| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Constance Fenimore Woolson
On February 12, 1882, Constance Fenimore Woolson wrote to Henry James, "Death is not terrible to me....To me it is only a release; and if, at any time, you should hear that I had died, always be sure that I was quite willing, and even glad, to go. I do'nt [sic] think this is a morbid feeling, because it is accompanied by a very strong belief, that, while we are here, we should do our very best, and be as courageous and work as hard, as we possibly can." A dozen years later, Woolson's body lay on the pavement beneath a window of her Venice apartment. Ill from influenza, or possibly a condition she knew to be more serious, plagued by bouts of depression that she had inherited from her father, isolated from society by increasing deafness, disconnected from the places in the United States that she knew and loved, Woolson jumped from her rented rooms on the second floor of the Casa Semeticolo. She had just completed, but not yet seen through publication, her fourth novel, Horace Chase, in which she had imagined a similar death for one of her characters, though she has that character rescued at the last moment from the window ledge he has mounted in the delirium of illness.
Given the drama of her death, it is easy to read Woolson as the poor, suffering artist who, as her friend John Hay put it, "had not as much happiness as a convict." She never knew three of her sisters, who died in a scarlet fever epidemic within a month of her birth. She probably did not even visit their graves behind the Universalist Church in Claremont, New Hampshire, because after their deaths her family quickly left the Woolson roots in Claremont to settle in Cleveland, Ohio. In Cleveland, she watched her mother grieve over the death of another daughter in infancy and grieved with her when the two older Woolson daughters died shortly after their marriages. When her father died in 1869, Woolson left Cleveland for St. Augustine, Florida, where she, her mother, and her one living sister, who was widowed with a young daughter to raise, could live more cheaply. For the next ten years, they used this oldest city in the United States as a base for travels throughout the Reconstruction South. They maintained contact with the youngest child in the family, the only son, but the letters that mention him are fraught with justifiable worry about this troubled young man who died under mysterious circumstances in California in 1883. When Woolson's mother died in 1879, Woolson moved again, this time to Europe where she lived, occasionally in England, more often in Florence and Venice, until her death on January 24, 1894.
But to paint Woolson as a suffering artist debilitated by the deaths in her family and by unrequited love—she has been dismissed by biographer Leon Edel as a spinster in love with Henry James—is to miss the strength reflected in her remarks to James that "while we are here, we should do our very best, and be as courageous and work as hard, as we possibly can." In a nineteenth century that had created an ideal of physical weakness, even invalidism, for many women of her class, including Henry James's sister, Alice, Woolson embraced physical activity, especially rowing and walking. From childhood on, she traveled to remote or distant places: to Mackinac Island, Michigan; to the Blue Ridge Mountains and coastal regions of the South; to Mentone, Egypt, and Corfu. Drawing on her powers of close observation developed in an education that included the study of geology and botany, she directed her gaze both to her natural surroundings and to the customs of the people she encountered. She wrote travel sketches, poems, and a children's novel (The Old Stone House under the pseudonym Anne March in 1872), as well as a novella, four novels, and more than fifty short stories that appeared in the major literary magazines of the nineteenth century.
Woolson published "Miss Grief" in Lippincott's Magazine in May 1880. This publication date places it near the middle of her career, and to notice what is missing in the story tells us much about that career and about the careers of many women writers in the nineteenth century. Woolson uses her story to show how publishers, and thus readers, miss the names of women writers who write in a different voice. She raises questions about the pressure to satisfy publishers in order to find an audience and to make money, about the dangers of refusing to revise, about the anxiety of influence in the face of more successful writers, and about the way writing that has not been championed by publishers and readers disappears.
"Miss Grief," more than any other of Woolson's best stories, was missed—perhaps even suppressed—by the very publishers it indicts because they did not collect it in either of her two posthumous volumes of Italian short stories, though its setting in Rome makes it eligible. Ironically, to read it now as reflective of Woolson's relationship with Henry James or as representative of her entire body of work is to miss the depth and range that Woolson showed in a successful twenty-five-year career. The story is only one of many she wrote about artist figures and about Americans living in Europe, and, in some ways, it is atypical even of these artist stories. Alone in her fiction, it omits the centrality of setting, perhaps because Woolson had not been in Europe long enough to observe its landscape and to incorporate that landscape as an essential part of her characters' lives as she does in her stories about the Great Lakes and the Reconstruction South and as she would do later in her European stories. Nor does it contain any of her caustic humor, perhaps again because she had not been in Europe long enough to observe the people from whose language and mannerisms she creates her satire. Although "Miss Grief" misses the fullness of Woolson's career, it nevertheless tells us much about the unsaid and the unsayable in the lives of people who lived in the nineteenth century, particularly women artists.
After Woolson's death, Henry James helped her sister sort through her belongings. Scholars believe that he burned many of her letters at this time, and, indeed, precious little remains from which to construct a life of Woolson. An anecdote circulates that James tried to drown Woolson's black silk dresses in a Venice canal, but that, refusing to sink, the dresses rose like black balloons surrounding him in his rented gondola. Happily, like those black dresses, Woolson's name, nearly submerged by the literary canon, has refused to drown, but has begun to rise again for readers in the twenty-first century to enjoy.
Sharon L. Dean|
In the Heath Anthology
Castle Nowhere: Lake-Country Sketches
Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches
For the Major
The Front Yard and Other Italian Stories
Dorothy and Other Italian Stories
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A very extensive portal to Woolson on the web.
Constance Fenimore Woolson Society Page
Biographical information, bibliographies of primary and secondary works, pictures, and more.
"Constance Fenimore Woolson," Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Women Prose Writers, 1870-1920, vol. 221, 2000
Sharon L. Dean, Constance Fenimore Woolson: Homeward Bound, 1995
Sharon L. Dean, Lyndall Gordon, A Private Life of Henry James, 1998
John Dwight Kern, Constance Fenimore Woolson: Literary Pioneer, 1934
Rayburn S. Moore, Constance F. Woolson, 1963
Cheryl B. Torsney, Constance Fenimore Woolson: The Grief of Artistry, 1989
Cheryl B. Torsney, ed., Critical Essays on Constance Fenimore Woolson, 1992
Joanne F. Vickers, "Woolson's Response to James: The Vindication of the American Heroine," Women's Studies 18 (1990):287-94
Joan Myers Weimer, "Women Artists as Exiles in the Fiction of Constance Fenimore Woolson," Legacy 3 (Fall 1986):3-15