Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Thursday, October 22, 2015

"Old Gardiston" - A Short Story by Constance Fenimore Woolson (1880, in Rodman the Keeper Southern Sketches)

"It was the only way they knew. Cousin Copeland lived only in the past, Gardis in the present; and indeed the future, so anxiously considered always by the busy, restless Northern mind, has never been lifted into the place of supreme importance at the South."   From "Old Gardiston"

"She possessed  traditions in decay but still standing. And since there was no new criterion to sustain all those vague and grandiose hopes, the weighty tradition still held. Tradition of what? Of nothing, if you had to pry. The only argument in its favor was the fact that the inhabitants were backed by a long lineage, which, though plebeian, was enough to grant them a certain pose of dignity. She thought, all wrapped" - Clarice Lispector

Having read ten short stories my Constance Fenimore Woolson I am beginning to see why I like her work so much.  Each  of her stories, varying in length (I E read so a direct comparison to book page lengths is inexact) from twenty five to fifty pages creates a complete self contained world with its own values, history, physical enviorment and interesting people, especially focused on women. The stories seem to focus on cultures in decline from old aristocracy and have buried deep within them contrasts of Northern and Southern Values.  This dichotomy may at first jump out in the stories in Rodman the Keeper Southern Sketches as just an American matter but it goes way back in European history to at least the working out of the social consequences of the rise of the reformation  in Northern Europe and probably much further back.    I was thinking yesterday that her stories remind me of those of Alice Munro who creates so much of life in her works.

Woolson, I am struggling with what to call her, felt deeply tne impact the defeat of the Southern States in the American Civil War (1861 to 1865) had on the old planter castes, the owners of the great plantations, the former aristocrats.  (For a visual flash to Scarlett O'Hara struggling to keep her home and family intact after the defeat). "Old Gardiston" is set, I think, somewhere in the Carolinas in a once grand now in ruins plantation house named "Old Gardiston". The family ownership goes back maybe two hundred years.  It is just shortly after the end of the war, maybe 1867.  There are still northern troops occupying the territory.  Living in the house are Gardis Duke, a young woman, her cousin Copeland, a bachelor in late middles ages.  Gardis is educated as a woman of an aristocratic family in a Jane Austin novel would be, Copeland spends all his time researching old family history.  There are also two former slaves still working for them.  One day two Union officers, regarded as pure villains by the  planter caste, advise Gardis that the troops they command will camp on the plantation.  Even though Gardis is assured by the very gentlemanly acting officers that they will in no way be harmed by this she is agast almost catching the vapors (ok, I could not resist that).

The plot action gets very interesting.  The officers are given an obligatory by customs dinner invitation and they are both quite charming, single and taken with Gardis.   Gardis and Copeland are supported by the rent they receive from a warehouse they own in town.  The plot is so intriguing I will not tell anymore, just make a few observations.  It is exciting and dramatic and kept me very involved.

In terms of romantic actions, the  story is a throw back to the Georgian era where men fell at once in love with a woman based on her looks and knowing little about her, decide they must marry her no matter what.  It is total love at first sight.  The use of this in this story strains credibility and but maybe Woolson felt her readers and magazine editors would want a romance with some intrigue so she threw one, actually two into the plot.

The characters are very interesting, the picture of the old south being despoiled by venal opportunists is brilliant.  

I was startled by this paragraph, describing Cousin Copeland's efforts to find a job.

"Reaching the town at last, he walked past the stores several times and looked timidly within; he thought perhaps some one would see him, and come out. But no one came; and at last he ventured into a clothing-store, through a grove of ticketed coats and suspended trousers. The proprietor of the establishment, a Northern Hebrew whose venture had not paid very well, heard his modest request, and asked what he could do. "I can write," said Cousin Copeland, with quiet pride; and in answer to a sign he climbed up on a tall stool and proceeded to cover half a sheet of paper in his best style. As he could not for the moment think of anything else, he wrote out several paragraphs from the last family document. "Richard, the fourth of the name, a descendant on the maternal side from the most respected and valorous family--" "Oh, we don't care for that kind of writing; it's old-fashioned," said Mr. Ottenheimer, throwing down the paper, and waving the applicant toward the door with his fat hand. "I don't want my books frescoed."

This gives me pause.  

I owe my discovery of the short stories of Woolson, which I regard as world class literary treasures, to Anne Boyd Rioux.  I hope the Febuary 29, 2016 publication of her two wonderful books will bring Woolson back into fashion.  

Much of Woolson work, her total oevere is not real huge, can be downloaded at

I have easy access to eight more Woolson stories and hope to read them soon.

I love her prose. 

Mel u

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