The Cultural Work of the Late Nineteenth-Century Hostess: Annie Adams Fields and Mary Gladstone Drew.
For decades, feminist scholars have struggled to bring to light the intellectual and artistic achievements of nineteenth-century women in an effort to reveal those women as more than just domestic angels, adoring wives, and perfect mothers. Given the success of this agenda, a study of hostesses might initially seem to be a step backward. After all, Annie Adams Fields and Mary Gladstone Drew, the subjects of Susan K. Harris's new book, devoted their lives to the facilitation of the careers of famous men, Harris admits that this devotion hindered and often took the place of their own artistic development. Fields, in particular, has been known primarily (and often patronizingly) as a hostess since before her husband's death. Yet The Cultural Work of the Late Nineteenth-Century Hostess is not a revisionary biography of either Fields or Gladstone (Harris refers to her as "Gladstone" rather than "Drew" because she did not marry until 1886, just towards the end of the period addressed by this study) or a lament for what we, as a culture, may have lost by not encouraging the careers of women. Rather, as her title indicates, this is a cultural study of women's influence within an extremely privileged sphere of the politically and intellectually powerful. This is also, just as importantly, a transatlantic study in which Harris rather refreshingly foregrounds her own method and approach to these women's lives and their "cultural work."
Given Harris's previous work on women who support and facilitate the careers of male public figures, it seems there is no better scholar to approach the topic of late nineteenth-century hostesses. Unlike in The Courtship of Olivia Langdon and Mark Twain (Cambridge University Press, 1996), however, here Harris is dealing with British as well as American women and their respective cultures. She began the study, in fact, with an interest in Mary Gladstone, whose role as hostess and private secretary for her father facilitated William Gladstone's four terms as Great Britain's Prime Minister. Harris acknowledges that her comparison of Fields and Gladstone can be seen as problematic, given that there are "radical differences in the two countries' political, social, demographic, and institutional evolutions" (2002, 23). Yet she argues that these differences cannot be seen as deterrents to comparative studies. "In an investigation such as this one," she writes, "where roles are performed similarly, with similar results, it makes more sense to compare than to contrast" (24). This is not to say that Harris pays no attention to the differences between the two women; these differences in national identity, writing style, and attitude toward the position of hostess (to name just a few) are an important part of the study. The similarities, however, are intriguing. Both women performed the role of hostess within an upper-class, privileged family, facilitating the careers of powerful men--James T. Fields, one of nineteenth-century America's most important publishers, and William Gladstone. Prime Minister of Great Britain. Hostessing required both women to develop specialized skills that enabled them to construct and manage more than one domestic environment conducive to the sharing of opinions and the working of influence--both their own and that of friends. As Harris writes, the hostess placed "other people in contact with each other and so directed the conversation that her guests found themselves talking about subjects of immediate relevance to their own work and, beyond their immediate concerns, to their societies. In this, her power lay not in her directions to any particular individual but rather in her ability to bring people together so that they could enact the agenda that she set" (5-6). While these women are generally thought of in relation and subordinate to others, they wielded considerable power in a way that was strictly particular to women of their class and social position, but especially to their role as hostess. Finally, Harris points out in a crucial extension of her argument, both women were part of a "bridge generation," in which they used the skills developed as hostesses and their privilege to affect the shape of the cultural landscape in the late nineteenth-century. "Seen retroactively," she claims, such skills admirably fitted nineteenth-century hostesses for jobs in the new bureaucratic structures that marked late nineteenth-century modernity" (122).
Harris's thesis is made even more interesting by the organization of her book and the way in which she foregrounds issues of genre and women's private writing. While the first chapter of her study introduces the focus on the hostess and provides brief biographies of both women, the second and third examine Fields and Gladstone as diarists and letter writers. Working with both the women's private writings and scholarship on diaries and letters, Harris uses content as well as form to reveal much about the women's respective relationships to and performance of their role as hostess. "Diaries and letters are informants, but they are also means, and as such, they filter information through cultural and individual lenses," Harris writes. The fourth chapter looks at Mary Gladstone's maintenance of a "reading community" through the use of letters, and the fifth is a consideration of Fields as a literary historian, consciously constructing social history in her private and public writing. The sixth returns to a simultaneous consideration of the two women, proposing that the charitable and artistic work of the later nineteenth-century was possible only because they had served as hostesses, refining skills that allowed them to "influence" the public sphere without seeming to step outside accepted roles for women. Thus Harris approaches her thesis in different ways depending on the chapter; at times she foregrounds generic considerations and at times she uses the women's writing in the service of her larger thesis. She considers the writers comparatively, as well as individually, moving comfortably between her analyses of both women, highlighting their similarities as well as their differences. This approach provides for a delightful complication of her thesis as well as opening it up for further research.
Certainly Harris's text lays the groundwork for future studies of these two women. While Gladstone has received almost no critical attention, Fields has been the subject of two biographies, the most recent Rita K. Gollin's Annie Adams Fields: Woman of Letters (University of Massachusetts Press, 2002). She has also been written about in relation to her two better-known companions, James T. Fields and Sarah Orne Jewett. Yet perhaps more importantly, this rather short book also implicitly calls for a rethinking of women's private writing, nineteenth-century literary communities, and women's "influence" or power in late nineteenth-century society. It also provides a model of transatlantic criticism and suggests that gender studies might be crucial to this burgeoning field. The literary and political allusions of the book may not be familiar to the scholar who is unaccustomed to transatlantic criticism; yet rather than being a shortcoming of the book itself, this would seem to me to indicate a need for this sort of approach and retraining for those scholars who have become comfortable--complacent, even--in their national niche.
The College of William & Mary
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|Title Annotation:||Book Reviews|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
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