Wednesday, February 24, 2016

"It is only in real life that I resort to fiction": Constance Fenimore Woolson

A successful novelist and short story writer in her lifetime, she died in fear of the poverty that awaited her golden years. Jilted by her Civil War soldier hero she found consolation in the intellectual intimacy shared with novelist Henry James. She longed for a home and spent her life as an expat wandering Europe and visiting exotic locales. She is the one of most successful and acclaimed female American novelists that you have never heard of: Constance Fenimore Woolson.

I was 'granted my wish' for Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist by Anne Boyd Rioux through NetGalley. I had never heard of Woolson (1840-1894) before.

Born in Cooperstown, NY ( which was founded by her grandfather), Woolson's great-uncle was the famed novelist James Fenimore Cooper. After the death of Woolson's three sisters the family went west to start over in Cleveland, OH. The family vacationed on Michigan's Mackinac Island, which became the setting for her first novel, Anne. It is also where she met the man she would love and lose, Zeph Spalding.

Although she wrote as a girl it was not until the death of her father, and the resulting fiscal necessity, that she began to write and publish. As a 'surplus woman' after the loss of so many men during the Civil War Woolson needed to find a way to support herself and her widowed mother. There were enough teachers and governesses.

It was a time when female writers faced a wall of prejudice; it was commonly believed that women did not have the necessary intellectual abilities to write. And when they did write they were expected to offer moral tales to educate the young.

Her middle name "Fenimore" drew attention and Harper and Row agreed to publish her stories. Seeking inspiration in the world brought Woolson to New York City, Florida, Charleston, Asheville, and finally to Europe.

Woolson faced hearing loss (as did her mother) and suffered from depression (as had her father and brother). She developed pain and loss of feeling in her arm from writing. She would not leave Harper & Row for better money but could not save enough money to buy a permanent home. She rarely allowed her loneliness, fear, or pain to show. She wrote, "In my fiction I never say anything which is not absolutely true (it is only in real life that I resort to fiction)."

Woolson is most known for her deep and private relationship with Henry James. Yet even James was shielded from her inner despair. Her last days were spent in deep pain, taking enough morphine to dull it but also robbing her of sleep. Woolson fell, or jumped, from her balcony and died at age 54.

Rioux's compelling presentation of Woolson's complicated personality brings the author to life.
Now I can not wait to read the companion book of Woolson's short works, Miss Grief and Other Stories edited by Rioux, author of this biography.

I received a free ARC through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist
Anne Boyd Rioux
WW Norton & Co.
$32.95 hard cover
Publication Date: February 29, 2016
ISBN: 9780393245097

"Biography at its best aims at resurrection. Anne Boyd Rioux has brought the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson back to life for us. Hurrah!" —Robert D. Richardson, author of the Bancroft Prize–winning William James: In the Maelstrom of American Moderni