I've just finished reading Lilian Whiting's Kate Field: A Record, a thickish book during the day, partly in response to reading Robert Polhemus's essay in the volume I'm reviewing on two stories by Anthony Trollope (Politics of Gender in Anthony Trollope), and partly because Kate Field is an important 19th century figure for people interested in women writers, especially from a feminist standpoint.
Kate Field lived a feminist life, stayed single, went about lecturing, and mingled with independent interesting people in English colonies around Europe. I can see Whiting is in love with her or was -- Whiting was one of these spiritualists and thought Kate came to visit her after Kate died (well everyone but has their weakness), and as I read I begin to wonder if Kate was bisexual and that one reason she never married.
Kate Field, by Frank Millet (1881)
She supported herself by giving lectures, common in the US then (no TV, no radio, no central city after the east coast): we see her forced to make something of a fool of herself in absurd costumes; she did it and was a success
Read alertly there emerges the portrait of a family trying to live differently. Her grandfather an Irish publisher who came to the US; her father an actor of real aspiraction and her mother an actress, living on the edge and falling off now and again. Real intelligence and decent humane values. What strikes me with what I know of Trollope is the real heterodoxy of these lives (I've read enough of 19th centuruy American memoirs to know how philistine, materialistic were the average and the elite yet worse). This depiction of the life of these theatre and publishing people in the US is more frank than most -- for Whiting reprints many letters and includes details of struggle to make ends meet, of people pressuring one another to praise and place their work, get jobs, for the life of people who "boarded" (lived in boarding houses) and then rented a house. The Kate's mother lived with the her parents on and off to make ends meet; they had but two children (so contraception used) and one died. Taht left just Kate to support the mother when the father died.
Kate emerges as really gifted and an original spirit. She was important to and for Dickens too; there she openly acknowledged the relationship. As I say, she's an important 19th century figure for people interested in women writers from a feminist standpoint too, for she lived a feminist life -- she really is analogous to Trollope's mother.
It's a profound book. On one level, Whiting has made me ashamed of believing that Kate Field was somehow shallow, second rate, a minor woman indeed. She reprints great swatches of Field's diaries, her letters and pieces from her writing. Yes she never produced the big masterpiece: reason, largely she did not manage to rise in the way Sutherland in his book Novelists and Publishers said one must: above the publisher, in control of one's writing. Only two English women did: Polly Lewes (aka George Eliot), largely the result of Lewes, and Elizabeth Gaskell.
I'm loving it -- it brings the later 19th century independent woman alive. She is a feminist. She waxes indignant at the stereotypes imposed on her. She was driven against repression and her own upbringing to lecture. There was much money in it; it was time-consuming but except for 50 pounds from an uncle (who she defied or she wuold have had plenty) she has to make her way supporting herself and invalid mother.
Now she is not a lesbian. There are two enigmatic letters to another man who she was in love with; he has treated her very shabbily. She has nothing in the money or prestige realm to attract him sufficiently. Whiting seems to me in love with her; she and Whiting (or Whiting alone) just adore Elizabeth Barrett Browning; in that women's works they find their exaltation and standard and comfort. You will learn a lot about the lives of this class of woman when highly intelligent, gifted, going around in the "best" circles.
The book gets one into Dickens since she wrote more about her relationship with him, her Pen portraits and connections than she does to others -- except for Trollope. Yes there are these references to meeting Mr Trollope. She met him at a very impressionable time: her father just dead and she escapes to Florence with her aunt and uncle and there at the core of the group are the Trollopes. Anthony begins to be mentioned separately. She meets him again apparently seeing him on and off for two weeks in DC and mentions other times. Her letters to him were all destroyed by him. Only a very few of hers to him have survived, in number like Vittoria Colonna's to Michelangelo -- they remind me of these.
I'm not sure about the affair with Trollope myself -- first her attitude of mind is so different from any of the heroines. She is deeply romantic in spirit, idealistic, strong individual thinking, high aspiration. This kind of tone is alien from Trollope. On the other hand, her form of conventionality, her despising of over commercialism, her own more conservative values (she's not really anti-slavery in just the way Trollope is) fits him, so too the cosmopolitansim, dislike of the lies of ceremony. I can see the friendship's basis. Even love -- especially if you bring his week as written up in Washington and think of his higher ideals presented through satire and occasionally forthrightly ni his work.
Whiting's revealing "record" stuffed with letters, and excerpts from Field's diary, journalism) and also two essays by Sharnhorst (who has written the modern biography) tells you that Field was a central important journalist of her time. The kind of phrases we see online on wikipedia which call her work "eccentric" is the usual dismissal of a woman: she was not eccentric at all. She was mainstream. She did write a book, on an Italian actress who acted in the US, Ristori, a biography which has not been in print for some time and is forgotten She did not write the kind of learned articles Eliot and Oliphant did because they were not wanted by US journals; she didn't write at length because she never did get a sustaining job as an editor or regular contributor. It was actually much harder to do this in the US, and so she had to spend a lot of time networking to get the next writing job. She also spent a lot of time traveling -- and probably had lovers too. She was a very modern woman. All this takes time.
That Trollope loved her speaks very well of him. I come away saying what everyone else does: his love for this woman and respect for you goes against his repeated anti-feminism in his books, especially his insistence no woman's life is worth living who isn't married and with children. He did write one letter that was kept where he urges her to marry. But he wrote many others which have been destroyed. Always the ones one wants to read are those which are not put into print and destroyed.
James was a thorough anti-feminist in the way of Trollope: disliked competition really and he loathed the journalistic world which did reveal private lives of artists -- for what the public did with these lives. And so Stackpole is shown to be a caricature of Field in a second article I share today.
She was a sceptical careerist despite her stance of idealism and sentimentality -- it was a way to sell. And so Dickens was for her someone to admire centrally but also a career choice -- to write and especially to lecture about him (in lecturing there was much money and that's another way she lost time to writing something we could today read). I got no sense he had been someone she loved.
She had some radical stances. She supported John Brown and was responsible for a memorial set up there. She supported Charles Bradlaugh, a man who was open about his atheism and was continually kicked out of parliament. The behavior towards him reminds me of the US congress towards the black member, Adam Clayton Powell and in the 18th century parliament's attitude towards Wilkes.
Wikipedia gives a wholly false view of her. She was on the stage briefly and having no success stopped. Even the photo misrepresents her as masculine -- which she wasn't in appearance at all.
Reading about Kate Field's life of Adelaide Ristori, a rival to Rachel, I was curious to look at wikipedia articles. Rachel is a fascinating figure. Ristori became associated with Marie Antoinette after she played the part in the US (Marie Antoinette exercises an inexplicable fascination for Americans to the point, Christina Stead, thorough going communist and radical wrote her unfinished book about an author writing a life of Antoinette which includes a piece of said imagined life, I'm Dying Laughing.
Ristori as a tragic actress: perhaps Mary Stuart?
the surface text is still all idealistic effusion, but the letters included show the difficulties of Field's life, and hint at things sufficiently. For example, Field couldn't succeed in an acting career because of terrific prejudice against women acting -- if she wanted to continue being respectable, a journalist interested in public causes, and yet she needed the money she could get. So she wavered back and forth.
She did not want to marry. This comes out again and again. We are told she loved two men and given the letters of one who originally jilted her and then when he came back, she refused him. She had seen his inner self and values too much and writes she thinks marriage with him would be bad because of what he is. (Remarkable letter.) Later in life after she lost her money from the phone shares he offers to help here. She all her life refused her uncle's money because the bargain was she would leave public life. When she is in her later 40s, this same offer is still made. How her aunt and uncle could offer such stiflement is starlting; it shows how little her public life was respected by the dull elves of the world.
Who is the second man? We are not told. Scharnhost thinks AT and through the years before Trollope is dead again and again there are notes of their meetings, not often to be sure but doing it -- he points out how odd it is that all her letters to Trollope have been destroyed, most of her references to him and his long two week meeting with her covered up.
Scharnorst's book which I've not read as yet
She dislikes the lies of funerals and her attitude towards graves reminded me of how Trollope was for cremation.
She had to get herself up as a woman. In the album I put a dramatic theatrical picture of her (for Trollope19thCStudies it's in individual photos) where she looks slightly ridiculous so overmelodramtic and sentimental is the get-up. She's in her forties and getting heavier top. She knew how to network and did present a face that was expected.
Very important were her women friends to her, and she visited and lived with people who were high culture and powerful again and again. This is not easy to pull off; this aspect of her selling herself is kept from us in the book.
As she grows older, the tone goes stronger.
She made a great "killing" in the invention of the telephone. She pushed for it in journalism and was sold shares at a cheap rate which then went hammering up. For several years she was a rich lady, and then she did a remarkable thing: she opened a huge department store meant to be a cooperative. She would sell inexpensive dresses manufactured quickly at reasonable prices. She herself hated and never did the endless sewing other women did -- what a waste of time. (Austen says in one letter her dream is never having to sew a man's shirt again, having ready made things -- words to this effect, something never mentioned when people go ga-ga over her satin stitch.) She hired women employees only. The venture failed because her norms were still aristocratic int he way she set the shop up. She did provide chairs for her employees to sit down in. The sad reality is upper class women came and they want expensive exclusive clothing and don't care if it doesn't easily fit.
She began a campaign against polygamy -- a fierce one. It's noticeable that after 1882 when Anthony Trollope died, she stops her annual trips to London and takes trips west. She went to Utah and what she saw horrified her. Alas Whiting won't tell such details and what got into the newspapers was censored. Probably very young girls in effect sold to older men who could beat and enslave them sexually, inflict endless children on them. Field got nowhere really because here no one would interfere with the sacred family-private life, but she did try. Here one does find letters from men (always men) refusing to give her space to lecture, suddenly ont he grounds she's a woman. Trollope took a "mysterious" visit to Utah we are told in all the biographies. Another visit to the US we don't know about at all, or why he went. Hmmm
Back to her general politics: we can see so much done for women, meaning well, and yet publicly she was against suffrage. She was brave very brave -- we don't hear about what sexual harrassment she must have known at all. But she didn't cross lines in public.
Howells' A Foregone Conclusion was a favorite novel for Field. It takes place in Italy and reminds me of Henry James: Americans abroad in Europe is the surface feel. Also anticipating Forster.
I can see why Trollope loved and admired her. I was interested to see that his paragraph on her with his characterization of her as a "ray of light" that "strikes a spark" deep within him is on the antepenulate page of this book; so too did Robert Hughes end his masterpiece (a book important for our time), The Fatal Shore with Trollope's description of a prisoner he saw in a cottage near a prison camp this man had spent his life in as a transported imprisoned laborer. Chilling and not shocking because commonplace in what a life of such horror could bring to someone who endured it.
I feel the cruelty of Henry James's Henrietta Stackpole caricature strongly and if Scharnhorst is right and everyone at the time saw it, this would be one of those "slings and arrows" Whiting mentions, only a few of which she describes or reproduces. The stilted inaccurate wholly unreal wikipedia article shows that since Kate Field didn't fit any prescription then and lived outside norms so she still doesn't fit them so you can't categorize her and put her in an agenda like a number of her friends (Jeanette Gilder, journalist and editor out of her connection with her family --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeannette_Leonard_Gilder; Lucy Stone, suffragette and so on).
There's an odd double text going on in the book which comes out more and more towards the end. On the surface and literally there is this continual celebration. Look how many powerful, intelligent, radical, cultivated people are having her over to dinner, are giving her funds, are going to cultivated events with her. How much she is enjoying life. How involved in good causes she is. She dies in Hawaii having gone there in an attempt to find out about it (her two last trips remind me of Trollope's last to Iceland -- she goes to remote places and attempts to help people by writing about them) and very weak, sick, having lost more money again in a 5 year effort of publishnig a magazine important at the time, kate Field's Washington, in DC. We are told how many people are around her as she dies -- of pneumonia and apparently from neglecting herself. At the same time we are told how alone she is; under the cheer is depression. That's the second script: how alone she is, the struggle, how she is ever on the edge of disaster economically or plunges in. Because this is a Victorian book Whiting will not explain what she asserts: how many people criticized Field for her unconventionality and how and why this hurt, but she repeats it happened again and again. She captures this dual story in utterances towards the end of the book like "Our real life is with most of us the life we do not live" (p. 575).
A few more realities about her last years: she fought polygamy (called "Utah's problem) because she feared it would spread. She saw polygamy in other countries. In her lectures she did describe what she saw but Whiting only quotes lines like this "would spread brutalization of men debilitation of women." I remembered a famous case a few years ago where in an area of fundamentalist religion either in or near Utah, a woman drowned her five children; she was mentally troubled and after the second child the doctors told the husband to not insist she have more; he wouldn't listen and I read in the courtroom it was clear he was a "dense patriarch" and seen as at fault. She fought for preventing Utah from getting statehood until polygamy was declared against the law. I don't know that she got explicit legislation. She also wanted a a national marriage law (p 451) to protect women (and men too) from bigamy and exploitation and abuses. One that would prevent coerced marriage and wife and children abuse. Some Utahans (not Mormons) supported her (p. 463); she joined a women's relief organization and tried to nationalize it.
Early versions of women's sheltered and other protective legislation. ERA might have hurt such progressive steps as exist and that's one reason it was understandably voted down. Who would put their fate in the supreme court's hands then or now?
She supported very radical people again. Willam Stead:
Like Trollope she was for cremation and unlike him was able to get herself cremated. She had no relatives to protest (see the above on this dual story in this biography). For Kate there is much evidence of strong scepticism and atheism especiall disbelief in Bible exists with belief in spiritual realm (Trollope once went to a seance I recall); it's Whiting who turns her into this mystic p 553.
On more general social activities: She actually tried to set up a bureau to help people get jobs in the UK! (pd. 501-2). This outraged the privileged and powerful -- they always know that unemployment helps them. At the time there were very few ways someone could get a job without connections; a new system of tests and meritocracy had begun in the UK; and the first movements towards civil service reform, but only a few steps. (Thanks to Mr Carter we now have a destroyed government service, turned back to coteries.) Finally she did come out as a suffragette, but only later in life (p. 504).
Arts; She and friends worked hard in the UK at setting up the Shakespeare sites at Stratford; they were mocked for wantiing to have the theater there. She travelled a lot (like Trollope) and after France and Italy and the American west (as I suggested towards the end imitating Trollope) Alaska.
Late in life on a Western Tour (which she describes the difficulties of in her revealing Hap-Hazard (available in facsimile reprint)
I can see how small the elite world in the US was too. For example, when she died, around her was Mabel Loomis Todd (editor of Emily Dickinson's papers) who was on her way with husband to do some research; also her paid companion, Anna Paris.
The last 7 years include the 5 year stint as a self-engineering creator and editor of a paper: Kate Field's Washington. As a woman she couldn't get anyone to hire her as editor or regular contributor so she made a paper of her own. In the reprints of the writing from it I can see there is no tradition of high learning or intellectuality in US periodicals like those in the UK of the day (in which Oliphant wrote, Lewes, Eliot). The anti-intellectual character of the US even then comes out. Its distrust of high art -- so she has to vulgarize and can't write what she would like - -she writes about this in separate letters. It was during this time she tried to set up a bureau for getting people jobs and also worked with a group of people to being the National Gallery. Like Trollope in his essay on the UK National Gallery, she wanted to see American works on its walls, American works honored.
She did create her own social capital and lived and made money out of it. Could not have had Aspergers. She knew how people wanted to use her and how to use them without alerting them too strongly to it. I think that's the ticket to successful social life: knowing intuitively how others want to use you in ways that really matter to them.
Her writing was daring: she actually criticized strongly Tolstoi's Kreutzer's Sonata - coming out as a unmarried woman on behalf of sexual life. Whiting says her close reading of this book was unusual and created a stir and sold papers.
She wrote non-traditionally (this reminds me of myself) and one reason she's not recognized; I mentioned how such a life of continually networking for support and writing for the public left little time for masterpieces. but also she conceived of writing as fundamentally social; she wrote to create movements (p. 516). Imitating Stead (and Michael Moore today) she did create her material for stories. Whiting who loves her says she "lived intensely in the present, "du jour au jour" (p. 545)
Again and again she doesn't want to marry; doesn't care to; would rather be alone than in a cold relationship. The second unnamed lover (Trollope would be the other) comes around at stated intervals (pp. 191-93, 275-76, 413-16). She makes an eloquent statement on the joys she gets from the life she has. A close woman friend who stayed at home Whiting says is responsible for having this cache of letters. I wondered if it was Whiting, but it dosen't quite fit. Very touching is the reproduction of one of Field's letters so you see her handwriting and the intensities of affection towares this supportive friend she apparently wrote daily (p. 456) for 15 to 17 years.
Here are her comments on Mary Ward's Robert Elsmere to this beloved supportive friend (p. 461)
Robert Elsmere is all you claim for it. I am deeply moved by it and am more indebted to you than you can think. What a study it is! How great, how earnest, how artistic. Nothing slighted, and the broad mind does the suffering as usual, and finds little sympathy at home. What a tragedy (p. 416).
She also liked Oliphant, stories of unseen and seen, especially "Lady Mary" (about the unretrievablity of what happens, an anti-Christmas Carol tale).
I conclude on Kate Field's Pen Portraits of Dickens on tour and lecturing:
I can see why it's in print: it seems to me that she captures a key note feel, qualities and turn of mind and attitude as seen by later Victorians and quite a number of people today too in each of Dickens's texts that he acted portions out of. Each sketch is a kind of distillation of the particular novel under question. It seems that Dickens chose texts that sort of epitomized qualities in his book he wanted to project strongly, and texts that conveyed some of his own personal obessions and hurts (one as a writer) and put these together.
I do emphasize as seen by Victorians. I do not mean she is not alive to the social criticism and reform themes of his novels. She emphasizes these, but rather she is not that subtle and is a woman of her time. So she discussed Doctor Marigold in a way that obscures it's about child abuse, and is not sensitive to the idea that deaf people are as equal as non-deaf; is a text about how people who have abnormal conditions (like they are too tall) and makes fun of this. She misses things that stare out at us. For me I see she is amused by precisely the kind of joke in Dickens I can't take - at the vulnerable (Bob Sawyer's Party would not amuse me), and she is susceptible to sentimental slosh (a Christmas story where there's a character who is a Boots called Cobb).
She frames it by telling of the great excitement to get tickets. How people waited in line for hours. She puts herself in the scene as a rare woman getting tickets for herself on her own. She only got in through influence to the particular place she describes -- which is small. It seems it was rare for women to wait on line publicly that way. That night though there were many women in the audience and in particular many upper class respected members of the local population.
Very interesting was her quoting Dickens (and others) objections to the use of their texts in Victorian times to make plays out of to make money -- just like today film-makers take texts fro this. Dickens complained (as did Trollope -- Trollope got infuriaited at what was done to Ralph the Heir -- and without his permissio and without promising compensation first) that his texts were ruined and new material invented. Well in Dickens's presentation of Nicholas Nickleby he did the same. He made new writing which was more suitable for the stage to project what he wanted understood. Field knew the novels very well (in her diary you can see her reading and rereading them) and can pick out what's not in the novels. ( See p. 35 of 1998 Whiston Publishing edition of Pen Portraits).
in her description of Dickens's readings from and of Mrs Gamp she shows he did what film-adaptors do: he takes speeches from one character and gives them to another, rearranges, takes tidbits here and there, this to convey the central aspect of Mrs Gamp which apparently on stage was redolent of pragmatic realism and pity -- especially over her invented friend, Mrs Harris -- who I remember her as talking to all the time. Lonely woman, Mrs Gamp.
As a woman who made money lecturing and doing theatrical presentations she is so alive to how Dickens is a showman presenting himself. He would stand behind a dark colored skrim, had gas lights and gas pipes aimed at him with reflectors. He was presenting his face and figure to best advantage consciously frequently. She is disappointed he is not handsomer (!) and somehow expected him to look different (this is a common experience I suppose) but adjusts and in the end talks of his wonderful varied expression-filled face and voice.
For myself as someone who listens to books read aloud a lot and often love it, I appreciate something she does that I've rarely done in talking on the Net about listening to books: she repeatedly brings out how listening to someone enact a text provides a new richer meaning, a new tone, and how you somehow (I do) respond more alertly to lots of things you might not in silent reading. For example in her telling of Dickens's doing Dombey and Son (courageous because this was done with full sense of the grim tragedy of the book, not for light amusement), she says how Dickens can make a face, pronounce a word, and suddenly "its significance dawns upon me, and I behodl that nurse in all manner of situations, with all manner of people." (See particularly pp. 42-43).
I feel this with some of the readers I've listened to. Glenda Jackson reading Austen's Persuasion forever changed my sense of Austen's presentation of Mrs Penelope Clay. Jackson brought out the sexuality of the woman and Austen's empathy with her. It's really there. David Case is a superb adder to books as narrator in this way.
Alas, Dickens didn't like this book that much. He told her he was enthusiastic and would do what he could to publish it, and then told her the publisher was against it. There's a discreet letter from Trollope telling her the truth he found out: Dickens was against her publishing it, and had someone in mind to do all his lectures (that other book is published, Charles Kent's Charles Dickens as a Reader, available as a google book which you can buy if you really want to read it). Trollope really did try to help her, but no go; she published in the US, and only years later brought out a second fuller edition. Her book is slender partly because Dickens gave her no help -- even if he was courteous and flirty in his letter.
Just on Robert Polhemus's essay in Politics of Gender, ed. DMMorse and MMarkwick: it's on two remarkable short stories by Trollope; "Ride Across Palestine" and "Mary Gresley," the first with open sexuality that is homoerotic and heterosexually transgressive in all sorts of ways, the second about a woman author bullied and traumatized into destroying her work and going to live as a missionary and dying for her pains. Both masterworks according to Polhemus, and partly intriguing for the sexualities dramatized in them as well as autobiograhical content. He uses the paradigm of Lot and again very discreetly wrote a book about Lot's Daughters as well as Erotic Faith in real relationships and novels showing emotional incest between older men and younger women as important to the successes of the women's lives, their outlook and for the men's fulfillment. I know whereof he speaks.
Polhemus is too careful to say this (even today) but it seems to me he is one of those who sees it as obvious, inevitable that not only did Trollope love Kate Field and he her, but they had some sort of physical affair. I've put in the Trollope19thCStudies files an essay which might make some laugh where Gary Scharnhorst shows a pattern of destruction of all letters and not mentioning one another and a kept-quiet time together in Washington DC (a time which is registered by the inexplicable depression of the chapter in his North America_ written after he and Kate had to part), the sections on Washington DC recorded here in one of those discussions this list used to have and put on line
The silence and awkwardness and insistence the affair has to be physically unconsummated reminds me of the way Trollope's mother's trip, Frances Trollope with Hervieu is still portrayed by some as her wa of setting up her middle son, Henry in life.
Polhemus like many wants to see a number of Trollope's most famous portraits in his fiction as of Field. I doubt it. The "Ophelia" story is the only one and there he trumpets the connection; his memories of her might enter into his portraits of flirtation witty American heroines, but the typing is still strongly redolent of novels, and Lily Dale, Lady Mason, and Mary Gresley are characters who retreat, who want out, very different at the core; Gresley ends up as Jane Eyre might have had she married Eyre, a mistake I can see Field would never have gotten near, for she never would have gone for such a bigoted tyrant in the first place.