Partner Lilian Whiting
Mount Auburn Cemetery, 580 Mt Auburn St, Cambridge, MA 02138, Stati Uniti
Mary Katherine Keemle "Kate" Field (October 1, 1838 – May 19, 1896) was an American journalist, lecturer, and actress, of eccentric talent. “Miss Ophelia Gledd” (1863), Anthony Trollope’s contribution to Emily Faithfull’s second compendium, A Welcome, portrays a self-willed woman who does eventually marry, but whom Trollope modeled on his unmarried friend Kate Field. Trollope’s social and professional involvement with Kate Field and Emily Faithfull speaks volumes about his awareness of female marriage and erotic relationships between women. Kate Field has traditionally been the closest thing in Trollope studies to a study in scarlet, the only hint that Trollope was ever less than completely faithful to his wife.
Mary Katherine Keemle Field, known to her friends and family as Kate, was born October 1, 1838, in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of actors Joseph M. Field and Eliza Riddle. In 1839, the family moved to New Orleans, where Field's father worked for the New Orleans Picayune and a local theater company. The family returned to St. Louis by 1852, where her father opened a theater company, before moving to Mobile, Alabama.
Field was a precocious child who showed an early interest in literature. She published her first poem, "A Child's Muse", at nine years old in her father's newspaper in St. Louis. In the fall of 1855, she was sent to live with wealthy relatives in Cordaville, Massachusetts, while she attended Lasell Ladies' Seminary. At age 16, she was sent to Europe to travel as a form of education. She spent time in Florence, Italy studying voice, and there she also began writing for American newspapers. A story circulated that she was abducted while in Sicily by brigands who demanded a substantial ransom. After six weeks, her family paid the requested amount, but not before the leader of the gang had fallen in love with her and proposed. Though she turned down the engagement, her positive influence allegedly inspired him to move to a monastery.
Field and Trollope were linked by a social network that united same-sex couples, legally married opposite-sex couples, and unmarried men and women whose sexual interests varied, and they shared connections to many of the women in female marriages. Field and Trollope first met in Florence in 1860, where Trollope’s mother and brother belonged to an Anglo-American expatriate circle that included Walter Savage Landor, the Brownings, and Mary Somerville, as well as women in female marriages and having affairs with women, such as Charlotte Cushman, Emma Stebbins, Isa Blagden, Harriet Hosmer, Frances Power Cobbe, and Mary Lloyd.
A favorite of both Brownings, Field had gone to Italy to recover from unrequited love for a married aunt and thus arrived primed to appreciate the same-sex relationships she encountered there. While in Florence, Field flirtatiously referred to her hostess Isa Blagden as “Hubby,” exchanged presents with Frances Power Cobbe, and observed Lady Ashburton kneel before her lover, Harriet Hosmer. Having previously met Charlotte Cushman in the United States through her aunt, Field slyly saluted the actress’s erotic and quasi-marital relationship with Emma Stebbins by addressing Cushman as “Beloved Romeo” and referring to Stebbins as “Juliet.” Field and Trollope maintained regular contact after meeting in 1860, but their relationship was always strained by Field’s allegiance to the female independence she had witnessed in Italy. Even as Trollope helped Field pursue a career as a writer, he badgered her “to go & marry a husband,” and in 1862, wrote her that he didn’t “at all understand how you are living, where— with whom— or on what terms,” registering a confusion that would last for much of their friendship.
In 1871, Field embarked on a lecture tour throughout New England and upstate New York. In Buffalo, New York, she met Mark Twain, a fellow lecturer and journalist, who spoke and wrote negatively about her. She continued lecturing into the Midwestern states, mostly stopping in small towns and rural areas. Six months later, she complained, "I never wish to repeat my lecture experiences in America. I loathe the life and the majority of the country audiences. I did it for money."
In 1874, Field appeared as Peg Woffington at Booth's Theatre, New York City. She afterward abandoned the regular comedy for dance, song, and recitation, but achieved no striking success. In 1882-83 she headed a Coöperative Dress Association in New York, which achieved a conspicuous failure. In 1889 she established Kate Field's Washington, a weekly journal published in Washington, D.C. After 1868, she published numerous volumes of miscellaneous contents, no longer noteworthy though, during her career, her comments were noted internationally.
Kate Field never married. In 1882 Field met the woman who became her partner, Lilian Whiting. Kate Field died of pneumonia in 1896 in Honolulu. She was buried with her parents at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Whiting inherited Field’s letters, journals, and possessions, wrote a loving biographical tribute to Field, penned a memoir about her encounters with Field’s ghost, and was buried next to Field in Mount Auburn Cemetery.
Whiting dedicated a volume of poems to Kate Field in 1895, and after Field’s death in 1896, published a spiritualist memoir about her communications with the spirit of Kate Field—“ the central interest of my life” and its “magnetic centre”— in order to prove that “ ove is not barred by death.” Whiting wrote of “she— who was dearest of all to me” sending messages that Whiting experienced as a “mysterious thrill . . . like contact with an electric current.” After Her Death openly advertised the identity of the title’s “her— my beloved friend” by reproducing a portrait of Kate Field as its frontispiece, and reviewers explicitly identified the work as “a graceful and touching tribute . . . to the memory of the late Kate Field.”
A few years after Field’s death, Whiting wrote a biography based on the papers she had inherited from Field as well as on the numerous “private letter[ s]” Field had sent her daily whenever they were apart. Kate Field follows nineteenth-century biographical conventions that encouraged authors to stay invisible even when writing about family members and spouses whom they knew intimately. Whiting rarely uses the first person, and she refers to herself only as “the biographer” and “the writer of this book” even when describing direct interactions with Field. Yet she also tells the reader, almost in passing, that “the biographer” and her subject lived together whenever Field was not traveling, that Field wanted to support Whiting financially, and that Whiting asked Field to destroy the personal letters she had sent her. Through frequent, casual references to what Field “always” did or felt, Whiting subtly conveys intimacy with her subject, just as she communicates their erotic relationship by naming her own “memory” as the source of a sensuous rhapsody about Field’s beauty.
Blanche Cox Clegg’s entry on Lilian Whiting in John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography (1999), refers to Whiting and Field as “close friends”. Jessie Rittenhouse’s biography of Whiting (Lilian Whiting: Journalist, Essayist, Critic, and Poet: A Sketch) refers to Kate Field as the woman “for whom Miss Whiting cherished the most tender and consecrated friendship”.
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