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Book Review

Reclaiming best-selling 19th century novelist from history’s dustbin

Author Anne Boyd Rioux. Jennifer Zdon

A critically esteemed and best-selling author during her lifetime in the second half of the 19th century, Constance Fenimore Woolson faded from view in the 20th century, the victim of changing tastes that dismissed her fiction as sentimental. Her dubious return to recognition came via her friendship with Henry James and a patronizing assessment from his biographer, Leon Edel, who dubbed Woolson “prosy and banal, a journey-woman of letters.” Nowadays, anyone who has heard of Woolson at all is likely to have the vague impression that she was in love with James and killed herself when he rejected her.

How refreshing, then, is scholar Anne Boyd Rioux’s rehabilitation of Woolson as a writer and a woman. Even the book’s subtitle, which at first glance diminishes Woolson by again making her relationship to James the most important thing about her, proves to signal something quite different. Although James, who met Woolson in Florence as he was working on “The Portrait of a Lady’’ in 1880, felt that his friendship with this independent-minded American gave him fresh insights into his heroine Isabel Archer, Rioux avers that his understanding of her was decidedly partial.


Unlike Isabel, Woolson had found her purpose in life unrelated to a man. When she met James, she had been writing professionally for a decade; her short stories set around the Great Lakes and the post-Civil War South had been acclaimed as vivid explorations of landscapes new to American literature. Her ambitious first novel, “Anne,’’ was such a hit when it began serialization in Harper’s Magazine that the publisher doubled her fee and claimed first refusal on her future writing. Published in book form seven months after “The Portrait of a Lady,’’ it sold nearly 10 times as many copies as James’s novel.

It would be a mistake to see Woolson as a commercial author incapable of James’s profound achievements. Rioux makes it clear that Woolson’s genuine respect for James did not mean she wholly shared his conception of what literature should be. “There are other ways of writing,” she sighed in 1880 when Atlantic Monthly editor William Dean Howells, the influential arbiter of American literary standards, praised to the skies a Jamesian story (high-society setting, plenty of dialogue) she had written as an experiment. Woolson preferred dramatic plots and strong characters with clear motivations.


“Miss Grief,” a story Rioux judges one of Woolson’s best, expresses her bitterness toward male authorities who condescend to women writers. Woolson resented being urged to cultivate “her allotted space” of “pretty and pleasant stories.” Yet, like the doomed heroine of “Miss Grief,” she craved the recognition of fellow artists. James was one of several men with whom she formed close relationships based on shared literary and cultural interests. She seems to have concluded early that marriage was not for her; several stories depict female artists who, in Rioux’s tart summary, “submit to marriages only after losing their financial independence and their faith in their creative power.” Her novels “For the Major’’ and “East Angels’’ explore the ways women are forced to conceal their true natures from men; Woolson may well have thought of the careful way she had to position herself as an admiring literary inferior to the touchy, insecure James.

It wasn’t thwarted love for James that prompted Woolson’s plunge from the third-story window of her Venetian apartment, Rioux persuasively concludes. Woolson understood and shared James’s need for “connection and solitude”; theirs was “a bond of minds and hearts” that did not encompass sex or marriage. Her suicidal despair was rooted in illness and financial worries. She had been anxious about her health since childhood, when two older sisters died from tuberculosis in rapid succession, and she suffered throughout her life from bouts of severe depression. Increasing deafness left her feeling isolated and vulnerable. She was unable to write and, at 53, terrified of becoming dependent on others. “Death was not terrible to her,” Rioux writes. It would mean, at last, peace.” Rioux’s account of Woolson’s final months is painful to read, but she valiantly insists, “Although her depression may have consumed her in the end, it did not define her life.”


Warmly sympathetic evaluations of Woolson’s fiction may spark reprintings and rereadings, but at the very least, this gentle portrait of a woman who struggled to be true to herself as an artist adds much-needed nuance to American cultural and social history.


Portrait of a Lady Novelist

By Anne Boyd Rioux

Norton, 416 pp., $32.95

Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for the Los Angeles Times and The Daily Beast.