Sarah Orne Jewett wrote stories for a living, but truly was a poet at heart. Her stories were criticized as being too sweet, too shallow, too domestic. Yet, it was just those qualities that made her a good poet. (I hesitate to call her “great”, but she was “good”.)
The Lesbian Question for Sarah Orne Jewett
- The word “lesbian” had not yet been invented, and even if it had, it is unlikely that Jewett would have discussed her personal life with reviewers. Her name has been linked with women, and with romance at the same time. There is, for example, a poem titled “Love and Friendship” that is believed to have been written for Cora Lee Rice. Here is an excerpt:
Do you remember, my darling
A year ago today
When we gave ourselves to each other
Before you went away …?
How little we knew, my darling,
All that the year would bring!
Did I think of the wretched mornings
When I should kiss my ring
And long with all my heart to see
The girl who gave the ring to me?
Once a reporter asked Sarah Jewett if she had ever been in love. She replied, blushing, “No! Whatever made you think that?” She told the reporter that she had more need of a wife than a husband. Even in one of her stories, “Tom’s Husband”, Jewett used the theme of heterosexual marriage and how it can destroy a woman because women lose their identities to their husbands, forsaking all activities except those that benefit their husbands. And in her 1884 novel “A Country Doctor”, she looked forward to the day when a more intelligent society would realize that not all women were fit for traditional matrimony, but rather for other occupations.
She was clearly a woman ahead of her time!
Annie Fields and Sarah Jewett
It was, however, Annie Fields (pictured above) who was the true love of her life. Sarah Jewett and Annie Fields lived in what was termed a “Boston marriage” for nearly 30 years, being together, traveling together, entertaining together.
Annie Fields was actually “Mrs. Fields”, the wife of Jewett’s literary editor. Upon the death of Mr. Fields, Sarah Jewett and Annie Fields began their long friendship/romance.
With Annie Adams Fields, Sarah Jewett formed friendships with a number of the major artists and intellectuals of her time, including Madame Thérèse Blanc, Willa Cather, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and John Greenleaf Whittier.
Ultimately, it doesn’t seem to matter much if Sarah Jewett and Annie Fields were actually lovers or not. Both wrote beautiful poetry, subtle poems evoking gentle emotions. Here is one of Sarah Orne Jewett’s poems called “Verses for a Letter”:
Did you send out a little white moth
On an errand to-night?
For one hovered and lingered about
With a flutter so light:
A tired little moth, with his wings
Like a flower that had blown
All away on the breath of a wind
That had kissed it and flown.
Did you tell him to hurry, and fly
Through the shadows so fast,
Because I would wait all alone
Till the twilight was past?
For later the lamps would be lit,
And I should go down
To listen to laughter and talk
Of the news of the town.
But my own time is just at the hour
While the clouds fade away; —
I could not help wishing for you,
And my thoughts were astray.
And the little white moth fluttered in
With the love you had sent;
My heart in that minute could tell
Just the words you had meant.
I knew we were so far apart,
I was tired and sad;
But the little moth brought me your love,
And then I was glad.
Knowing of Sarah Orne Jewett’s relationship with Annie Fields does color the poem with a gentle hue, but even if we did not know of it, the poem would still stand as a lovely ode to love.