An Interview with Anne Boyd Rioux
Earlier this year, two of Anne Boyd Rioux’s projects came to fruition at the same time — specifically on February 29 — with the publications of Miss Grief and Other Stories by Constance Fenimore Woolson and Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist, edited and written by Rioux, respectively. Rioux may at this point be most well known for her work with Woolson, who has been, from her death until recently, best known as a friend of Henry James. In fact, the only time I had heard of her was a fleeting mention of her death in a chapter on Henry James in Jessa Crispin’s Dead Ladies’ Project. In her work, Rioux has revealed a complex and fascinating relationship between the two writers, but more importantly, she brings to our attention one of the most important American writers of the nineteenth century (and beyond).
Constance Fenimore Woolson, grand-niece of James Fenimore Cooper, lived her early life as a dutiful Midwestern daughter, and eventually gained literary fame through her travel writing, novels, and short stories. She became one of the pioneers of the American literary expatriate life, living the second half of her life in England and Italy. After a broken engagement early in life, she never married, living the then-uncharted life of a single literary woman. She suffered from a host of health problems that were exacerbated by the extreme effort she put into her writing and often lacked critical social and economic resources, which were far more available to her male peers. Nevertheless, she created a formidable body of work that we are only now beginning to rediscover, thanks to Anne Boyd Rioux.
How did you come to Constance Fenimore Woolson, or how did she come to you?
I found Woolson on my own, browsing the library stacks one day while I was in graduate school. I saw this book with my name on it — ANNE — so it caught my attention. It was Woolson’s first novel, published in 1882. Nearby was a recently published collection of Woolson’s short stories with a title that really intrigued me, Women Artists, Women Exiles. I was interested in finding out when and how women writers had first committed themselves to the pursuit of serious literary artistry, in America anyway. I was essentially wondering, who were the Austens, Brontës, and Eliots of America. Emily Dickinson had decided not to publish her poetry (besides a handful of poems), and there had been popular women writers who wrote for moral reasons rather than the pursuit of artistry, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe. But where were the artists?
I ended up finding a whole generation of women who came of age as writers during and after the Civil War, contemporaries of Dickinson’s, who were ambitious and sought serious recognition above all else, at least for a while. Woolson was the most committed and successful of them all and really stuck with me. (The others I focused on in my first book, Writing for Immortality: Women and the Emergence of High Literary Culture in America, were Elizabeth Stoddard, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, and Louisa May Alcott. Alcott published in the Atlantic Monthly and wrote an ambitious novel for adults before she became a popular children’s author.)
Woolson was allergic to the “woman author,” not only how it was characterized in people’s thoughts, but as it was embodied in actual women — her contemporaries. Do you think she missed out on the company and support of others like herself, or were her complaints legitimate?
Woolson’s feelings about the category of the “woman author” were on my mind very much when I read Clare Vaye Watkins’s piece “On Pandering” late last year. Like Watkins, Woolson resented being viewed first as a woman and only second as an author. In her day, there really was no possibility of being taken seriously as an author without consideration of gender. The “woman author” was this kind of monstrous being, neither fully a woman nor an author. The two seemed to cancel each other out. It was sad to me that she rejected others of her ilk (such as Phelps and Alcott and, to some extent, Stoddard), but the more I thought about it, it wasn’t surprising.
The thing to realize about Woolson is that she wasn’t happy giving up her femininity in pursuit of authorship. Like George Eliot, she cared what people thought about her. She was no George Sand content to flout convention and wear men’s clothing. Her negative comments about women writers also come from a period of her life when she was traveling with her mother and sister, who were conventional women, and who were trying to make her look less “literary.” Later, after her mother’s death, when she traveled to Europe, she became friends with many women writers. Sadly, we don’t know a lot about those friendships, though, because the letters between them do not survive. In fact, most of her letters that survive where written to men and therefore were probably viewed as more public in nature, whereas letters between women were more personal. (This adds another dimension to the fact that she and James destroyed their letters to each other, which she and her sister did as well.)
In Portrait of a Lady Novelist, you downplay Henry James’ sexuality, which in other places is represented as largely unambiguous. The result in your biography, however, is even more queer, if I may say so myself; the relationship between James and Woolson consistently resists classification. You show what was more like “Boston Marriages” — that is, same-sex partnerships of the time — than heterosexual marriage. Is this what you had in mind? What was your process in representing the relationship that, in large part, preserved Woolson’s name till now?
Their relationship is very much open to interpretation, considering how few reliable sources we have from which to reconstruct it. Their pact to destroy each other’s letters has left a pretty large void for biographers and scholars to fill. The more I read of Woolson’s own writings, the less I was inclined to agree with previous portraits of their relationship, which have ranged from her being a lovelorn spinster pursuing him all over Europe to him being rather a cad who had used her. As I grew to know and appreciate Woolson and discovered new sources no one had used before (such as 24 letters she wrote to their close mutual friend Francis Boot), it was clear to me that she was anything but a lovesick puppy who would hang on to someone who didn’t return her affection. I decided to trust her and assume that she received plenty in return for the affection she bestowed on James. In fact, in her letters to Boot she referred to him as “Harry,” the name his family called him. We can’t know if he also called her “Connie,” as her family did, but it seems quite probable.
I wouldn’t say that earlier scholars got it entirely wrong, however. I was particularly struck by a line in Paul Fisher’s House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family, where he says, comparing James’s love for Woolson with his love for Paul Zhukovsky:
Were both […] actually instances of what Oscar Wilde was to call, in the same decade of the 1890s, the ‘love that dared not speak its name’? Harry’s love for Constance Fenimore Woolson, in the end, may well have been as queer,’ as resistant to conventional nomenclature, as stifled by silence, as his infatuation for Paul Zhukovsky.
Although not all James scholars agree with Fisher in his portrait of James’s feelings for Zhukovsky, his portrait of James’s feelings for Woolson rang true to me and influenced my portrait of their relationship. I found further evidence to suggest that theirs was a pretty “queer” friendship, which may have included thoughts of marriage, as some of their stories suggest. I think, ultimately, that their relationship can be called a marriage of minds that extended to the affections although not to sexual feelings on either side. But their feelings for each other were complex, so much so that he grieved her death until he was near his own. There is a letter of his near the end of his life in 1914 where he writes the date as January 29, 1894, twenty years, almost to the day, since her death, a slip that suggests how much she was in his mind, even then.
Every story in Miss Grief is a knockout, but obviously there were lots of stories to choose from, as Woolson published short stories all her life. Why did these seven stories make the cut? Are there any that didn’t make it in that readers should especially seek out?
It was hard to pick only seven stories, when she wrote well over fifty. I wanted to choose a variety from the three major phases of career: her writing about the Great Lakes, her stories set in the Reconstruction South, and her European stories. Within those parameters, I chose ones that I simply love (like “St. Clair Flats” and “Sister St. Luke”) and ones that exhibit major themes in her fiction (like the failed artist in “Solomon” and the difficulty of reconciliation between North and South in “Rodman the Keeper”). “Miss Grief” is her most anthologized story and it still resonates today in terms of how women writers are treated in the male-dominated literary world. For her European stories, I chose two that I discuss at length in the biography, which bear on her relationship and creative difference with Henry James. I was only supposed to pick six stories, but when I told my editor that “In Sloane Street” had never been republished since its original appearance in 1892, she let me add that one. It is absolutely one of her most powerful stories, but the only European stories that her publisher collected were those set in Italy. “In Sloane Street” is also her only story set in England, where she lived for many years.
Woolson has so many other wonderful stories. Some of my favorites are “Ballast Island,” “Peter the Parson,” “Wilhelmina,” and “The Lady of Little Fishing” (all set in the Great Lakes); “Miss Elisabetha,” “Felipa,” and “In the Cotton Country” (all set in the US South); and “Dorothy,” “At the Chateau of Corinne,” “A Transplanted Boy,” and “The Street of the Hyacinth” (set in Europe). (A full bibliography of her works as well as links to works available online can be found at the Constance Fenimore Woolson Society website: https://constancefenimorewoolson.wordpress.com/.)
If you could bring only one of Woolson’s novels back into print, which one would it be and why?
It’s hard to say because I believe that four out of her five adult novels (Anne, For the Major, East Angels, and Jupiter Lights) deserve to be republished, for various reasons. They are all quite different and each is an exquisite accomplishment in its own right. But if I could pick only one, I would say Anne, her first novel, which was always her most popular and was republished well into the twentieth century. It was such a hit when it ran serially in Harper’s magazine for eighteen months, starting in December 1880, that her publishers gave her a $1000 bonus and offered her an exclusive contract for all of her future work. Not too shabby, even for a writer today.
I had the great pleasure to teach Anne last semester and was blown away by how much my students loved the book. We read it in a course on women’s coming-of-age novels, and many said they wished they had been able to read the book when they were growing up, alongside Jane Eyre and Jane Austen’s novels. It certainly belongs in that vein of iconic nineteenth-century women’s novels about the transition to adulthood, and it focuses on a heroine who is every bit as iconoclastic as Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennet. Anne is, however, thoroughly American and must figure out how to make her way alone in a world of shifting classes and increasingly mutable gender roles. Woolson sets her heroine on a journey of self-discovery that takes her from her provincial home on Mackinac Island, Michigan, to New York high society and Civil War battlefields. Anne not only rescues a foolish maiden, saves a wounded soldier, and solves a murder, but also manages to encapsulate the possibility of American selfhood for women in a way that spoke to generations of readers.
I loved this entire project of bringing an author and her texts back to life simultaneously. Are there more authors like Woolson — whose accomplishments have been forgotten because of sexism and/or the cruelty of time — that you know of that you’d like to see get the same treatment?
Yes, there are so many wonderful nineteenth-century American women writers who deserve to be more widely known. I focused on Woolson because I believed her writing to be the best of those still in obscurity (and her life was simply fascinating). Others deserve renewed recognition for a variety of reasons. Fanny Fern, for instance, was the first newspaper columnist in America (not the first female newspaper columnist) and was the highest paid writer of the mid-nineteenth century (not female writer). Nathaniel Hawthorne said she wrote as if the devil was in her, and he was right. She skewered the conventions of her era, particularly those that relegated women to second-class citizenship. Zitkala-Sa, a Native American of the Sioux tribe, published powerful stories (autobiographical and fictional) in the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s around the turn of the twentieth century that challenged American policies of assimilation and the supposed superiority of white culture. Sui Sin Far, Rose Terry Cooke, Rebecca Harding Davis, and Elizabeth Stoddard are also remarkable writers who deserved renewed attention. I could go on and on.
Who do you see as the contemporary inheritors (whether or not they realize it) of Woolson, in terms of her life and/or writing?
The short answer is anyone who is trying to inject realism with empathy and emotion, such as Hanya Yanagihara does in A Little Life or Elena Ferrante in her Neapolitan Quartet. Similarly, I would add writers confronting women’s unsanctioned emotions (particularly anger), such as Claire Messud in The Woman Upstairs. Woolson struggled a lot with her own emotions, which she was taught to control and hide, but felt deeply that a realistic portrayal of women’s lives must approach their messy inner lives, something she felt that her male contemporaries (such as James and William Dean Howells) failed to do.
Woolson was tremendously aware of the rise in cynicism in her own day. We have endured more than a century of distrust of genuine emotion since then. But it is interesting to see writers (dare I say particularly women writers?) gaining large followings precisely because of their ability to infuse their realistic prose with deep feeling, always a dangerous play for women writers. Indeed, Yanagihara has been criticized by some for wringing the emotions of her characters and her readers too vigorously, and a few have dismissed Ferrante’s books as soap-operaish. It is also interesting to note the ways that male writers (such as Karl Ove Knausgaard and Jonathan Franzen) are praised for their sensitivity — to put it another way, their ability to write with sentiment without tipping into sentimentality (of which women have historically been disproportionately accused). I am less inclined to see either of these writers as descendants of Woolson, however, simply because they focus on the domestic much more than she did.
Yet, if we think of the writer’s ability to care for her characters, at which Woolson was particularly adept, then we might widen the circle even further. I was struck by a recent discussion of David Foster Wallace, describing his accomplishment in terms that could be applied to Woolson as well. Tom Bissell, who wrote the introduction to the twentieth-anniversary edition of Infinite Jest, said in an interview that what Wallace had in common with the great writers of literature — from George Eliot and Jane Austen to Saul Bellow and Marilynne Robinson — was his great empathy for his characters. Bissell said, “They care about the sentences and they care about the lives and wellbeing of these people they invent on the page.” In that sense, then, Woolson (who was greatly influenced by Eliot) belongs in that tradition as well.