Kate Field

Mary Katherine Keemle “Kate” Field (1838–96)

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 29, 267–273.

Widely admired in her time as a pioneering free-lance journalist whose oeuvre included several thousand articles published in a variety of publications over more than thirty years of productive work, Mary Katherine Keemle Field—known professionally and to her friends alike simply as Kate Field—was lauded at her death as a pioneer who blazed trails in a cluster of creative fields that were then overwhelmingly the province of men.

In a lengthy obituary published on 31 May 1896, The New-York Times extolled Kate as “one of the most versatile of her sex in this country,” singling out her various roles as “litterateur, lecturer, actress, dramatic critic, author, newspaper woman in all that the title implies” (p. 5). The New-York Tribune¸ for whom she wrote more than one hundred pieces between 1866 and 1889, acclaimed her to have been “one of the best-known women in America,” a status that has faded with the passage of years to the point of near obscurity today (31 May 1896, p. 7).

As a young woman, Kate was especially admired by a coterie of English artists and writers living in Florence, talented people who embraced her as one of their own when she arrived there in 1859 with a wealthy aunt and uncle. She remained in Italy through 1861, living part of that time as the houseguest of Isabella (Isa) Blagden (1816?–73), an English novelist and poet, who resided at Villa Brichieri in Bellosguardo and was particularly close to both Brownings. It was through Isa that Kate established warm friendships of her own with the famous couple, as well as others in their circle, notably the authors Walter Savage Landor and Anthony Trollope.

Kate Field was born in St. Louis, Missouri on 1 October 1838 to a theatrical family: her father, Joseph Matthew Field (1810–56), a journeyman actor, playwright, journalist, and theater manager; her mother, Eliza Lapsley Field (née Riddle, ca. 1812–71), “one of the most beautiful and accomplished actresses of the American stage,” according to the theater historian James E. Murdoch (The Stage, or Recollections of Actors and Acting, Philadelphia, 1880, p. 124); they were married on 6 November 1837. In 1854, Kate took up residence in Boston with her mother’s youngest sister, Cordelia Sanford (née Riddle, 1822–94), whose husband, Milton H. Sanford, was a prominent textile manufacturer with a summer residence in Newport, Rhode Island. With no children of their own, the Sanfords doted on Kate, introducing her to accomplished acquaintances that included Julia Ward Howe, Charlotte Cushman, and Edwin Booth, and enrolled her in Lasell Female Seminary, a private boarding school in nearby Auburndale, where she studied languages, music, rhetoric, literature, mathematics and astronomy for two years (1855–57).

In January 1859, the Sanfords took Kate on an extended trip to Europe, arriving in Florence in April, her modest hope to forge a career as a singer, though a bronchial ailment soon dashed that hope. When her aunt and uncle departed for America, they left their niece in the charge of Isa Blagden. “She was in young womanhood lithe and delicate, but had a shapely figure and the limbs of a danseuse, blue-gray eyes, and a chevelure of brown curls fired with streaks of gold,” according to the The New-York Times obituary: “She came to be known as ‘Bonny Kate Field.’” Kate’s youthful innocence and fresh spirit were greeted with warm approval by the expatriate community. “People here think me so full of passion and truth,” she wrote of the Monday evening soirees she spent at the home of Thomas Adolphus Trollope, Anthony’s elder brother (letter to her mother, January 1860, in Lilian Whiting, Kate Field: A Record, Boston, 1899, pp. 95–96).

Despite the considerable difference in their ages, Landor—who was eighty-four when he met Kate—developed quite a crush on the young American. “Don’t come between me and Paradise,” he quipped when another guest attempted to take a seat between them at the dinner table, drawing the amused attention of EBB. “I hope you appreciate the compliment, Kate,” she whispered to her young friend; even Field acknowledged that “I always put him into a good humor” (letter to Cordelia Sanford, in Whiting, pp. 103–104). Similarly smitten, Anthony Trollope would write effusively in his memoir about Kate being “my most chosen friend” outside his family, a “ray of light to me, from which I can always strike a spark by thinking of her” (Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography, Edinburgh, 1883, 2, 159).

In a June 1859 letter to her mother, Kate called RB “the person whose good opinion I am most anxious for, and to whom I am already very much attached. He feels music, and I should like to sing before him. There is something about him that I fancy marvelously. Last night he said to me, ‘You are very ambitious; you are the most ambitious person of my acquaintance.’ I laughed and asked him how he had arrived at such a conclusion. ‘Oh, I can tell by your eyes,’ he said. ‘How so?’ I asked. ‘I can detect it in their glisten,’ he replied. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘it is no great crime to be ambitious, is it?’ ‘No, indeed,’ he returned; ‘I admire it; I would not give a straw for a person who was not’” (see SD2271 in vol. 26). Two months later, RB sent Kate an “affecting little poem” from Rome he thought she might enjoy, actually a couplet by Landor, along with a rendition of his own composition, and a lengthy postscript added by EBB expressing gratitude “for your excellent advice” and “the vision of your bright earnest face given in the sight of your handwriting.” She added the wish that “we shall meet on the dear terrace [at Bellosguardo], all alive, I hope,” upon their return to Florence (letter 4473).

It was at this time that Kate took up writing dispatches in the form of letters from Europe for several American newspapers, notably the Boston Daily Courier, Boston Evening Transcript, and Daily Picayune (New Orleans) using several gender-neutral bylines, one of them, “Straws Jr.,” a tribute to her late father, who had contributed satirical poems to the Picayune under the nom-de-plume “Straws.” She scored something of a coup in the 19 February 1860 issue of the Picayune with publication of “A Tale of Villafranca,” marking the first appearance in print of the poem with stanza seven, which EBB had inadvertently left out of the version she submitted to the Athenæum, where it first appeared. EBB wrote Kate from Rome on 26 January 1860 giving her guarded permission to write about the Brownings in her dispatches to America, an extraordinary concession on her part, given their general antipathy to having articles written about them. “I cant put a seal on your lips when I know them to be so brave at speaking truth. Take out your license then to name us as you please—only remembering, dear, that even kind words are not always best spoken.” She closed warmly, as always: “Love us here a little, & believe that we think of you” (letter 4583).

Three months later, having just learned from Isa Blagden of “an instance of your acuteness that strikes me with a certain awe,” RB offered additional praise to the young woman, writing at length about what he understood was Kate’s exceedingly perceptive reading of EBB’s 1856 poem “A Curse for a Nation,” her opinion that the nation singled out for ultimate culpability with respect to the institution of slavery was not England, as generally assumed, but the United States. “It appears,” he wrote her from Rome, that “only Kate Field, out of all Florence, can understand” the true intent of the poem, and “it seems incredible,” he then declared, that only Kate should have grasped the distinction among their circle. “In short, you are not only the delightful Kate Field which I always knew you to be,—but the perspicacious creature I am suddenly found bowing down before as the sole understander of Ba in all Florence” (letter 4636).

In June 1860, RB and EBB returned to Florence from an extended stay in Rome. “Mrs. Browning brought me a beautiful pair of sleeve buttons from Rome with ‘Roma’ upon them. I read it backwards—Amor,” Kate informed Emma Stebbins on 10 July 1860. “She is looking much better than she did a year ago” (see SD2388 in vol. 28). Among other treasured gifts Kate received from the couple was a copy of Poems Before Congress (1860), thusly inscribed: “Kate Field with the author’s love– Florence. 1860” (see Reconstruction, C113).

The last letter from EBB to Kate was written in Rome on 28 May 1861, and covered a number of subjects, including the continuing conflict in “your country” between North and South over slavery, which had recently progressed to the “thunder & flame” of Civil War. “Why talk any more, when these things are evident? For me I have done talking– I only groan. ‘Have mercy upon us miserable sinners’ is my form of national anthem.” She was especially grateful to have received a photograph of Kate: “How like you!—and how glad we were of it.” She closed “very affectionately” with a heartfelt “goodbye, till we meet next week. Till then, & after” (letter 4904).

EBB’s death on 29 June 1861 devastated Field, and occasioned a rapid sequence of letters to Cordelia Sanford, her aunt in America, which collectively offer remarkable detail and nuance of EBB’s final days, her funeral, and RB’s state of mind in the immediate aftermath of her loss. “Her last act to me was one of kindness, insisting upon our going up to Villa Brichieri with Mr. Browning in a carriage,” she wrote upon hearing the news. “Almost the last thing that I did in her presence was to kneel before her, and say that when near her, I always longed to be at her feet—and she was so gentle and kind, so loving and unassuming. Her character was as perfect as God permits in the flesh. What Mr. Browning will do, I don’t know. His nature is so excitable that at first I fear the consequences; that in the end this terrible loss will chasten and perfect him, I trust and pray. He who has never had any heavy affliction is now to feel its rod of iron, iron that remorselessly enters the heart and lacerates in the name of the Highest. I cannot realize what has befallen us and the world. The almost last link that binds me to Florence has been sundered, and I long more than ever to be away” (SD2452).

In her next letter, dated 1 July 1861, Kate reported having just returned from EBB’s funeral. “The service was according to the Episcopal form. No discourse. Her life had been a sermon; she needed no other. It was agonizing to look on Mr. Browning—he seemed as though he could hardly stand, and his face expressed the most terrible grief. The poor boy [Pen] stood beside him with tears in his eyes, and when I glanced from them to the pall where their loved one’s remains lay, it seemed as though the sorrow was too much to bear. I yearned to go to Mr. Browning and weep with him that wept. The scene was made impressive in spite of the minister; it was very short, and we were hurried away by Mr. [Thomas Adolphus] Trollope. A lovely wreath of white flowers and a laurel wreath were placed upon the coffin” (SD2458).

Four weeks later, Kate reported how RB had given her mother, who had arrived from America in early 1860 to stay with her daughter in a Florence apartment, “a favorite shawl that belonged to dear Mrs. Browning, and me a locket that she had before she was married, and of which she was very fond. In the centre is a crystal, in which is her hair shaped in two hearts. The gold around it is a serpent emblem of eternity. I cannot tell you how much I value this souvenir. We went to Casa Guidi to take a last farewell of it. Everything was just as she had left it,—the half-opened fan, the last ‘Nazione’ that she had read, the open desk on which she had written all her poems. It was sad, very, very sad! I felt far worse than when standing at her grave” (SD2467). At Kate’s death, the treasured locket became the property of Lilian Whiting (1847–1942), her secretary and first biographer, and is now at Wellesley College with the Marks Collection (see Reconstruction, H593).

An introduction in Florence to RB’s American publisher, James T. Fields (see his biographical sketch in vol. 27, pp. 325–331), who was familiar with Kate’s dispatches to the Boston Courier, would prove propitious. Fields and his partner, William Ticknor, had recently purchased The Atlantic Monthly, with Fields having assumed duties as editor. When Kate decided within days of EBB’s death to write a biographical essay “as a tribute of love” to her memory, she sent the finished manuscript to Fields. He published it in the September 1861 issue, marking her first appearance in the periodical, though in conformance with a practice of the day, unsigned, but later attributed to her in the magazine’s semi-annual list of contributors. (For the full text of Kate Field’s essay, see pp. 392–398.) Written just six days after EBB’s death, the essay, according to Whiting, “has long since been conceded to be the finest interpretation that was ever given of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It will forever remain the one perfect interpretation of Mrs. Browning in its portrayal of the sympathetic divination that so peculiarly characterized her, and as the authoritative transcription of the exquisite life in Casa Guidi” (Whiting, p. 140). RB expressed his admiration for the piece on 9 January 1862 to the American newspaper editor Theodore Tilton, taking issue with a number of assertions included in an unpublished article sent for his perusal. “I have avoided reading what has lately been printed of the same kind,” he declared. “I return your article therefore, crossing out (as you direct) simply what I know to be untrue, & just observing that, as to the dates, I am as ignorant as yourself. There was nothing to correct, however, in the paper of the ‘Atlantic Monthly,’—written, as I believe it to have been, by a dear & truthful friend—you can quote from it safely, so far as I remember. I have it, but will not refer to it” (ms at ABL).

On 6 July 1861, RB wrote a brief note that begins simply “Dear Friend,” his purpose, to thank Kate “for all your kindness which I shall never forget: I cannot write now—except to say this—and, besides, that I have had great comfort from the beginning. I know you are truth’s self in all you profess to feel about her—she also loved you, as you felt. I shall see you soon and talk with you” (letter 4926). RB left Florence with his son in August, shortly after Kate and her mother had departed for Paris, where they spent a few weeks before returning to the United States (see Gary Scharnhorst, Kate Field: The Many Lives of a Nineteenth-Century American Journalist, Syracuse, New York, 2008, p. 34). Correspondence between the two is quiet for the next three years, renewed on 5 May 1864 by RB with a warm reference to “old times,” his knowledge of Kate’s ongoing activities informed largely by news received from their mutual friend Isa Blagden. The content suggests that Kate may have asked him whether he had seen her Atlantic essay on EBB: “I should have thanked you at once: as I do now, indeed and with all my heart—but the review ‘article’ is wavering and indistinct in my mind now, and though it is inside a drawer of this table where I write, I can not bring myself to look at it again—not from a motive which is disparaging to you, as I am sure you understand” (ms at Boston PL).

In 1866, Kate began writing theatrical reviews for the New-York Tribune, which led the following year to her being awarded the coveted assignment of covering the 1867–68 American tour of Charles Dickens, the first of many celebrity profiles she would write for the newspaper. She would also edit her letters to the Tribune about Dickens’s tour into a book, Pen Photographs of Charles Dickens’s Readings (Boston, 1871), and use the material for another activity she had undertaken at this time, the giving of public lectures at lyceums around the country. While preparing a lecture on EBB that would draw on her friendship with the Brownings, Kate queried RB for additional details she could use in her presentation. “I wish I could do what you request of me, but it is doubly impossible,” he replied on 5 July 1870, effectively dissuading her from continuing with the topic for a lecture, which she never gave. “In the first place, I know next to nothing of the places, dates and circumstances you want: and, were it otherwise, my mouth would be stopped for reasons strong enough which I can’t explain now. The Works, and what of the Life you had the opportunity of becoming acquainted with, are quite within your competency to lecture upon—and I need no assurance that the feeling with which you will treat them is as good and kind as ever.” He closed in a spirit of camaraderie: “Come to England, as you promise, and you will gratify few more than your old friend” (ms at Boston PL).

While en route to England the following year to make just such a visit, Kate’s mother and traveling companion died aboard ship on 16 May 1871, putting in limbo any immediate plans there may have been for a reunion. There is some ambiguity, even, as to how often Kate and RB actually did get together over the ensuing months. Lilian Whiting, who quoted selectively from Kate’s now-lost diary in her reverential biography, wrote that RB “called on her frequently” in London at this time and “brought her comfort” (Whiting, pp. 262–263), but his letters to Isa Blagden suggest otherwise. “I shall be glad to see Kate Field again: ten years will have played tricks with her too, I fear,” he wrote on 21 May 1871 (ms at ABL). “I have seen next to nothing of Kate Field,” he allowed to Isa in early August (ms at BL). Later in the month, they had still not reconnected, RB writing, again to Isa, how he was “glad that Kate Field had no wrong notion of my indifference to her visit” (19 August 1871, ms at ABL).

Kate remained in England through 1873, and found success as an actress, lecturer and playwright while continuing to report on political and social events for numerous newspapers. And, eventually, she and RB did see each other during this stay. “I dined with Browning the other evening,” she informed Whitelaw Reid, her editor at the New-York Tribune, in early February 1872, adding that another new acquaintance, George Eliot, was “polite to me” (Kate Field: Selected Letters, ed. Carolyn J. Moss, Carbondale, Illinois, 1996, p. 96). In two other get-togethers, RB read excerpts to her from his controversial new poem, Red Cotton Night-Cap Country, which Kate privately deemed a failure. “He has killed a fine dramatic fact,” she wrote dismissively in her now-lost journal, which led Whiting to confirm the obvious—that a fraying of their friendship had begun.

“It is noticeable that the sympathy between Robert Browning and Kate Field, so marked during her Florentine days, diminished as years went by. Miss Field was an enthusiast for clear, direct, terse, and simple expression. Mr. Browning's style grew more and more involved; and while friendship, certainly, is not made or unmade by literary style, yet it may be true that this style of itself is an expression of the mental attitude behind it; and then, while the poet became more exclusively a figure in society, Kate's sympathies grew broader and she became more and more engrossed with the world of affairs. The best of each nature—both Browning’s and Miss Field’s—was hidden from each other. Their paths diverged,—doubtless to meet again in the truer life to come” (Whiting, pp. 306–307).

While there is no reason to dispute the veracity of the quotations Whiting published in her 1899 “record” of Kate’s life, the fact that she systematically disposed of so much of what was entrusted to her care is problematic. Whiting had strong opinions about “spiritualism” and participated in efforts to communicate with the dead. In addition to her tribute to Kate, she published a number of other books, two of them about the Brownings (A Study of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Boston, 1899, and The Brownings: Their Life and Art, Boston, 1911). In After Her Death: The Story of a Summer (Boston, 1897), she described a series of “telepathic” communications she claimed to have had with her deceased friend and mentor—several of which, she maintained, included explicit instructions on what to do with the “several boxes of her books and papers” entrusted to her after Kate’s death (p. 146).

Many of these papers, Whiting declared in her book, “had become worthless,” an ominous foretelling of what ultimately would happen to them. “Yes, I saved a great deal too much. I see it was always a fault of mine to do so,” Kate had purportedly told Whiting in one of their séances, making for one of the most extraordinary rationalizations ever given for the disposition of a deceased writer’s personal papers (p. 146). A more balanced accounting of Kate’s life, as a consequence, is to be found in the Gary Scharnhorst monograph, Kate Field: The Many Lives of a Nineteenth-Century American Journalist (Syracuse, New York, 2008).

Unmarried and childless throughout her life, Kate had numerous close relationships, the exact nature of them vaguely recalled. She never stopped writing for newspapers, published numerous books including several works of popular fiction, lectured and performed extensively on the stage, and traveled widely. In 1874–75, she appeared in a number of tepidly reviewed plays in the United States, prompting a return to England for a series of well-received theatrical performances there. A one-woman “musical monologue” of her composition, Eyes and Ears in London—described by Scharnhorst as a precursor to vaudeville—was sufficiently successful there that she brought it back to America for a tour of the Northeast and a much warmer reception on her native ground (see Kate Field, pp. 137–140). Among numerous other activities she pursued at this time, Kate was a publicist for Alexander Graham Bell, helping to introduce the telephone on both sides of the Atlantic, and she dabbled unsuccessfully in the fashion industry. Forever on the go, she was active in one pursuit or another to the end of her days. While working on a story about the culture of the Hawaiian islands, she contracted pneumonia, and died on 19 May 1896 in Honolulu. As per her wishes, her body was cremated, and her ashes buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, alongside the remains of her parents. She was fifty-seven years old at her death.

—Nicholas A. Basbanes


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