Julie Christine's Reviews > Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist

Constance Fenimore Woolson by Anne Boyd Rioux
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A well-constructed biography is a dance between feet-on-ground facts and limbs-in-air storytelling. Flesh and soul must be conveyed in the chronology of events, and a case must be created that this one life holds relevance to all readers. A biography is an act of scholarship and illumination.

And so it is with Anne Boyd Rioux's luminous biography of nearly-forgotten 19th century writer Constance Fenimore Woolson. If it weren't for Woolson's connection to Henry James, a relationship which eventually eclipsed her own work, she would likely have faded to little more than a footnote in American literary history. One could argue that her legacy was in fact relegated to a mere curiosity in service to the lauded canon of a male contemporary.

But Woolson was a well-respected and prolific author long before she and James met. Although their intellectual exchange was significant (what can be pieced together, for they agreed to a mutual destruction of their written correspondence—indeed, only four letters have been found) and there is conjecture of a greater intimacy–an emotional regard that transcended a physical affair–this is not the focus of Boyd Rioux's work. The biography encompasses the whole of Woolson's life, exploring the development of a great writer at a time when women artists were just beginning to break out of the margins and into recognized commercial and critical circles.

Constance Fenimore Woolson, a great-niece of the writer James Fenimore Cooper, was born in 1840 and raised principally in Cleveland, where her family moved to seek a new start after illness claimed the lives of her older siblings (Constance was in fact the sixth daughter, but by the age of 13 she was the eldest child alive). Solidly middle-class, the Woolson family prized education and Constance was afforded the opportunity to attend the Cleveland Female Seminary, followed by finishing school in New York. Her intellectual acumen was obvious and her father in particular encouraged her keen life of the mind.

Boyd Rioux explores Woolson's short stories and novels to create this portrait of a writer. Realism, engendered by the Civil War, characterized much of Woolson's writing. This presented a challenge to her reading public, as the expectation of women novelists of the Victorian era was for sweeping epic Romance. Yet Woolson wrote consistently of love, a theme played out in the shadow of her early doomed love affairs. She never married, though it's clear she yearned for affection and intimacy and developed very close relationships with men who supported, respected and challenged her work.

Woolson was also a traveler, shifting as the needs of her mother, to whom she was principal caregiver, changed—moving between Ohio, New York, Florida. After her mother's death, which left her bereft and untethered (her beloved father had died years before), Woolson finally realized the dream of traveling to Europe. She eventually settled there, coming to regard Italy as home for many long years; it is where she met Henry James.

Constance Fenimore Woolson was a tireless writer, churning out a vast collection of stories and novels that had varying degrees of commercial and critical success, yet still beyond the measure of many of her contemporaries, female and male. She had a long-standing publishing contract and her work was featured in the most well-respected literary journals of the day. Her work schedule astonishes this writer: ten, twelve hour work days, emerging in the evening only for supper and breaking away only one day a week to receive visitors. She ground herself down physically and mentally with her demanding output and suffered periods of profound illness. Prone to depression, Woolson had a very sophisticated and nuanced understanding of mental health and recognized that her fragility was genetic and pervasive. She also dealt with a congenital hearing loss that came on gradually in her late adolescence and left her virtually deaf by the end of her life, isolating her further into the depths of her intellect and imagination.

Whether it was depression that led to suicide or a temporary mental dislocation brought on by laudanum used to treat a severe bought of the flu, Woolson plunged from the second story window of her home in Venice, dying of her injuries soon after her fall. She was fifty-four. Henry James, with whom Woolson had maintained a fourteen year connection, was devastated by her death. Yet even he did not work to ensure her literary legacy and by the early-mid 20th century, when novelists were reinventing themselves to a more modern sensibility, Woolson was relegated to a mere Victorian curiosity.

Thanks to work of scholars like Anne Boyd Rioux, we can blow the dust off the histories of women writers like Woolson and actively participate in lifting their legacies from footnote to forefront.

Fascinating, lucidly and lovingly written, with deft, sparkling prose, Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist sits confidently and easily with the gorgeous biographies of literary lives by Colm Toibin and Claire Tomalin. Highly recommended.
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Reading Progress

September 23, 2015 – Shelved
September 23, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
March 7, 2016 – Started Reading
March 7, 2016 – Shelved as: bio-autobio-memoir
March 7, 2016 – Shelved as: social-political-commentary
March 7, 2016 – Shelved as: writing-companions
March 9, 2016 –
page 36
9.21% ""At the age of thirteen, Constance became the oldest daughter, although she had been the sixth born."\n Sit with that a minute, would you? Her mother, Hannah, bore nine children in fifteen years."
March 11, 2016 –
page 163
41.69% ""[A]t this late hour I have gotten hold of the pen, and now people must listen to me, occasionally." Constance Fenimore Woolson"
March 12, 2016 –
page 200
51.15% ""I am not strong enough to take much part in Society, or go out much, and do writing-work at the same time. The best of me goes into my writing." Constance Fenimore Woolson"
March 16, 2016 –
page 257
65.73% "Woolson diminishing her accomplishments to shore up Henry James's ego. A writer's work being the lesser because of her gender. Oh, it just hurts. \n \n And oh, how far we've still to go on this front."
March 17, 2016 –
page 288
73.66% "Oh that Woolson and James had not destroyed their correspondence. What treasures there must have been within their words."
March 18, 2016 – Shelved as: read-2016
March 18, 2016 – Finished Reading
March 21, 2016 – Shelved as: best-of-2016

Comments Showing 1-9 of 9 (9 new)

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Julie Christine Outstanding. Review to come.


message 2: by Michael (new)

Michael Eye opening review. I hate it when worthy writers get dksappeared. And women writers who produced important work in the face of tough threshing of their times. I recently got the fruit of Beryl Markham's great memoir of growing up in Kenya being revived and felt a triumph for a biographer of Margaret Fuller from her efforts to keep her footprint in literary essays, feminist philosophy and journalism in the 1840's from being forgotten. So sad that in Woolson's case that ony few letters survive. Trying to get at her selfness from her published writings sounds like a fascinating archaelogy.


Teresa Michael wrote: " So sad that in Woolson's case that ony few letters survive."

Michael, while only 4 letters from CFW to Henry James have survived, her many letters to others have been collected, The Complete Letters of Constance Fenimore Woolson, and are used as a basis for much of this biography.


message 4: by Tiffany (new)

Tiffany I notice you're giving a lot of 5 star reviews these days--are you in one of those dream reading periods where everything you read is really really good or are you enjoying everything so much because you're in a happy period of your life? Just wondering.


Julie Christine Dianne wrote: "Beautiful review, Julie." Dianne- thank you!


message 6: by Diane (new) - added it

Diane This is a lovely review.


message 7: by Julie Christine (last edited Mar 30, 2016 01:20PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Julie Christine Tiffany wrote: "I notice you're giving a lot of 5 star reviews these days--are you in one of those dream reading periods where everything you read is really really good or are you enjoying everything so much becau..."

Wow. I hadn't even noticed. My average rating is very high. Just on principle, I rarely carry on with books that don't immediately engage or enthrall or challenge me, so yes, I typically tend to enjoy most everything to a higher degree. But I'm also terribly behind on reviews- I just checked my 2016 reads and there are 5 or 6 books I haven't written up. Sometimes that procrastination is in converse proportion to my enthusiasm (right now, it's a factor of being so busy I scarcely have time to read).
I also subscribe to the "If you don't have something nice to say . . ." The damage a negative review does to a writer/books outweighs any satisfaction the reviewer might garner in writing it.

Long-winded way of saying that no, not everything I've read recently is a 5-star read, but I've only taken the time to shout the praises of those I have loved, and that I'm terribly behind in general. So don't extrapolate! If there's not an associated review or ranking, assume positive intent by a reviewer who needs to catch up :)


Julie Christine Diane wrote: "This is a lovely review."

Diane, you will love this book.


Julie Christine Teresa wrote: "Michael wrote: " So sad that in Woolson's case that ony few letters survive."

Michael, while only 4 letters from CFW to Henry James have survived, her many letters to others have been collected, [..."


Thank you for this wonderful follow-up comment, Teresa!


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