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The Literary Review


From The Literary Review, 3 (November 4, 1922):  173-174.

The House on Charles Street

IN his book "Memories of a Hostess,"* made up largely from the diaries of Mrs. James T. Fields, Mr. M. A. DeWolfe Howe presents a book of beautiful memories and, as its sub-title declares, "a chronicle of eminent friendships." For a period of sixty years Mrs. Fields's Boston house, at 148 Charles Street, extended its gracious hospitality to the aristocracy of letters and art and to an aristocracy of charming personalities rarer still. During that long stretch of time there was scarcely an American of distinction in letters or 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's friends there; Salvini and Modjeska and Lady Henry Somerset, Edwin Booth and Christine Nilsson and Jefferson and Ole Bull, came and went, against the background of closely united friends who were almost 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's house one came to believe that they had been very living people—to feel that they had not been so very 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 there were flourishing the lilacs and flowering shrubs that 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.

*   *

I knew Mrs. Fields from 1908 until her death, in 1915. Although she was past seventy when I was first conducted into that long drawing room, where she and Miss Jewett sat at tea together, 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 almost 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 of the slug, but even of the cold draft 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 humor), that large, generous, mobile mouth, with its rich freshness of color. "A woman's mouth," I used to think as I watched her talking to some one who pleased her; "not an old woman's!" One rejoiced in her little triumphs over color-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 *Memories of a Hostess. By M. A. DeWolfe Howe. Boston : Atlanta Monthly Press. 1922. 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 unlimited 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 whole length of the house, its front windows on Charles Street, its back windows on the garden and the river. Mrs. Fields's 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 always done very early in the morning, before the guests were awake.

Besides being distinctly young on the one hand, on the other Mrs. Fields always 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 a century since Shelley was drowned! She had known Severn well, and it was he who gave her a lock of Keats's hair, which, under glass with a drawing of Keats by the same artist, was one of the innumerable treasures of that house. But with so much to tell, Mrs. Fields never became a set story teller. She had no favorite stories—there were too many. Stories were told from time to time, but only as things of to-day reminded her of things of yesterday. When one came home from a concert, 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, one might hear a great deal about him. When one was staying at the house the past lay in wait for one in 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 that 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, one might at any time unconsciously press a spring that 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 produced 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" in Paris 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 the hand, "nothing else mattered!" A little-known Russian gentleman, Mr. Turgeniev, must have been staying at Mme. Viardot's country house at that time. Did he accompany her to the reading, one wonders? If he had, it would probably have made little difference to "Mr. Dickens." But Mme. Viardot—what a citizeness of the world of art she must have been to mean so much to Trojans and to Tyrians alike!

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 deep windows the sunset was flaming, or softly brooding, upon the Charles River and the Cambridge shore beyond. At that hour the ugliness of the world, all possibility of wrenches and jars and wounding contacts, seemed so 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. I can hear her still! Many of those lines I can only remember with the color, 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-hound 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 said something about such lines calling up the tumult of Rome and Babylon.

"Or New York," she said shyly, glancing sidewise, and then at once again attacking 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 Scythian 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 to her summer house at Manchester, when Sarah Orne Jewett was there. I had just come from Italy and brought word of the places they most loved and about which they had often written me, entreating, nay commanding, me to visit them. Had I been riding on the Pincian Hill? 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 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 he 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 "Gypsy Scholar" 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 always 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, and she told me she hated to go there now, as it reminded her how much was already lost and how what was left was so at the mercy of chance; that it seemed as if a strong wind might blow away that beloved friend of so many years. We talked in low voices. We could never 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 said to me, "to escape anything, not even free verse or the cubists!" She was not in the least dashed by either. Oh, no, she told me, 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 to 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 tea was the most happy time for reminiscences in Boston, in Manchester it was at the breakfast hour that they were most apt to throng. Breakfasts were long, as country breakfasts have a right to be, and we had always been out of doors first and were very hungry. It was old Dr. Robert Collyer who used to say, as he paced the Manchester veranda, glimpsing the sea across the tree tops and waiting for breakfast: "Ah, when I smell the morning coffee, then I know that all's right with the world!"—Dr. Collyer, who, while unfolding his napkin, joyfully confessed that he was just beginning "What Maisie Knew" for the third time. There was a clergyman!

One morning when the cantaloupes were particularly fine Mrs. Fields began to tell me of Henry James's father, and it was apropos of the melons, though I forget now whether it was that he liked them very much or couldn't abide them. She told me a great deal about him; but what most interested me was 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 the approval of his Boston friends; 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 at Manchester when a season of intense heat came on. 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 always 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 out a-calling with Mrs. Fields and left a card with Thunderbolt Hill engraved upon it I always 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? Once when we were driving home from a friend's house (perhaps I had been staring!) Mrs. Fields told me about taking Dickens to call somewhere in Boston and when they camee away he began to talk to her about the interesting interior they had left. "But, Mr. Dickens," she remarked, "you seem to have seen everything, yet I think your eyes never left the hostess's face!"

"Ah," he replied, "one must, of course, see everything, but one must never look!"

*   *

One of the most interesting things I find in Mr. Howe's book is the reflection, through Mrs. Fields's diary, of the great determination on the part of the New England group not to be patronized by glittering foreign celebrities—or any celebrities! Dr. Holmes, at dinner, would hold himself a little apart from the actor guests, Jefferson and Warren, and say "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, come repeatedly, but they seem ever a little on their guard. Emerson cannot be got to like him or 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!"

Somewhere in her diary, when Mrs. Fields was still a young woman, she notes 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 a long way towards working out this problem. She knew how to appreciate the noble in behavior and the noble in art. In the patriot, the philanthropist, the statesman, she could fortive abnominable 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."