories were told from time to time, but only as things of today reminded her of things of yesterday. When we came home from the opera, she could tell one what Chorley had said on such and such an occasion. And then if one did not “go at” her, but talked of Chorley just as if he were Philip Hale or W. J. Henderson, one might hear a great deal about him.

When one was staying at that house the past lay in wait for one in all the corners; it exuded from the furniture, from the pictures, the rare editions, and the cabinets of manuscript — the beautiful, clear manuscripts of a typewriterless age, which even the printers had respected and kept clean. The unique charm of Mrs. Fields’ house was not that it was a place where one could hear about the past, but that it was a place where the past lived on — where it was protected and cherished, had sanctuary from the noisy push of the present. In casual conversation, at breakfast or tea, you might at any time unconsciously press a spring which liberated recollection, and one of the great shades seemed quietly to enter the room and to take the chair or the corner he had preferred in life.

One afternoon I showed her an interesting picture of Pauline Viardot I had brought from Paris, and my hostess gave me such an account of hearing Viardot sing Gluck’s Orpheus that I felt I had heard it myself. Then she told me how, when she saw Dickens in London, just after he had returned from giving a reading in Paris, he said: “Oh, yes, the house was sold out. But the important thing is that Viardot came, and sat in a front seat and never took her glorious eyes off me. So, of course,” with a flourish of his hand, “nothing else mattered!” A little-known Russian gentleman, Mr. Turgeniev, must have been staying at Madame Viardot’s country house at that time. Did he accompany her to the reading, one wonders? If he had, it would probably have meant very little to “Mr. Dickens.”

It was at tea-time, I used to think, that the great shades were most likely to appear; sometimes they seemed to come up the deeply carpeted stairs, along with living friends. At that hour the long room was dimly lighted, the fire bright, and through the wide windows the sunset was flaming, or softly brooding, upon the Charles River and the Cambridge shore beyond. The ugliness of the world, all possibility of wrenches and jars and wounding contacts, seemed securely shut out. It was indeed the peace of the past, where the tawdry and cheap have been eliminated and the enduring things have taken their proper, happy places.

Mrs. Fields read aloud beautifully, especially Shakespeare and Milton, for whom she had, even in age, a wonderful depth of voice. I loved to hear her read Richard II, or the great, melancholy speeches of Henry IV in the Palace at Westminster:

 “And changes fill the cup of altera-ti-on
 With divers liquors.”

Many of those lines I can only remember with the colour, the slight unsteadiness, of that fine old voice.

Once I was sitting on the sofa beside her, helping her to hold a very heavy, very old, calf-bound Milton, while she read:

 “In courts and palaces he also reigns,
 And in luxurious cities, where the noise
 Of riot ascends above their loftiest towers,
 And injury and outrage.”

When she paused in the solemn evocation for breath, I tried to fill in the interval by saying something about such lines calling up the tumult of Rome and Babylon.

“Or New York,” she said slyly, glancing side-wise, and then at once again attacked the mighty page.

Naturally, she was rich in reference and quotation. I recall how she once looked up from a long reverie and said: “You know, my dear, I think we sometimes forget how much we owe to Dryden’s prefaces.” To my shame, I have not to this day discovered the full extent of my indebtedness. On another occasion Mrs. Fields murmured something about “A bracelet of bright hair about the bone.” “That’s very nice,” said I, “but I don’t recognize it.”

“Surely,” she said, “that would be Dr. Donne.”

I never pretended to Mrs. Fields — I would have had to pretend too much. “And who,” I brazenly asked, “was Dr. Donne?”

I knew before morning. She had a beautiful patience with Boeotian ignorance, but I was strongly encouraged to take two fat volumes of Dr. Donne to bed with me that night.

I love to remember one charming visit in her summer house at Manchester-by-the-Sea, when Sarah Orne Jewett was there. I had just come from Italy bringing word of the places they most loved and about which they had often written me, entreating, nay, commanding me to visit them. Had I gone riding on the Pincian Hill? Mrs. Fields asked. No, I hadn’t; I didn’t think many people rode there now. Well, said Mrs. Fields, the Brownings’ little boy used to ride there, in his velvets. When he complained to her that the Pincio was the same every day, no variety, she suggested that he might ride out into the Campagna. But he sighed and shook his head. “Oh, no! My pony and I have to go there. We are one of the sights of Rome, you know!” As this was the son of a friend, one didn’t comment upon the child’s speech or the future it suggested.

The second evening after my arrival happened to be a rainy one — no visitors. After dinner Mrs. Fields began to read a little — warmed to her work, and read all of Matthew Arnold’s Scholar Gypsy and Tristan and Iseult. Miss Jewett said she didn’t believe the latter poem had been read aloud in that house since Matthew Arnold himself read it there.

At Manchester, when there were no guests, Mrs. Fields had tea on the back veranda, overlooking a wild stretch of woodland. Down in this wood, directly beneath us, were a tea-table and seats built under the trees, where they used to have tea when the hostess was younger — now the climb was too steep for her. It was a little sad, perhaps, to sit and look out over a shrinking kingdom; but if she felt it, she never showed it. Miss Jewett and I went down into the wood, and she told me she hated to go there now, as it reminded her that much was already lost, and what was left was so at the mercy of chance! It seemed as if a strong wind might blow away that beloved friend of many years. We talked in low voices. Who could have believed that Mrs. Fields was to outlive Miss Jewett, so much the younger, by nearly six years, as she outlived Mr. Fields by thirty-four! She had the very genius of survival. She was not, as she once laughingly told me, “to escape anything, not even free verse or the Cubists!” She was not in the least dashed by either. Oh, no, she said, the Cubists weren’t any queerer than Manet and the Impressionists were when they first came to Boston, and people used to run in for tea and ask her whether she had ever heard of such a thing as “blue snow,” or a man’s black hat being purple in the sun!

As in Boston tea was the most happy time for reminiscences, in Manchester it was at the breakfast hour that they were most likely to throng. Breakfasts were long, as country breakfasts have a right to be. We had always been out of doors first and were very hungry.

One morning when the cantaloupes were particularly fine Mrs. Fields began to tell me of Henry James’ father, — apropos of the melons, though I forget whether it was that he liked them very much or couldn’t abide them. She told me a great deal about him; but I was most interested in what she said regarding his faith in his son. When the young man’s first essays and stories began to come back across the Atlantic from Rome and Paris they did not meet with approval in Boston; they were thought self-conscious, artificial, shallow. His father’s friends feared the young man had mistaken his calling. Mr. James the elder, however, was altogether pleased. He came down to Manchester one summer to have a talk with the great publisher about Henry, and expressed his satisfaction and confidence. “Believe me,” he said, sitting at this very table, “the boy will make his mark in letters, Fields.”

The next summer I was visiting Mrs. Fields at Manchester in a season of intense heat. We were daily expecting the arrival of Henry James, Jr., himself. One morning came a spluttery letter from the awaited friend, containing bitter references to the “Great American summer,” and saying that he was “lying at Nahant,” prostrated by the weather. I was very much disappointed, but Mrs. Fields said wisely: “My dear, it is just as well. Mr. James is always greatly put about by the heat, and at Nahant there is the chance of a breeze.”

The house at Manchester was called Thunderbolt Hill. Mr. Howe thinks the name incongruous, but that depends on what associations you choose to give it. When I went a-calling with Mrs. Fields and left her card with Thunderbolt Hill engraved in the corner, I felt that I was paying calls with the lady Juno herself. Why shouldn’t such a name befit a hill of high decisions and judgments? Moreover, Mrs. Fields was not at all responsible for that name; it came, as she and Miss Jewett liked proverbs and place-names to come, from the native folk. Long years before James T. Fields bought the hill to build a summer cottage, some fine trees at the top of it had been destroyed by lightning; the country people thereabouts had ever afterward called it Thunderbolt Hill.

Mrs. Fields’ Journal tells us how in her young married days she always moved from Boston to Manchester-by-the-Sea in early summer, just as she still did when I knew her. I remember one characteristic passage in the Journal, written at Manchester and dated July 16, 1870:

It is a perfect summer day, she says. Mr. Fields does not go up to town but stays at home with a bag full of MSS. He and his wife go to a favourite spot in a pasture by the sea, and she reads him a new story which has just come in from Henry James, Jr., then a very young man — Compagnons de Voyage, in “execrable” handwriting. They find the quality good. “I do not know,” Mrs. Fields wrote in her diary that evening, “why success in work should affect one so powerfully, but I could have wept as I finished reading, not from the sweet, low pathos of the tale, but from the knowledge of the writer’s success. It is so difficult to do anything well in this mysterious world.”

Yes, one says to oneself, that is Mrs. Fields, at her best. She rose to meet a fine performance, always — to the end. At eighty she could still entertain new people, new ideas, new forms of art. And she brought to her greeting of the new all the richness of her rich past: a long, unbroken chain of splendid contacts, beautiful friendships.

As one follows the diary down through the years, the reader must feel a certain pride in the determined way in which the New England group refused to be patronized by glittering foreign celebrities — by any celebrities! At dinner Dr. Holmes holds himself a little apart from the actor guests, Jefferson and Warren, and addresses them as “you gentlemen of the stage” in a way that quite disturbed Longfellow and, one may judge, the hostess. They all come to dine with Dickens in his long stays with the Fieldses, come repeatedly, but they seem ever a little on their guard. Emerson cannot be got to believe him altogether genuine and sincere. He insists to Mrs. Fields that Dickens has “too much talent for his genius,” and that he is “too consummate an artist to have a thread of nature left”! Thackeray made a long visit at 148 Charles Street. (It is said that he finished Henry Esmond there.) In the guest-room which he occupied, with an alcove study, hung a little drawing he had made of himself, framed with the note he had written the hostess telling her that, happy as he was here, he must go home to England for Christmas.

When Mrs. Fields was still a young woman, she noted in her diary that Aristotle says: “Virtue is concerned with action; art with production.” “The problem in life,” she adds, “is to harmonize these two.” In a long life she went far toward working out this problem. She knew how to appreciate the noble in behaviour and the noble in art. In the patriot, the philanthropist, the statesman, she could forgive abominable taste. In the artist, the true artist, she could forgive vanity, sensitiveness, selfishness, indecision, and vacillation of will. She was generous and just in her judgment of men and women because she understood Aristotle’s axiom. “With a great gift,” I once heard her murmur thoughtfully, “we must be willing to bear greatly, because it has already greatly borne.”

Today, in 1936, a garage stands on the site of 148 Charles Street. Only in memory exists the long, green-carpeted, softly lighted drawing-room, and the dining-table where Learning and Talent met, enjoying good food and good wit and rare vintages, looking confidently forward to the growth of their country in the finer amenities of life. Perhaps the garage and all it stands for represent the only real development, and have altogether taken the place of things formerly cherished on that spot. If we try to imagine those dinner-parties which Mrs. Fields describes, the scene is certainly not to us what it was to her: the lighting has changed, and the guests seem hundreds of years away from us. Their portraits no longer hang on the walls of our academies, nor are their “works” much discussed there. The English classes, we are told, can be “interested” only in contemporary writers, the newer the better. A letter from a prep-school boy puts it tersely: “D. H. Lawrence is rather rated a back-number here, but Faulkner keeps his end up.”

Not the prep-school boys only are blithe to leave the past untroubled: their instructors pretty generally agree with them. And the retired professors who taught these instructors do not see Shelley plain as they once did. The faith of the elders has been shaken.

Just how did this change come about, one wonders. When and where were the Arnolds overthrown and the Brownings devaluated? Was it at the Marne? At Versailles, when a new geography was being made on paper? Certainly the literary world which emerged from the war used a new coinage. In England and America the “masters” of the last century diminished in stature and pertinence, became remote and shadowy.

But Mrs. Fields never entered this strange twilight. She rounded out her period, from Dickens and Thackeray and Tennyson, through Hardy and Meredith to the Great War, with her standards unshaken. For her there was no revaluation. She died with her world (the world of “letters” which mattered most to her) unchallenged. Marcel Proust somewhere said that when he came to die he would take all his great men with him: since his Beethoven and his Wagner could never be at all the same to anyone else, they would go with him like the captives who were slain at the funeral pyres of Eastern potentates. It was thus Mrs. Fields died, in that house of memories, with the material keepsakes of the past about her.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52