“WOMEN CAN’T WRITE. And they ought not to try,” says a respected literary man in the story “In Sloane Street” (1892), by Constance Fenimore Woolson. He continues,
[T]hey can write for children, and for young girls, extremely well. And they can write little sketches and episodes if they will confine themselves rigidly to the things they thoroughly know, such as love stories, and so forth. But the great questions of life, the important matters, they cannot render in the least.
Woolson (1840-1894) grappled with that popular judgment all her life. In this luminously written, thought-provoking biography by Anne Boyd Rioux, a portrait emerges of a writer driven to achieve on her own terms, but forced to answer to everyone else’s. A Midwesterner who wrote some of the most powerful short stories set in the rural United States in the 19th century, Woolson lived much of her adult life in Italy and England. In addition to the stories, she wrote six novels, occasional poetry, and travel journalism. Again and again, in her fiction she wrote of female artists and their place in the world, and of the jilted, the unmarried, as well as groups of bachelors and nuns, visionaries and tourists. Rioux’s biography and new selected collection of Woolson’s fiction, Miss Grief and Other Stories, resurrects her subject, who fell into obscurity shortly after her death, as well as her formidable and deserved reputation. It reveals the glaring absence in any anthology of great American short stories that overlooks Woolson, and in telling the story of her life, introduces us to a real, vulnerable, irascible, and original mind.
Woolson lived most of her formative years in Cleveland, in an affectionate but haunted family: three of her sisters died of scarlet fever when she was very young. Woolson adored her father. Like him, she grew up bookish and industrious, but prone to bouts of depression, and she inherited the progressive deafness that isolated him toward the end of his life. James Fenimore Cooper was her great-uncle. During the Civil War, Woolson lost a beloved suitor — though he survived, he abandoned her and Ohio for a new life prospecting in Hawaii. In 1870, Woolson began to submit and publish stories in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s, and in the summer of that year, she followed her footloose younger brother Charlie to New York. Aged 30, living in a boardinghouse and immersed in the city’s cultural life, she wrote a close friend that she felt “just like a prisoner let loose.” She had confidence in her talent and her literary career, and relied on both to support herself financially.
But could women compete on the same literary stage as men? Their success was surer when kept to writing for young people, as patterned in the rising star Louisa May Alcott (Little Women was a best seller through 1868-1869). In the realm of children’s stories, as argued by the male intellectual of “In Sloane Street,” women were at liberty to publish and win acclaim, particularly for the sweetness of the values transmitted through the stories. When money was badly needed, Woolson pandered to those expectations. In tribute to Alcott, Woolson took the pseudonym Anne March and published The Old Stone House in 1873, hoping to win a $1,000 prize offered by a publisher for the best “Sunday School” reading for children. The book won, sold decently, and was kindly reviewed; Woolson, for her part, was irritated because the publisher only gave out half the prize money. Turning to examples like George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë, she knew she was not alone in wanting to chart a different path.
In October 1873, two of her stories, “St. Clair Flats” and “Solomon,” were published in The Atlantic Monthly, where Emerson and Hawthorne had also published. The editor, William Dean Howells, was, like Woolson, from Ohio. His magazine had the highest literary reputation in the country; it was also, in the words of the New-York Evening Post, “our masculine magazine.” Conscious of the landscape in which she stood, and determined to channel what she felt and observed, Woolson developed “such a horror of ‘pretty,’ ‘sweet’ writing” that she was willing to risk “a style that was ugly and bitter, provided it was also strong.” In another letter, she set out her reasoning: “whatever one does must be done with one’s might and I would rather be strong than beautiful, or even good, provided the ‘good’ must be dull.” Accordingly, reviews praised her “positive genius” and “marked power.”
Woolson often included semi-autobiographical characters in her work, in situations and conversations that she may have longed to confront off the page. In “The Ancient City” (December 1874-January 1875), the character Sara, a writer, stands by helplessly as her fiancé falls for a young beauty. Yet, for her helplessness, Sara earns disdain rather than sympathy. “Why is it that women who write generally manage to make themselves disagreeable to all mankind?” asks the character’s well-meaning aunt. Sara is perceptive, isolated, and her writing replaces marriage as a way to embrace life. In the end, her fiancé returns to her, allowing her a normal woman’s experience. It is easy to imagine Woolson thinking through that exchange with herself in mind. Writing demanded all of herself — even, in later years, her physical health, as she began to suffer shooting, disabling pains through the entire right side of her body when she sat and wrote for too long. It filled her hours, brought her friends and intellectual sparring partners, and, sporadically at least, earned her a livelihood. But it was not love, and love, under her pen, was increasingly portrayed as a condition borne out of arbitrary forces. In “A Florentine Experiment,” a man and a woman try to conjure romantic feelings via willpower and mimicry. And in another of her finest stories, “St. Clair Flats,” a loyal wife follows her husband, who has become a spiritual seer, to the back-of-beyond freshwater delta of the Great Lakes because she defied her family to marry him.
In relationships, Woolson was an observer and a listener — a fact that became complicated when she became deaf later in life. Her close friend Edmund Clarence Stedman, one of New York’s best-known critics and poets, was the first to surprise her by continually turning the focus of the conversation back to her. She confessed in her letters to him that she was “accustomed to the eternal ‘I’ of all my male friends,” and realized that by writing and publishing, she was subtly changing that dynamic: “[A]t this late hour I have gotten hold of the pen, and now people must listen to me, occasionally.” One of her most esteemed listeners, Henry James, approached the role of equal in love and letters, but their bond was essentially one of friendship. She and James made a pact to destroy their correspondence, but Rioux has nevertheless drawn a clear and graceful picture of their close yet critical relationship. James’s affection for her grew over time; they first met in Florence in the spring of 1880. She immediately reminded him of his heroine Isabel Archer from The Portrait of a Lady, then being published serially in The Atlantic Monthly and Macmillan’s Magazine. James described his new friend to his aunt as “old-maidish, deaf, & ‘intense’; but a good little woman & a perfect lady.” He joked to his sister that she had been “pursuing me through Europe with a letter of introduction.” He grew to love and admire her, and, in a productive period for both, they lived and wrote in the same villa on Florence’s Bellosguardo Hill.
In time, James became on many fronts her champion. Still, his public assessment of her threw into relief the challenges she faced as a professional. Woolson held tight to her ambition to produce strong, original work, and declined to participate in the fashion for sweet, message-heavy, often juvenile literature by and for women. In what was perhaps an effort to persuade readers that Woolson wasn’t an insufferable bluestocking, James emphasized in a piece published in Harper’s that her stories never meant to advance women’s rights. “[A]ll have the stamp […] of the author’s conservative feeling, the implication that for her the life of a woman is essentially an affair of private relations.” He held up her career as “an excellent example of the way the door stands open between the personal life of American women and the immeasurable world of print,” yet was unable to argue for her work in a framework that didn’t make reference to the potentially revolutionary existence of sophisticated literature written by a woman for literature’s sake. He further noted, “She is interested in secret histories, in the ‘inner life’ of the weak, the superfluous, the disappointed, the bereaved, the unmarried,” emphasizing the interior lives of her characters rather than calling attention to her startling depictions of the larger landscape and cultural contradictions. This is striking because her most successful stories at that point were not primarily concerned with any semblance of a marriage plot. “Rodman the Keeper,” set in a Union cemetery in the South a generation after the Civil War, evokes the long shadows left by slavery, war, and bitterness handed down through generations.
Rioux herself doesn’t flood the narrative with fine-brush details of the world around her subject. Her canvas is strictly a portrait of an individual, not of a nation or era; and yet the reader can’t help but draw conclusions from Woolson’s life and words. Sometimes, the implications are oddly prescient: Woolson worried tremendously about her reputation and about how to control it. She had a horror of her image being co-opted by editors and readers and in some way that altered how they perceived her work. In letters to both Henry James and John Hay, she wrote, “I do not at all think that because a woman happens to write a little, her face, or her personality in any way, becomes the property of the public.” Author photographs were popular with readers and commonly appeared in literary magazines like Harper’s, where Woolson’s picture was eventually printed in March 1886. She was relieved that it looked nothing like her.
Rioux is also adept at finding and interpreting Woolson’s account of her own highs and lows and those of others in her family, without forcing a contemporary diagnosis on her subjects. Woolson’s brother Charlie, who also battled periods of depression, would eventually commit suicide, a tragedy that rocked her with guilt and grief. Woolson herself died suddenly in Venice, at age 53, after getting up from her sickbed and falling, or perhaps jumping, from an open window.
The painstakingly detailed account of Woolson’s final days is a remarkable, moving testament to the power of determined research and elegant writing. Rioux’s narrative gracefully outlines the facts that support a theory of suicide and those that don’t. At the time, the media referred to Woolson’s “eccentricity” as the major aspect of her final illness. Deliberately, Rioux tells us it is her preference, to quote Phyllis Rose, to put “less emphasis on despair, more on resilience in the literary history of women.”