WHEN we take up a biographical presentation of a brilliant man or a charming woman, two convictions are usually present in our minds: one, that there will be passages that will give us what we want; second, that we shall Have to pay for our pleasure by going through long informational stretches, too exhaustively instructive. Mr. Howe’s presentation of Mrs. Fields is absolutely an exception. Here the frosting is sufficient to the cake; the whole book is the cream of the story. Out of Mrs. Fields’s diaries he has taken only the high spots, or perhaps she chronicled only the high spots; it would be like her. She had a great sense of values — of lasting values. She knew in 1862 who would matter in 1922.
What Mr. Howe has done, in effect, is to reconstruct the scene, by a few unobtrusive but telling touches, and let his lady speak for herself. I feel sure that she would like her diary handled in this way — made into a book recording only golden hours; like a Russian novel, with the dull descriptions and heavy reflections left out — simply not there. The result is that the book has something the quality of a novel; it is a presentation of living people — and such people! — not an encyclopædia of biography. One sits down at a dinner given for Dickens in the dining-room at 148 Charles Street; the guests are Agassiz, Emerson. Judge Hoar, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Greene, Charles Eliot Norton, Longfellow. They leave the table ‘in a tempest of laughter,’ and Dickens hurries off to give one of his readings. Such a dinner! And after it, no penance, no information, none! We simply go to another dinner-party that Dickens gives at the Parker House for his Boston friends. Or, we can go over through a snowstorm in the afternoon with Mrs. Fields, ‘at Mr. Dickens’s kind request,’ to see that the flowers are properly arranged and that the management has neglected nothing about the appointments of the table.
Edwin Booth comes in for tea just as twilight is falling and ‘a magnificent red and purple and gold sunset is staining the Bay,’ and a full moon is beginning to shed its light over the river and the schooners anchored off-shore. To those who knew the ‘long drawing-room’ at 148 Charles Street, that magically haunted room, the scene comes with poignant vividness. In no book have I heard Booth talk so much or so well as he does that afternoon at tea; nor have I read anything that makes him seem at once so human and so mysterious. Where can one find such gatherings of brilliant friends to-day, when the gifted are so singularly, so intentionally, graceless? These people had time for amenities, for friendship; to taste the flavor of life, and to enjoy what was rare in each other.
The Journal moves from Boston to Manchester-by-the-Sea and back, with the seasons, as Mrs. Fields herself moved. There is one lovely passage written at Manchester. It is a perfect summer day. Mr. Fields does not go up to town but stays at home with a bag full of MSS. He and his wife go to a favorite spot in a pasture by the sea, and she reads him a new story that has just come in from Henry James, Jr., the promising young son of an old friend ‘Compagnons de Voyage,’ in ‘execrable’ handwriting. They find the quality good. ‘I do not know,’ she says, ‘why success in work should affect one so powerfully, but I could have wept as I finished reading, not from the sweet, low pathos of the tale, but from the knowledge of the writer’s success. It is so difficult to do anything well in this mysterious world.’
Yes, one says to one’s self, that is Mrs. Fields, at her best. She rose to meet a fine performance, a splendid achievement, always — to the end. At eighty she could still entertain new people, new ideas, new forms of art. And she brought to her greeting of the new all the richness of her rich past: a long, unbroken chain of splendid contacts, beautiful friendships. Even Bergson, I remember, so foreign to the Augustan tradition, looked about that long drawing-room with thoughtful pleasure in his keen eyes when someone told him that Thackeray had worked for a longish time in this house, and used to have his tea here by the fire.