A Reveiw of
from the New York Times Book Review
"In 1878, Queen Victoria used a telephone for the first time, after Alexander Graham Bell arranged a demonstration. A phone was placed on a piano and a series of songs played and sung for the curious monarch, who listened intently. In retrospect, this little incident seems charged with symbolism, a marker of the old age touching the new. But who had the honor of performing for the queen, albeit telephonically? Not a famous musician, nor even a Briton, but rather an American journalist named Kate Field who’d been moonlighting for Bell as what we would now call a P.R. flack. With her knack for job-juggling, eye for the main chance and limitless energy, Field (1838-96) was herself a pure product of modernity, a self-invented dynamo chugging across the later 19th century like a locomotive in petticoats.
Gary Scharnhorst’s biography of Field, the first in over a century, is exactly what it should be: an articulate, no-nonsense account. Though Scharnhorst makes some effort to depict her as an ‘unorthodox feminist,’ he’s mostly content to pick his way through her long, various, roller-coaster career.
That career got off to a precocious start in Florence, where Field lived from 1859 to 1861. These were among the most volatile and dramatic years of the Risorgimento, and Field, who had gone to Florence to train as a singer but was thwarted by bronchial illness, quickly established herself as a frontline authority on the Italian struggle for unification, which she wrote about, in tones of strident sympathy, for American newspapers.
She also made quick conquests among the city’s Anglophone literary colony. George Eliot took a liking to Field, while the Brownings became firm friends. Anthony Trollope developed a protracted crush on her and used her as the model for several of his characters. Though these relationships were no doubt meaningful to Field, she was also swift to capitalize on them, writing essays and profiles. One such was ‘English Authors in Florence’ for The Atlantic Monthly. (Henry James was also publishing in The Atlantic at that time, and although they never met, he is believed to have used Field as a model for Henrietta Stackpole, the spirited American journalist in ‘The Portrait of a Lady.’)