19th-century Regional Writing in the United States

Boston Marriage and Cultural Nexus

   When Jewett and Fields both lost the most important men in their lives--Sarah's father Theodore in 1878 and Annie's husband "Jamie" in 1880--the two women found their friendship deepened by their mutual losses. Their relationship rapidly evolved into a long-term union in which they devoted their primary bonds of loyalty, love, and emotional intensity to one another. The exact nature of their involvement has been the subject of continued controversy. Scholars interested in constructing histories of lesbianism have tended to focus more on passionate emotional bonds than on genital sexuality. Studies like those by Adrienne Rich, Blanche Wiesen Cook, and Caroll Smith-Rosenberg have focused on traditional support networks between women as "the foundation of lesbian history." 1

   Smith-Rosenberg, for example, would characterize Sarah and Annie's relationship as a romantic friendship, a quasi-familial arrangement which developed as a response to the Victorian world which segregated men and women both emotionally and physically. According to her research, women in this period typically engaged in a variety of female-female relationships which "ranged from the supportive love of sisters, through the enthusiasms of adolescent avowals of love by mature women." 2 Lillian Faderman, in her book Surpassing the Love of Men, employs a similar strategy. She describes the Jewett-Fields relationship as an example of a "Boston Marriage," which she defines as two women who:

are generally financially independent of men, either through inheritance or because of a career. They were usually feminists, New Women, often pioneers in a profession. They were also very involved in culture and in social betterment, and these female values, which they shared with each other, formed a strong basis for their life together. 3
These formulations are still useful in providing a descriptive model for theorizing about the number and qualities of the strong female-female relationships which existed at the end of the nineteenth-century, but as later scholars have complained, these models politely avoid the topic of sexual practices altogether.

   What historians of homosexuality and lesbian literary critics have argued convincingly is that categories for sexual identity are socially constructed and, therefore, historically specific. They transform the question, asking instead, "[w]hen did desire for intimate bonds with other women. . .become eroticized and a basis for lesbian identity?" 4 As a partial answer, this period (1880-1910) is often highlighted as a transitional one between the different cultural milieus of the 18th-19th centuries and the modern period. The earlier climate viewed romantic friendships between women as normative, contrasted with the later period "when lesbianism became a cultural category ideologically linked with deviance."5

    Any investigation which attempts to discuss the Jewett-Fields relationship in both sexual and social terms needs to situate them in the context of this transition. Indeed, the contrasts between the experiences of Sarah Orne Jewett and those of Willa Cather, a scant generation apart, support a view of this period as pivotal. Jewett, for her part, seems to have suffered little or no self-consciousness about her intimacies and passions. Nor were Jewett and Fields alone as a couple; their circle of contemporaries included such many pairs: Annie's artist sister Lissie Adams kept a house with Miss Burnap in Baltimore, journalist-editor Elizabeth McCracken had "a friend," Olive Dargan lived with Anne Whitney, writer Violet Paget ("Vernon Lee") was involved with Kit Anstruther-Thomson, Alice James with Katherine Loring, mid-western local colorist Alice French ("Octave Thanet") with Jane Crawford, and actress Charlotte Cushman lived with sculptor Emma Stebbins. 6

   To both state the obvious and complicate the matter further, both partners may not have experienced the relationship the same way. For example, Jewett may have fallen closer to a "modern" behavioral (if not attitudinal) definition of lesbian than Fields, whose image, at least in the evidence that survived, sounds more bisexual. Whether because of her personality or because of the difference in their ages (she was 15 years younger than Annie), Jewett remained single all her life, never evincing the slightest desire to marry. As an early biographer reports:

One day Mr. Whittier asked her: "Sarah, was thee ever in love?" She answered, with a rush of color, "No! Whatever made you think that?" And Mr. Whittier said, "No, I thought not"; and again she laughingly explained that she had more need of a wife than a husband. 7
Donovan and Roman both argue that Jewett felt their physical separations more acutely than Fields did. In 1886 Jewett wrote her, "Dearest Fuff. . . .I long to see you and say all sorts of foolish things, and to be as bold as Pinny as can be! and kiss you ever so many times and watch you going about and to be your own P.L. [Pinny Lawson, Jewett's nickname]." 8

   Unlike Jewett, Fields was married the first half of her adult life. Her relationship with James seems to have been an unusually successful one, atypical because of her involvement in "Jamie's" business dealings, his complete romantic devotion to her, and their childlessness. After his death, she always wore a black or lavender mourning veil, and often referred to herself as James' widow. Whether Fields later wrote passionate letters to 'Pinny,' and then burned them (she survived to edit Jewett's effects,) or whether she did not experience the relationship as sexually as Sarah remains a mystery. What is clear is that despite personal differences and on-going societal transformations, Jewett and Fields as a 'couple' remained firmly embedded in the larger circles both female and male society. For all its ambiguous, unnamed sensual and sexual qualities, their "romantic friendship" (and similiar relationships amongst other female pairs in their circle) was not seen as abnormal or perverse, but as part of a natural continuum of female relationships which complemented the larger, patriarchal, social order. 9

   When Fields began spending time with Jewett, the young lady from Berwick was just another of Fields' protegees, for she had quite a reputation for using her influential position to help up-and-coming women writers. However, one of the most notable things about their relationship was its positive effects on the creative production of both women. It was not long before Annie's continuing desire to be a writer herself prompted a new reciprocity in their roles: Soon Annie found herself relying on Sarah, who clearly possessed greater authority where writing was concerned, for help and encouragement. . . . Sarah's acknowledged superiority as a writer balanced Annie's age and position of leadership in the Boston community.10 Indeed, their partnership seems to have allowed them both to pursue individual careers without confining either of them to a fixed role.

   Jewett's writings about friendship provide a useful context for understanding her approach to relationships with other women, for she had strong (and ultimately utilitarian) attitudes. As the narrator says in "Outgrown Friends" (1887), "[w]e are not wrong in looking at friendship as a means toward an end; that end being the formulation and development of the young man's character. . . . Often times our friends seem like the rounds of a ladder which help us raise ourselves, our ascent to the level of each giving us a wider view." 11 The tenor of Jewett's writing reflects an important revision of the earlier notion that selfhood in general, and female identity in particular, must be based on selflessness. For Sarah Jewett, (and probably for Fields as well, judging by her behavior) friendships can be seen as functional because they can be based on reciprocity. In a letter to one of her childhood friends, Jewett chides her, "Don't forget that the true way of growing is to be taking and giving both, I think we can almost always put these two things together in our relations with one person even. . . .Taking so that one can give again is the true secret of a happy, useful life, don't you think?" (1879).12 This equation seems to have worked well for Jewett, in particular, because by choosing to remain "single" she avoided the two main areas of tension--husbands and children.

   By the time Jewett moved into 148 Charles Street, where she would spent winters for the rest of her life, Fields no longer had to negotiate between the needs of her husband's career and her own, nor did Jewett or Fields have to take the care of children into consideration. Given the potential restrictions each of them saw in marriage, and the general cultural barriers that this kind of woman faced in seeking roles outside the home, their romantic friendship and their homosocial network served as particularly adaptive resources. Their Boston Marriage contributed greatly to the genteel, womanly professionalism of each, as well as contributing immeasurably to Jewett's already firm sense of cultural centrality. In addition to supporting one another emotionally, they literally surrounded themselves with other powerful women--"ladies" who were in the process of creating institutions like Radcliffe College and Bryn Mawr, Boston's nationally renowned Associated Charities, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Isabella Stuart Gardiner Museum.13

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"Nineteenth-century Regional Writing in the United States" is the work of Dottie Webb. For suggestions, complaints, cattle-rustling schemes or gossiping over the fence in neighborly fashion, send your e-correspondence to drdotwebb@traverse.net

URL: http://www.traverse.com/people/dot/jewett_fields.html

This document was last modified 6/18/97. Except that I updated my email address April 2001. Does that count? naw.