- Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist by Anne Boyd Rioux
Anne Boyd Rioux opens her excellent new biography of Constance Fenimore Woolson with two indelible images that are the sum total of what most readers know about the author: in the first, "a woman jumps from the third-story window of her Venetian palazzo"; in the second, weeks later, a distraught Henry James sits in a boat in the middle of a Venetian lagoon, trying helplessly to submerge both the dresses and the record of their friendship, but the dresses "billow up like black balloons" (xiii). Unlike the dresses, Woolson's critical reputation has been less than buoyant in the century since her death, although an edition of her complete letters (Complete [End Page 88] Letters of Constance Fenimore Woolson, 2012), numerous book-length critical studies and articles employing feminist approaches, and Rioux's new collection of Woolson's stories should do much to restore her reputation.
Rioux's carefully chosen title, Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist, signals this revival and Woolson's struggle for acceptance, for it echoes James's Portrait of a Lady, the work of an author whose reputation has shaded if not entirely effaced Woolson's own in literary history. "Lady," too, is particularly apposite, for Rioux's running theme is what the literary world might have made of Woolson had they treated her as simply a "novelist" without the diminishing modifier "lady." The book is thus a twofold portrait, not only of Woolson but of the literary world of high-culture magazines and publishers in which she found success but struggled to create a kind of writing that relied neither on the prosaic lack of idealism, as she saw it, in Howellsian realism, or the bloodless analytics of Jamesian psychology.
Drawing extensively on new archival information and letters, Rioux chronicles the growth of Woolson as an artist in her own right, beginning with her early life in Cleveland and on Mackinac Island, her schooling at Madame Chegaray's in New York, and the early deaths of two of her sisters and father before her career began in earnest. A combination of her promise as a writer, her brother-in-law, and the middle name that linked her with her famous great-uncle James Fenimore Cooper brought Woolson to the attention of Henry Mills Alden at Harper & Brothers, which began publishing her work almost immediately. Beginning with travel letters for the Cleveland Herald and a prizewinning novel for children, The Old Stone House, that she later disowned, Woolson found her métier in the currently fashionable genre of regionalist or local color writing. Unlike regionalist writers such as Sara Orne Jewett and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, however, who maintained a razor-sharp focus on the regions they knew best, Wo-olson wrote of the lives and customs she found in various regions, from Michigan, St. Augustine, the Reconstruction-era South, and Asheville, North Carolina. Her first regional story, "St. Clair Flats" appeared the Atlantic Monthly in 1873 and according to Rioux was "probably her best early work" (82), later collected with other tales in Castle Nowhere: Lake-Country Sketches (1875). In search of a healthful climate, Woolson traveled the east coast with her invalid mother, and, after her mother's death, moved to Europe, living for a time in Oxford, visiting Egypt, and spending her happiest years at Bellosguardo, near Florence, Italy, before moving to Venice, where she died in 1894. [End Page 89]
In assessing Woolson's career, Rioux shows how Woolson developed her own style and perspective, challenging reviewers who expected a "sweet" style from a woman novelist with, as she told one correspondent, "such a horror of 'pretty,' 'sweet' writing" that she was willing to risk "a style that was ugly and bitter, provided it was also strong" (76). Male authors and editors, including E. C. Stedman, Henry Mills Alden, and, for a time, W. D. Howells, provided early guidance but did not always...