An upcoming virtual program presented by the Nichols House Museum will explore the seemingly unlikely 19th century “Boston marriage” of Maine author Miss Sarah Orne Jewett and prominent Boston socialite Mrs. Annie Adams Fields.
“The relationship was mutually nurturing and supportive,” said Marilyn Keith Daly, Historic New England’s South Berwick, Maine site manager. “They were both at the center of Boston or even New England arts society, particularly artists and also writers.”
Keith Daly conceived, researched, wrote, and collaborated with organizational staff to create the reinterpretation of Historic New England’s Sarah Orne Jewett House Museum, which launched in 2018, and for the upcoming “Miss Jewett and Mrs. Fields, a Boston Marriage,” she has used their own words, diary entries, and letters to tell the story of their unique union, including how they welcomed the inner circle of New England artist society to their homes in Beacon Hill, Manchester-by-the-Sea, and South Berwick, Maine.
An author and social reformer in her own right, Mrs. Fields was the wife of James T. Fields, editor of the Atlantic Monthly.
“She was a beautiful woman who supported her husband, who was a very influential and important publisher of the time,” said Keith Daly of Mrs. Fields. “She as known for being a hostess – witty, charming, and empathetic.”
Besides being a warm and welcoming hostess, Mrs. Fields also provided input to her husband on editorial matters at the Atlantic Monthly.
“She advised him on writers, particularly advocating for women writers, like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sarah before they knew each other,” said Keith Daly.
Mrs. Fields was also committed to social reform during her lifetime.
“There was a whole other side to her that was strongly influenced by her upbringing, which was a real concern for the working poor, as well as a tremendous drive for women’s suffrage and women’s education,” said Keith Daly.
Upon the death of James T. Fields at age 63 in April of 1881, Miss Jewett paid a condolence visit to Mrs. Fields at her Beacon Hill home.
While Keith Daly said condolence visits typically lasted between one to three months, Miss Jewett stayed for three months. Miss Jewett then only returned to her Maine home briefly to collect some belongings, as she and Mrs. Fields were already scheduled to take a trip together to Europe.
“They were essentially a couple from that time forward,” said Keith Daly.
Besides some of Mrs. Fields’ diary entries, the program will also look at a few letters that Miss Jewett wrote to her, which, Keith Daly said, “show the evolution of their relationship.”
In letters to Mrs. Fields prior to the death of her husband, Miss Jewett was “warm and polite in tone” while discussing possible visits to see Anne, said Keith Daly, but only a year later, one of Miss Jewett’s letters to Mrs. Fields ends with a love poem and is signed “yours most lovingly, SOJ.”
The program will also look at the attitudes towards marriage at this time.
“On the surface, it wasn’t unheard of or unusual for women in the 19th century to see marriage as still largely an economic situation,” said Keith Daly. “Women who were financially independent like Sarah, who came from well-to-do families on both sides, didn’t have to marry.”
Moreover, Keith Daly added, “It also wasn’t unusual in Boston at this time for two women to set up a household together if they could do so financially, but their relationship went much deeper than that.”
Their relationship was also unique in the support that the women lent to each other amid their respective careers.
“In their relationship, Sarah and Annie had the freedom to pursue their careers and the emotional support of a life partnership,” said Keith Daly. “Both women were really driven in their work and cared a great deal about each other.”
“Miss Jewett and Mrs. Fields, a Boston Marriage” takes place virtually on Wednesday, March 23, at 6:30 p.m. The cost to attend is $15 general admission, $10 for seniors, and $6 for the discounted rate. Register at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/miss-jewett-and-mrs-fields-a-boston-marriage-tickets-266501512197.