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

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist by Anne Boyd Rioux - 2016

Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist by Anne Boyd Rioux - 2016

March 5, 1840 - Claremont, New Hampshire

1869 - her father dies

1870 - Woolson begins her publishing career

1873 to 1879 - Woolson and her mother live in St. Augustine, Florida. She publishes several short stories set in that area of Florida.  (I have posted on three of the stories.  They are a valuable edition to the early literature of Florida.)

1879 - her mother dies, Woolson is left a modest income.  She moves to Europe, first living in England, then traveling in France, Germany and Switzerland. (She wrote a well received book about her trip down the Nile.) She becomes entranced by Italy, living for a time in Florence before settling in a villa in Venice.

1880 - Anne, her first novel, is published

1880 - She meets Henry James - much of her emotional life will be
 centered on her relationship to James

1881 - Portrait of a Lady by Henry James is published

January 24, 1894 - Venice, Italy -she dies in a three story fall- it is unclear if this was suicide or an accident.

Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist by Anne Boyd Rioux is the first biography of Woolson.  Rioux also published a collection of Woolson's short stories, Miss Grief and other Stories. (I have posted on ten of these Stories.)

Constance Fenimore Woolson, grand niece of James Fenimore Cooper (author of Last of the Mochicans), was during her lifetime one of America's most read novelists, travel writers and short story authors.   The literary world, especially those into American literature, owe a significant debt to Anne Boyd Rioux for bring her person and her work back to life.  Without her, most of us, me for sure, would have missed out on her wonderful short stories and novels.  

Rioux structures her superb biography around two connected mysteries.  Woolson died in Venice, in a three story fall from her villa. Some thought  it was an accident, others suicide.  Woolson had acfourteen year relationship with Henry James.  Rioux expertly, using texts by James and Woolson as well as correspondence, to unravel as much as one can the nature of their relationship.  One thing it was not was sexual but it did, for sure on Woolson's side, transcend friendship and that of iterary mentoring.
Woolson did have a romantic attachment before moving to Europe but the man died young.  She never married or had children.  

There is a profound irony in linking the title of the biography to Portrait of a Lady by Henry James.  (It was written prior to them meeting.) Like the lead character in the novel, Woolson went to Europe.  Being a lady in the late 19th century was a mark of class but also a trap.  Ladies were not supposed to need to work but Woolson depended on her income from publishing. ( I was surprised by the large volume of travel writings she published in American journals.). Woolson had friends and relatives in most of her European stops.  A lady socialized only with peers.  Rioux goes into detail on this.  A lady can have friendships with appropriate men but no sex outside of a marriage.  James was an interesting case, Rioux made me feel Woolson  was in love with Henry James and felt deep emotional frustration due to the still a bit mysterious sexual orientation of James which prevented a development of their relationship. Probably the late Victorian inhibitions of Woolson prevented her from falling deeply in love with James.  My conclusion after reading the bio was that Woolson had no sexual experiences.  Rioux tells us she did develop a close relationship with a man thirty years older than her, based on cultural interests.

Rioux shows how the Woolson family moved frequently during the younger days of Woolson.  She was close to her siblings and kept in touch with them while in Europe.  Woolson started her literary career with stories about the great lakes region.  Then, with her move to Saint Augustine in N. E. Florida, set stories in that region.  Rioux shows us Woolson loved Florida and often talked of moving back there but never left Europe.  She also write short stories about the aftermath of the Cival War in the South.  Rioux connects her travels to her stories.  Once she moved to Europe she set stories in England, Switzerland and Italy.  Rioux beautifully details her living conditions as  she moved.  Woolson was taken over by the art and history of Italy.  I was happy she at least got to live in a villa in Venice.

Rioux goes into detail about the economics of her work and her relationships to American publishers.

At the center of Rioux's narrative of Woolson's life is her relationship to Henry James.  Did she commit suicide over the frustrations of this relationship?  We will never know, there was no note.  It is safe to say this relationship hurt her deeply.  There are short stories,his novel The Wing of the Dovd and a novella by James centering on a man who loved a woman but never advanced the relationship.  Some say these stories were inspaired by his  relationship to Woolson.

I like finding connections between the works I read.  Last month I read Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton.  Hamilton married into a very wealthy New York family, headed by Philip Schuyler.  Schuyler, father of Edith Hamilton, was a general during the American Revolution and a United States Senator for New York.

I was intrigued when I came on this from Rioux,

"Unlike earlier in Florence, Woolson was the feted literary lion, with no one else’s shadow to hide in. The American consul Eugene Schuyler visited her daily.... A career diplomat, he was also the author of a series of essays on Russian history and literature for Scribner’s Magazine as well as the first English translator of Turgenev and Tolstoy. He hated Egypt, he told Woolson, but he loved spending time with her and talking about writing. Her literary views were a revelation to him. “She has quite set me up,” he wrote to a correspondent. “She cares not about plot, but only for the way things are done, and she puts my little stories way, way up, next to the French, for facture [workmanship]".

Eugene Schuyler did indeed have Phillip Schuyler as an ancestor.
(He had an interesting life. Wikipedia has a good article.) 

Rioux tells us about the many very cultured people Woolson met. Rioux does not explain how Eugene Schuyler came to meet Woolson, maybe it was through his counselor work.  He introduced her to numerous educated Americans in England and did through this enrich her life.  

This is a wonderful biography.  It is a portrait not just of a lady novelist but of her mileu. I highly recommend this book.

I am very much looking forward to this book, forthcoming February 2020.  At 750 pages I'm anticipating it will include all her stories
Constance Fenimore Woolson: Collected Stories (LOA #327) (Library of America) Kindle Edition
by Constance Fenimore Woolson (Author), Anne Boyd Rioux (Editor)

It is available for pre-order and very fairly priced at $12.95

(For bio data on Rioux, see her webpage)

Mel u


Suko said...

This sounds like a very interesting portrait of a (lady) novelist! I hadn't heard of Woolson before but am now interested in her work. Excellent review!

Lisbeth said...

Hello Mel, This sounds like another interesting biography. Anything related to Henry James is also a positive aspect for me. I think I have to read this one.
I also enjoy the milieu in which these people lived and travelled. It does say a lot about the time, and the people they met.

Buried In Print said...

This sounds amazing. I'm going to have a look for this one in the library. Will let you know how I get on!

Mel u said...

Suko- thanks for your comment. I think you are south of the fires an hope you are safe and well.

Mel u said...

Lisbeth@content Reader. The book goes into a lot of detail about Henry James. Thanks for your comment

Mel u said...

Buried in Pfint. I hope you are able to find this in your library. Thanks as always for your comment.