Some of you may never have heard of Constance Fenimore Woolson – I hadn’t before I began following Anne Boyd Rioux on Twitter.
Miss Grief and other stories a new collection of stories, by Constance Fenimore Woolson has been edited by Anne Boyd Rioux who is the author of Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist (which I am two thirds of the way through). Woolson’s stories and serialisations of her novels appeared in various literary papers and journals during the 1870’s, 1880’s and 1890’s. Her first novel Anne outsold Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady almost ten times. By 1894 when Woolson died she had been compared to the likes of the Brontes and Jane Austen by a notable critic, and was considered one of the best writers of her generation. However I don’t want to talk too much about Constance Fenimore Woolson the woman – although I am completely fascinated by her already – as I hope to review the biography next week. Colm Tóíbín who wrote about Henry James and his friendship with Constance Fenimore Woolson in his novel The Master – which I have yet to read – has written the foreword of this edition. It adds a wonderful extra dimension.
Woolson’s stories reflect the places she lived and travelled to during her lifetime Ohio of the mid-west, the Deep South and Europe. They also reflect in small ways her friendship with Henry James – whom she met while in Italy. I loved these stories; I loved the landscapes and the people.
The collection opens with St. Clare Flats – one of Woolson’s Great Lake stories it is set in the freshwater delta of the St, Clare River. This opening story is a gloriously elegiac portrayal of the disappearance of the American wilderness. A couple travel through the maze like St. Clare Flats, meeting the people who make their living on the river. Woolson highlights the conflict between those who saw only the potential for development in the frontier and those who appreciated it for its beauty and artistic inspiration.
“You might call it a marsh; but there was no mud, no dark slimy water, no stagnant scum; there was no rank yellow lilies, no gormandizing frogs, no swinish mud-turtles. The clear waters of the channels ran over golden sand, and hurtled among the stiff reeds so swiftly that only in a bay, or where protected by a crescent point, could the fair white lilies float in the quiet their serene beauty requires.”
(St. Clare Flats 1873)
One of my favourite stories in this collection is Solomon. In this story Woolson demonstrates her belief that literature should represent those people marginalised and overlooked by the society in which she lived. Solomon is set in the German separatist community Zoar in eastern Ohio. In this story two privileged women travel to the region, where they meet the wife of Solomon, a local miner. The two women become drawn into the simple life of this couple, discovering in the eponymous Solomon an aspiring artist. Woolson portrays these characters with understanding and subtle poignancy.
Rodman the Keeper – acknowledges the continuing conflict that remained between North and South following the Civil War. Woolson shows that reconciliation was far more complicated than had often been portrayed at this time. The setting is a Union cemetery in the South; Rodman the keeper of the title is the caretaker of the cemetery, and keeper of the ledger of the names of the dead. Rodman was himself a Union soldier, and now he watches over the graves of his fallen comrades. Meeting Ward De Rosset impoverished, sick, almost starving – Rodman takes him to the keeper’s cottage where he helps to care for the man who was once his enemy.
Sister St. Luke was inspired by the winters Woolson spent in St. Augustine, Florida. Woolson loved the Spanish character of the town and the landscape which surrounded it. Sister St. Luke is set on the barrier island that lies across the Matanzas River. In this story Woolson shows how women can often have unexpected powers. Two travellers, Keith and Carrington land on Pelican Island – where the light-keeper Pedro and his American wife Melvyna live. Also on the island is a nun – Sister St. Luke who has been sent to the island by her convent for her health. The men rather patronise the little sister, thinking her small and fragile and unworldly. They are destined to be surprised in the abilities of their little friend – who they will never forget.
The title story Miss Grief is set in Italy. The story was written before Woolson had actually met Henry James – to whom she had a letter of introduction from James’ cousin. Miss Grief is actually Miss Aaronna Moncrief – whom the narrator insists on calling Miss Grief. Our narrator is a successful male writer – acknowledging himself to be conceited. A middle aged woman shows up at his door while in Rome, finding him out on several occasions she persists until she finally sees him. She asks him to read her writing. In her work he discovers something unique, imperfect but unique. The famous writer is shocked when ‘Miss Grief’ as he calls her reveals how she would have killed herself had he rejected her work. In this story Woolson highlights the difficulties of a woman writer who has been unable to find someone to publish her work and the success of a male writer who has everything he could ever want.
A Florentine Experiment – reminded me a little of those society stories of Edith Wharton. This story is also set in Italy – among a group of American ex-pats. It tells the story of the complicated romantic life of Margaret Stowe and Trafford Morgan.
The final story of the collection is the only one that Woolson wrote about England.
“I have only found one place in Europe where the coffee is as good as ours, and that is Vienna. But as regards tea, they do keep at it, that family upstairs. First, they all drink it for breakfast. Then again with luncheon. Then it goes in a third time at five or six, with piles of bread-and-butter. Then they have it in the evening after dinner. And if they go to the theatre or anything of that sort, they have a cup after they come home. In addition, if anyone has a cold, or is tired, or has been out in the rain, there are extra supplies ordered. I should think it would make them nervous enough to fly.”
(In Sloane Street 1892)
In Sloane Street focuses on a family and their spinster friend who are drawing to the end of their visit to England. Philip Moore is a writer – and in this story Woolson explores her own feelings about family and art through the depiction of a writer who writes for art’s sake rather than money. Gertrude Remington is his friend who is ambitious for him and Amy his wife who cares nothing for art and would much rather he churn out the big selling type of stories she herself prefers to read. Also in this story we see the English and our weather through the eyes of the American tourist I rather loved that.
I loved all of this collection without reserve, although for me it is the wild American landscapes of the nineteenth century that Woolson captures particularly well and that I will remember.