Rediscovering an Overlooked Woman Novelist
By Rebecca FosterMarch 11, 2016
Miss Grief and Other Stories by Constance Fenimore Woolson
CONSTANCE FENIMORE WOOLSON (1840–1894) is most often remembered for her connection to male writers; her great-uncle was pioneering American novelist James Fenimore Cooper, and in her later years as an expatriate in Europe she associated with Henry James, fueling rumors of a romance between them. Deserving to be known in her own right, Woolson represents key junctures between realism and regionalism, and between American and European styles. Anne Boyd Rioux, English faculty member at the University of New Orleans and current president of the Constance Fenimore Woolson Society, is the author of the biography Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist, as well as the editor of a new selection of Woolson’s shorter fiction, Miss Grief and Other Stories. Together, the books give a remarkable picture of a bold, bright woman who paved the way for writers such as Edith Wharton, E. M. Forster, and Willa Cather, and who arguably might be hailed in the same breath as Henry James and George Eliot.
Woolson grew up in Cleveland as well as in New Hampshire and Cooperstown, New York, where her family was close with their Cooper relatives — including fellow writer Susan Fenimore Cooper, daughter of James. Constance was a quiet, serious, inquisitive child, later educated at Cleveland Female Seminary and a New York finishing school. Her interests included music, botany, and antiquities. Although she was the sixth daughter born to the family, by age 13 she was the eldest, having seen three sisters succumb to scarlet fever. She later lost two more to other illnesses. Like Charlotte Brontë, she lived life in the shadow of death and emerged as a lucky survivor. During the Civil War, Woolson, then in her mid-20s, fell in love with an officer, Zephaniah Spalding, but he moved to Hawaii and married a sugar heiress. Rioux hypothesizes that the complicated portraits of marriage — full of regret and longing — that permeate Woolson’s fiction may be a result of this early disappointment in love.
As the primary caregiver for her ill parents, Woolson turned to writing to support the family, penning travel sketches or humorous letters home for the local newspaper, and a children’s novel. After her father’s death from typhus in 1869, she and her mother moved south and spent winters in St. Augustine, Florida. The climate was thought to be better for her mother’s rheumatism and shingles, but Woolson always felt “exiled in the South.” Suffering from congenital deafness and depression, especially after her mother’s death in 1879, Woolson immersed herself in her writing. “Fiction was a much safer place for a shy woman,” Rioux remarks, “for there she could express her opinions and feelings.”
Once freed from the burden of caregiving, Woolson fulfilled her lifelong ambition of moving to Europe. She spent some time in England and France, but Italy was her adopted home. “Countries attract us in different ways […] but when it comes to the affection, Italy holds the heart — we keep going back to her,” she later wrote in the short story “A Florentine Experiment.” She met Henry James in Florence in 1880. Nowadays many readers encounter Woolson via James, perhaps by reading a fictional account of his later years like David Lodge’s Author, Author or Colm Tóibín’s The Master, both published in 2004. Woolson has also been featured in several other books about James and his circle, including Emma Tennant’s Felony and Lyndall Gordon’s A Private Life of Henry James. Editor Elizabeth Maguire even made Woolson the star of her 2008 novel The Open Door, in which she portrays her — entertainingly, but perhaps not entirely faithfully — as passionate and promiscuous. Two more novels about Woolson are currently in progress: The She-Novelist in Venice by Stephanie McCoy, and an as-yet-untitled work by Sheridan Hay. This decade-long flurry of publication is proof that interest in Woolson’s life story and literary output persists.
Rather than trying one of her full-length works of fiction — her first novel, Anne (1882), an ambitious love story and murder mystery, outsold James’s The Portrait of a Lady tenfold in its day — readers new to her work will be well served by picking up Miss Grief and Other Stories. With a foreword by Tóibín and an introduction by Rioux, this volume carefully sequences seven of Woolson’s notable stories to show a chronological shift in her focus. The first two are exemplars of her Great Lakes fiction, the middle two are set in the South, and the final three represent her European period. It is striking just how accessible Woolson’s style is throughout; punctuation has been normalized for this publication, and — with just a few exceptions — the language and syntax do not feel dated.
“St. Clair Flats,” one of two first-person stories set in the Midwest, is among the strongest. A journey into a serpentine marsh is explicitly aligned with Theseus’ journey, with boatmen spooling out a roll of twine “as if following the clew of a labyrinth.” The narrator and his companion Raymond, a pair of hunters, stay the night with Waiting Samuel, an apocalyptic mystic. Subject to Samuel’s strict religious rituals, including a rooftop dawn service, they discuss poetry and ponder the lost history of the West. Their trip is cut short when they learn loved ones have drowned in a yachting accident, but the story comes full circle with an elegiac conclusion. Fifteen years later the narrator returns to the St. Clair Flats, only to find that the winding marshes he remembered so fondly have been replaced by a straight canal. The landscape “is passing away. […] The bittern has vanished; the loon has fled away. Waiting Samuel was the prophet of the waste.” That note of environmental dystopia will be all too resonant for today’s readers.
Rioux pinpoints “Solomon,” set in the German separatist community of Zoar, Ohio, as the first appearance of one of Woolson’s recurring character types, the failed artist. The title character, a coal miner and would-be portrait painter, manages to finish one great portrait of his beloved Dorcas before tragedy strikes. “Rodman the Keeper,” one of the longest stories, shares the others’ gently mournful tone. The central character is John Rodman, a military cemetery caretaker who fancies himself the “keeper of the dead.” Modeled after a Union burial ground in Salisbury, North Carolina, his graveyard houses some 14,000 US soldiers. For once Woolson, alas, does not rise above clichés of Civil War–era fiction: the writing feels sentimental and florid, as in “the keeper seemed to see a shadowy pageant sweep by — gaunt soldiers with white faces, arming anew against the subtle product of peace: men who said, ‘It was nothing! Behold, we saw it with our eyes!’ — stay-at-home eyes.”
In the Florida-set “Sister St. Luke” we find some of Woolson’s greatest strengths — exploring tragic backstories, describing nature, and introducing scenarios where women are acknowledged for rescuing situations. By contrast, in “In Sloane Street” (Woolson’s only story set in England), during a discussion about George Eliot, writer Philip Moore expresses negative opinions Woolson no doubt encountered among the intelligentsia of her time:
Women can’t write. And they ought not to try. […] [T]hey 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.
This is all rather dismaying for Gertrude Remington, a longtime family friend who admires Eliot but seems to idolize Moore.
Women are given no right of rebuttal in that story, whereas in “Miss Grief” Woolson bravely focused on a woman writer’s achievements and a male character’s obligation to acknowledge the quality of her work. There is a new sophistication of style here, too; “Miss Grief” marked Woolson’s first European tale. Written just before she met James, the story clearly anticipates her dreams about what form their friendship might take. In a first-person narrative, a young man of letters based in Rome receives repeated calling cards from a “Miss Grief.” He finally meets the persistent visitor one day and learns that she is actually Miss Crief, more properly Aaronna Moncrief. Though middle-aged and shabby, she charms him with her by-heart knowledge of his work and makes him promise to read her play in manuscript. To his consternation, he realizes the woman is a genius. He invites her to dinner to show him her other manuscripts and agrees to send them off to editors on her behalf. When the time comes for him to “improve” the works, however, he finds himself utterly unable to alter them. Miss Crief’s untimely death leaves him the literary executor for her play, which he keeps beside him as a reminder of his good luck to have had success even though this odd woman with the strange name — a feminized male first name, and a surname so easily mistaken for a synonym for sorrow — had the greater talent.
“A Florentine Experiment” was composed soon after Woolson finally met James. Its characters are typical American tourists in Italy: looking out at Florence from Fiesole hill, or walking in the Boboli Gardens and rhapsodizing over Giotto and Botticelli. Trafford Morgan is in love with Margaret Stowe’s childhood friend Beatrice, now a widow, but worries he may have attracted Margaret instead. Margaret takes offense at his presumption and is glad to see him leave for Trieste. A year later, though, they meet again at a gallery; Beatrice is now engaged to another, so Morgan states his intention to develop an interest in Margaret. His clinical language about “the experiment” of trying to love her is hardly flattering, as Margaret makes clear in an excellent outburst in which she accuses Morgan of “egregious vanity” and “insufferable and amazing conceit.” Round two goes to Margaret. But a round three is still to come, and this time Margaret’s invalid aunt employs trickery to get the young people together at last. The story ends with laughter for the reader, then — like a Shakespearean or Wildean lark, it blends romance and comedy but also allows a central female to get her own back against male audacity.
As Rioux’s work has made plain, Woolson proved her detractors wrong. Although she wrote love stories, she also concerned herself with purpose, ambition, talent, failure, regrets, and death. “Unlike James, she did not have the chance to reinvent herself as a modernist,” Rioux acknowledges, which may account for the tendency to dismiss her work as Victorian sentimentality. Rioux also feels Woolson’s later life and accomplishments are shrouded by myths that may or may not have been true: that she treasured an unrequited love for James, and that she committed suicide by throwing herself out her Venice window. Unlike novelists and scholars including Lyndall Gordon, Rioux believes there is every chance that Woolson’s death was an accident. She had been suffering from depression as well as money problems, and when an undetermined illness — flu, gallbladder stones, and a bowel obstruction are all possibilities — brought her down with a fever, she took laudanum for the pain. In an opiate haze, it would have been all too easy to fall from a window whose sill was only two feet above floor level, Rioux insists. The three-story fall broke her spine but did not kill her instantly, but she lived only for one hour and was then buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. The fact that she had not prepared a will is further proof in Rioux’s mind that Woolson did not plan to kill herself.
In The Master, Colm Tóibín has a distraught James trying to drown his friend’s billowing dresses in Venice’s Grand Canal after what he believes to be her suicide. It makes for a memorable scene, certainly, but makes Woolson seem like a vengeful ghost, an irksome reminder — perhaps a bit like Miss Crief — of a friend whose literary reputation at that time outclassed his own. Rioux’s biography puts the woman herself back in the center of the frame and celebrates the fact that a 19th-century female writer could choose not to marry or have children, but instead to support herself by her pen. Likewise, this new collection of Woolson’s stories will be a welcome discovery for any dedicated reader of 19th-century American literature. As Helen Gray Cone wrote of Woolson in a laudatory 1890 essay, “Few American writers of fiction have given evidence of such breadth, so full a sense of the possibilities of the varied and complex life of our wide land. […] Women have reason for pride in a representative novelist whose genius is trained and controlled, without being tamed or dispirited.” The same is true today.
Note: Many of Woolson’s works are freely available at Project Gutenberg.
Rebecca Foster, an American transplant to England, has a master’s degree in Victorian literature from the University of Leeds. She is a full-time freelance writer and editor.
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