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

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Anne by Constance Fenimore Woolson. 1882

"Anne was an ambitious first novel. It is an engrossing book, carrying readers along on a sea of absorbing observations and then sweeping them up in scenes of intense emotion. Its great originality is to be found in what many saw as her thoroughly American heroine and her loving tribute to Mackinac Island in the opening chapters, which many readers (including Henry James) felt was the novel’s strongest section."   From Constance Fenimore Woolson Portrait of a Lady Novelist by Anne Boyd Rioux

A couple of months ago I had never heard of Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840 to 1894, an American novelist, short story writer, travel author and poet).  Now I consider her a great writer. I am so glad to have found her and I thank Anne Boyd Rioux for this discovery.  There are no book blog posts but mine on Woolson which tells me she is virtually unknown.  I hope the two books of Anne Boyd Rioux being published in February of next year (you can pre-order on Amazon) will restore her reputation.  She is at least as good a writer as Edith Wharton, who I greatly admire.  For sure her range is wider than Wharton.  

One day I was looking at the new books for review on Edelweiss and I saw a biography of Woolson and a collection of her short stories, both by Anne Boyd Rioux.  I saw the collection of short stories had a preface by Colm Toibin whose opinion I greatly respect
and I also love a good literary biography sp I requested and was kindly given review copies of both books.  I first read the preface by Toibin which placed her in cultural context and sketched out her connection to Henry James.  The short story collection is called Miss Grief and Other Stories by Constance Fenimore Woolson (James Fenimore Cooper was her great uncle) so I decided to read the title story first.

 Rioux has provide very interesting short introductions to each story so I knew it was set in Florence (Woolson spent a lot of time there) and many see the story as Woolson drawing on her relationship to Henry James.  I loved the story and there are now posts on about twenty of her short stories on The Reading Life some by Ambrosia, mostly the set in Italy stories, and some by myself.  I am posting on the set in America short stories. All of the stories are wonderful works and some can stand with the best of all short stories.  In her excellent biography Rioux explains how Woolson fell from fashion and out of the American literary curriculum. 

Other than through reading Woolson all i know about her comes from the books of Rioux.  Next year I will post on her biography and Rioux has kindly agreed to due a Q and A session on The Reading Life.  

Anne at nearly six hundred pages is a long novel.  It can be taken as a coming of age story of a young American woman.  Rioux talled in her biography about how strongly Woolson was influenced by George Eliot, especially by The Mill on the Floss.  I had been planning to read this novel for about fifty years so I decided to read it before I read Anne.  The influence is strong, I saw it right away in the descriptions of nature in the opening chapter of Anne.  Anne was serialized for eighteen months in the very prestigious at the time Harper's Magazine.  In the opening chapter Woolson does a just wonderful job describing the atmosphere on Mackinac Island.

The plot line begins maybe about 1855, a few years before the American Civil War, which will play a big part in the story.  In those days Mackinaw Island was kind of a primitive place, lots of Indians still lived there.  (One could pull apart how Woolson portraits Indians in the opening section and twist it into something negative but in a deeper vein I think that is mean spirited and shows shallow reading.)
Anne's father is a physician, working for the army.  Anne's mother died and her father remained a woman who was of French and Indian Ancestory.  With her he had two sons and a another daughter.  This wife died also and Anne is kind of the head of the family now, her father is to a degree in his own world, withdrawn from the pain. 

 In the first chapter I bet Harper's readers felt they were in for a wild ride with so many plot lines left open.  In America in the1850s where your ancestors were from was very important, you were not just American but seen as German, English, French and so on American. Each nationality was seen  as having certain characteristics, for example Woolson in other works treets Germans as very hard working and thrifty, the French as pleasure lovers.  As we see in the great Victorian novels, extended family, partially because of the early deaths of the period, play an important part in the plot of Anne.  There is a domineering wealthy  spinster Aunt with a slightly mysterious past that plays a big role in the life of Anne that could come right out of a work by Balzac or Dickens.  

I am not inclined to retell the plot.  I will just talk a bit about some of the things I really like about the novel and some slight reservations I have.  

The novel has three, maybe three and a half segments.  The first part, Henry James says the best and it is wonderful, is set during her late childhood and early adult years on Maginaw Island.  She falls in love with a local man and he becomes her finance.  Then to begin the next section a wealthy spinster aunt living in New York State, offers to sponser her in college for women teachers and suppprt the family back on the island until Anne graduates.  This is kind of standard melodrama of the period though Woolson does it very well.  The college scenes are interesting and I saw the world of Anne expanding and her mind growing.   Of course there has to be at least one romance and there are two men interested in her.  One suitor is highly endorsed by her Aunt, wealthy family background.  As things get complicated Anne refuses the marriage proposal saying she was engaged, then, leaving out a lot of exciting action, remember every magazine segment had to end leaving readers wanting badly to know what will  happen next, Anne learns her fiancé has married her younger half sister!  Now she is free to marry and much drama ensues.  The aunt goes nuts when Anne refuses to marry the man she picks out for her.

The civil war breaks out and Anne and some lady friends of hers from school, volunteer as nurses, we are now in phase three of the story.  Now things get complicated and a bit weird.  I will leave it untold other than to say Anne turns into a murder mystery solving detective and saves a man from hanging.  

To me the weakness in Anne is in her romantic interests. I don't find the romantic leads very convincing.   I was glad things ended well for Anne.

There are numerous great minor characters, I loved the French cook, I would have liked to have seen more time devoted to the half sister but maybe this needed another novel.   The natural descriptions are very well done.  The great aunt is wonderful,
but her own romantic past and how it impacted the story made me groan at first but then I accepted it.  

Next year I hope to do a post sort of talking about the similarities and differences between Woolson and two literary ladies I have fallen for this year, Iréne Nemirovsky and Clarice Lispector.

I hope to read all of Woolson's novel, only five I  think, and as many of her short stories as I can download in Kindle editions, I am guessing thirty.  

To all into the 19th century American novel, give Anne a try.  

I bet this would be an excellent class room book for honors sections.

Mel u

1 comment:

Lory said...

What a fascinating discovery. Thank you for sharing all of this information - Woolson definitely sounds like a writer I will have to check out. Perfect for the "Women's Classic Literature" focus this year at the Classics Club.