A new biography and a newly compiled story collection bring attention to the unjustly forgotten Constance Fenimore Woolson.
Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840–94) was once so famous that debates about her intrepid fiction raged in the press on both sides of the Atlantic. But soon after her death, if she was remembered at all, it was only as a close friend of Henry James. Rioux has brought Woolson back to the republic of letters by writing a vivid, deeply involving biography, Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist, and by putting together Miss Grief and Other Stories, a potent collection of Woolson’s short fiction.
So curious as a child that she was nicknamed “And Why?,” the keenly intelligent Woolson became an excruciatingly self-critical young woman who read ardently and wrote beautifully. After all, she had literature in her blood; James Fenimore Cooper of The Last of the Mohicans fame was her great-uncle. Her father encouraged her but certainly didn’t want her to write professionally. Fate asserted itself, however, when, all gussied up to make the social rounds and meet eligible young men, Woolson spilled a bottle of ink on her fancy dress. Yet misogynist social constraints kept her from publishing until she was 30 and in dire need of income.
Rioux writes with captivating lucidity and conviction as she chronicles Woolson’s fortitude, abiding responsibility, constant travels, utter commitment to artistic excellence, and exhausting struggles for literary success and personal independence. Woolson wrote not about family, as many of her female peers did, but rather about places and situations far and wild. Having grown up in Cleveland, she was deeply affected by the booming industrial town’s deleterious impact on the Great Lakes region, which she depicted with a naturalist’s acuity and an environmentalist’s concern. She also daringly “wrote from a male point of view, frequently exposing the limitations of her male characters’ ability to understand women’s minds and motives.” Sojourns in the South during Reconstruction evoked Woolson’s deep insights into the psychological toll of the Civil War, resulting in uniquely sympathetic stories about the decimated land and its traumatized people that brought her tremendous renown.
As for Woolson’s close relationship with Henry James during her long expat years in Europe, Rioux sensitively postulates that the two trusted and loved each other as close friends, even though rivalry seethed.
The humble, hard-working, long-suffering
women in Woolson’s stories are transcendent
in their stoicism and capability.
Contending with deafness and depression, Woolson sought “human connection” in literature, perfecting an approach that Rioux describes as “empathic realism.” Woolson not only held herself to high ethical standards, she was also a perfectionist, exhausting herself physically as she rewrote her manuscripts over and over again. All that effort, and still she remained poor and without a home, dying tragically and possibly suicidally in Venice at age 53.
Rioux offers smart and poignant insights into why Woolson was forgotten and why her unapologetically sincere and passionate novels and stories fell so swiftly out of favor. She also provides readers with an opportunity to experience Woolson themselves in Miss Grief and Other Stories. This is an exciting volume, with a thoughtful and admiring foreword by Colm Tóibín, who describes Woolson as “an adventurous and brave explorer in the territory of human disappointment.”
These finely crafted, place-rooted stories are startling in their mythic atmosphere, vital descriptions, and elegiac tributes to lost worlds. They are charged with a quietly ferocious tension between old-fashioned structures and the progressive psychological portraits shaped by Woolson’s compassion and penetrating vision. She brings readers to a mysterious, beautiful, mazelike, freshwater delta in “St. Clair Flats” and, in “Solomon,” to the humble home of a coal miner and his wife in a German enclave in Ohio. “Rodman the Keeper” portrays a Northerner tending to a vast Union army cemetery in North Carolina. The chilling title story cuts close to the bone of Woolson’s life as a near-starving woman writer brings her work to a successful male writer living in Rome in the hope that he’ll help her get published. The humble, hard-working, long-suffering women in Woolson’s stories are transcendent in their stoicism and capability. Woolson belongs in every American literature collection.
This review first appeared in the January 1 & 15, 2016, issue of Booklist.