Ambrosia Boussweau, European Correspodent of The Reading Life, looks at "Bro." And other stories of Constance Fenimore Woolson in the light of Frank O'Connor's ideas on the short story.
Contains a good short bio and a list of her works.
I have been reading along with Mel the short stories of Constance Fenimore Woolson
(born 1840 in New Hampshire, died 1894 in Venice, Italy). I have also read Constance Fenimore Woolson Portrait of a Lady Novelist by Anne Boyd Rioux, a wonderful book, a true labor of love.
The only book worth reading on the short story is The Lonely Voice A Study of the Short Story by a great Irish practitioner of the craft, Frank O'Connor. I want to look at Woolson's "Bro." and other of her stories to see if they can be read in accord with the ideas of O'Connor who had three interrelated theses about the nature of the short story. One was that short stories are about marginalized people on the fringes of society with no one to speak for them. Secondly he felt short stories can often be seen as literary studies of loneliness. Third he saw the central characters in short stories as symbolic representations of mythic or religious figures. He devotes much of the opening chapter of his book to Gogol's "The Overcoat". He devotes chapters to Guy de Maupassant, Ivan Turgenev, Issac Babel, Mary Levin, and Katherine Mansfield. Some of his observations are quirky but they are always interesting.
"Bro." Is set on an island. Our title character "Bro" ferries himself and others to the island. He thus evokes the figure of the ferryman in myths from ancient Egypt up to medieval legends of ferrymen. He is an isolate and works in a mill. He also invents mechanical devices. He lacks conventional social skills. He takes his meals with and is very close to the family that owns the mill. He has long been in love with their daughter. He is kind of a man beast figure. One day the grandson of a family friend returns to the island after a years long absence. Clearly he symbolizes the return of the prodigal son and can stand for a miriad of wandering figures. Soon he and the young woman are in love. He wants to marry her but he also wants to go back to Europe but he does not have the funds to take her along, or maybe that is an excuse. Now he is the wanderer, the stranger, who steals the virgin daughter. The grandson is not an evil person, just not a saint. He sends some inventions Bro has made to a patent attorney he knows who ends up selling the idea for a screw for $10,000, a huge fortune at the time. Bro then, through a proxy keeping himself anonymous, offers to buy some waste land on the island from the grandson for $10,000. He knows now the grandson can marry the woman and take her away. He then embarks on a program of development for the land that will make the woman want to come back. It is also the story of the creation of civilization from the efforts of an isolate strange figure, a mechanical creator and a creator of living space out of the sate who asks for nothing for himself. We have here also a version of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, with Europe as the upper world and the backwoods island as the underworld.
River islands play a part in two other Woolson stories we have read so far, "Sister Saint Luke" and "Soloman". There are lots of legends and myths centering on river islands in central and Eastern European mythology. The story "Soloman" screams out yes I fit the O'Connor pattern. The figure of the failed artist resonates to more cultures than we can find space enough to explore. "Saint Claire Flats" is perhaps the most evocative story, it is partially about the myth of America but it goes deep to the roots of culture and the spread of civilization.
We will next be reading the "Italian Stories" of Woolson. The Boussweau family has a long connection with Venice, establishing trading routes to Indian. The family maintains a residence on the Grand Canal.