April 2016

Dan Froid


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

To read about literary culture in the mid-to-late nineteenth century is to realize that, in several ways, not much has changed. For example, there's the literary establishment based in New York, with a few well-known male realists at its center. There are also the women writers who outsell their male peers while receiving less (and/or worse) critical attention. Sound familiar? I'm painting broad strokes to some extent, but my point is that cultural trends persist, and reading about a writer's life often makes those trends clear.

Constance Fenimore Woolson (1850-1894) was a prominent late-nineteenth-century American writer. Anne Boyd Rioux's biography, Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist, provides a rich and detailed, well, portrait, of Woolson, placing her life and work in historical and literary context. It serves not only as an excellent biography in its own right, but as an introduction to an interesting but frustratingly forgotten writer.

Today, Woolson is mostly known for having been one of Henry James's close friends, although it's unlikely that many outside of academia have even heard of her. (She was also the niece of James Fenimore Cooper, but let us not talk about the great and terrible bore of American literature.) Her death is wrapped in the irritating mythology of this famous friendship: she either jumped or fell from the window of her Venice apartment, and after her death, James helped to clean things up, in the process destroying the evidence of their friendship (i.e. letters) and attempting to "drown" her dresses in a lagoon. Rioux explicitly, necessarily acknowledges this mythos in the book's preface. The title is, of course, also a nod to James and his novel, Portrait of a Lady. Woolson respected that book but, by the way, it was outsold tremendously by her own commercially and critically successful Anne: 6,000 copies of the former sold in book form to the latter's 57,000.

Rioux herself is a scholar and English professor, to whom Woolson is familiar territory. An earlier book, Writing for Immortality: Women and the Emergence of High Literary Culture in America, tracks the lives of four women writers, including Woolson and Louisa May Alcott, who sought recognition as serious artists. This new biography cannot be charged with the typical criticisms of academic writing: it's accessible, engaging, and wonderfully written. Frequently mixing her own prose with excerpts from letters, Woolson's fiction, and other documents, Rioux provides a well-rounded portrait of Woolson, as she understood her own life and work as well as how others -- like her famous friend Mr. James -- discussed her both publicly and privately. These multiple perspectives result in a clearer glimpse into Woolson's world, including the circles she moved in and the places she visited. The overall effect is to expand the barebones mythology surrounding Woolson's life by demonstrating how varied and fascinating it was -- much more than a blank prologue to a friendship with a famous man and a sensational death.

Woolson was in the challenging position of both writing for money and aiming to be taken seriously, a difficult path for a woman to tread. In fact, her father's death set her literary career in motion. Rioux observes that "without his death and the loss of his income, it is questionable whether she would ever have braved public exposure. In fact, it may have been a fear of disappointing him, should she fail, that prevented her from pursuing publication." After his death, she had little choice but to support herself and her mother. She began publishing in Harper's in 1870; her first pieces, each of them a kind of travelogue-cum-tribute, to, respectively, Zoar, Ohio, and Mackinac Island in Michigan -- places she loved. Her first fiction came out later that year. What followed was a career of over two decades distinguished by remarkable highs. When Anne was published in book form in 1880, following its serialization, reviews compared her to Henry James, William Dean Howells, and George Eliot. Rioux notes, "The overall tone of most of the reviews was that a major American writer had arrived on the transatlantic literary scene." To be sure, later novels were met with less unanimously enthusiastic reception -- she would receive criticism for both subject matter and genre -- but, nonetheless, most critics seemed to agree that she was a major American writer. For each of Woolson's five novels, as well as for many of her stories and other pieces, Rioux ably sketches their plots and summarizes their reception. As with quoting the letters of friends, these competing voices give a sense of what the name Constance Fenimore Woolson suggested in the late nineteenth century (as opposed to our current lamentable ignorance of her): for the most part, a formidable American artist.

Part of the reason why Woolson has practically vanished from literary history has to do with the struggle she dealt with in her own life: genre. Much of her early work was inspired by the places she lived and scenes from her own life. Quickly, though, she rejected what she saw in much women's writing as "the horror of 'pretty,' 'sweet' writing": "Her ambitions had grown exponentially as she set her sights on realism, a new literary form of which [William Dean] Howells was the primary arbiter." Taking as models writers like George Eliot -- the greatest influence on her work -- and Howells, she self-consciously wished to write high literature. At first, that meant realism. But her ambitions changed with the times, too: as analytical novels like Henry James's grew to prominence, Woolson tried to write in that vein as well. One gets the sense, from Rioux's discussions of her novels, that Woolson's work has little formal cohesion. Then again, neither does James's. The ultimate effect of this lack of cohesion seems to be perplexity: Where does she fit in? How do we categorize her?

Rioux routinely reads Woolson's fictional output through an autobiographical lens, a move that may appeal or repel a reader depending on her own critical tendencies. Personally, I'm wary of readings that too easily reduce works of art to reformulations of one's life story. For example, I was dismayed to find Woolson's short story "A Florentine Experiment" (1880) explained as a response to her budding friendship with Henry James. The story traces the relationship between an American man and woman "meeting in Florence, carefully negotiating the boundaries of their relationship, and trying unsuccessfully to read each other." This story represented a departure for Woolson, an experiment in a style akin to James's analytical fiction. Indeed, the experiment was prompted by critics who declared this style to be the superior one. And certainly her friendship with James seems to have been one of the most significant of her life. Though very close, both were wary. Woolson, in particular, feared that a relationship with him could be "destructive to her art." She probably accurately feared that marriage would mean sacrificing her artistic ambitions to domestic ones. It is true, then, that the parallels Rioux draws between Woolson's life and her art seem clear. There are other parallels, too: Woolson's early work could be classified as local-color regionalism (think Sarah Orne Jewett); her short stories, especially, clearly drew on her experiences with life in Ohio and Florida, among other places. And on one level, her stories also naturally drew on her emotional experiences. Nonetheless, I am resistant to critical readings that reduce the work of making art to a distillation of life experiences.

Rioux ends the book by attempting to answer to the biggest question: Why has Woolson vanished from the literary landscape? Sure, you can find her books on Project Gutenberg, or order print-on-demand facsimiles from Amazon, but otherwise there's nothing -- no paperback reprints, no obscure university-press editions. It seems to be because nobody has ever known what to do with her. She even died, as Rioux comments, before the "aura of tragic sensitivity had not yet formed around the image of the suicidal artist." More seriously, though, when she died, literary tastes were changing: in the move toward modernity, sincerity was on the way out, and, by some, her work was labeled as too earnest, even sentimental. When realists like James and Howells were apotheosized by early-twentieth-century critics, Woolson was again slighted: "[T]here was no room for a female voice in the male literary movement of realism." (See, I told you this would sound familiar.) Later in the twentieth century, feminist critics also ignored her, because her work again did not quite fit. She was friends with a lot of men, wrote stories from men's point of view, and, again, escaped easy classifications of gender and genre in literature. Repeatedly, she has continued to slip through the cracks, an apparent anomaly. She has never found a new audience because the audiences were busy looking for someone else.

Luckily, Rioux has also edited a selection of Woolson's short stories, Miss Grief and Other Stories, published simultaneously with this biography. It is a measure of a successful biography that I closed it eager to read its subject's work for myself -- and thankful that Rioux has met that desire. It is also a measure of the book's success that I've been left frustrated. That Woolson has fallen into obscurity is in itself nothing new; this, unfortunately, happens all the time, especially with women writers. But as I read the particularities of this case -- Woolson's significant success in her lifetime, especially compared with writers like Henry James who are now widely recognized as literary greats, the gendered reception of her work that thwarted her -- it was difficult not to feel a special sense of discouragement for Woolson. It should be clear at this point that this biography is enthralling and significant: read it, and help begin to give Woolson the posthumous recognition she no doubt deserves.

Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist by Anne Boyd Rioux
W.W. Norton
ISBN: 978-0393245097
416 pages