I’m famously bad at reading non-fiction these days – but the one type of non-fiction I am most likely to read is that of literary biography.
Constance Fenimore Woolson was an American nineteenth century novelist, who seems to have slipped into obscurity. Today it seems she is best known for having had a very close friendship with Henry James and for having taken her own life. The author of this biography, Anne Boyd Rioux is doing a superb job in reigniting interest in her. This biography is a brilliantly researched work, compulsively readable and detailed. However it is the narrative of Constance Fenimore Woolson’s life, her family, travels, writing and friendships which make this such an absorbing read. From never having heard of Constance Fenimore Woolson just a couple of months ago – I now feel like I know her very well indeed.
“To begin to understand how Woolson ended up dying alone, in the cold street behind her home in Venice, we have to begin by looking at her life through her eyes instead of James’s. When we do we see a life full of heartache, hope, and ambition that started in a conservative era and ended just as the New Woman was being born. We begin to see a powerful writer and conflicted woman who was not simply James’s follower but his friend and peer. We also find a woman of great wit and compassion, a woman passionate about art, literature , and love, and a woman at war with herself – in short a woman as beguiling as any of James’s heroines.”
(From the Prologue to Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist)
Constance Fenimore Woolson was born in 1840 in Claremont, New Hampshire, one of a large family of siblings – many of whom did not survive childhood. A grand-niece of James Fenimore Cooper, Constance was to grow up in Cleveland, Ohio – where the family relocated when she was a baby following the deaths of three daughters to scarlet fever. As she grew up Constance had a particularly close to her sister Clara born a couple of years after her. She and Clara were educated at the Cleveland female seminary and later at a boarding school in New York. CFW began publishing her fiction in the 1870’s after the death of her father, beginning with short stories. During the 1870’s Constance accompanied her mother to St. Augustine in Florida for the winter, during these visits she was able to travel widely in the South, and these travels inspired several of her stories.
In 1880 CFW published her first novel for adults; Anne, she had however already published a children’s book under the pseudonym Anne March in 1873. Four more novels and a novella followed as well as more stories, travel sketches and poetry.
Following her mother’s death Constance felt able to travel to Europe, something she had always wanted to do. In 1879 she and Clara and Clara’s daughter landed in England, from where they travelled to France Germany and Italy.
“As the train lurched through the frozen French countryside, a porter came into the train compartment and took from beneath Constance’s feet the tin box full of water that was more valuable to her than precious jewels. He would soon return with it full of hot water, but in the meantime she, Clara and Claire, now twelve, shivered and complained bitterly. They could see nothing out of the frosted windows.
The travellers spent the night in Lyon, where the piles of snow reached their heads, and in the morning boarded another frigid train to Marseille. During the day, the window began to clear, and the white countryside gradually gave way to fields and vineyards, with chateaux and castles dotting the landscape. Constance began to revive. The next day, she gradually unpeeled the layers of cloaks and wraps that had failed to keep her warm. The tin box was taken away for good. Finally they reached the Riviera and the bluest sea Constance had ever seen.”
With her Constance carried a letter of introduction to Henry James from his cousin. In time Clara returned to the States but Constance never did, in later years she would occasionally talk about going home to America but apart from a trip to Egypt in 1889 she remained in Europe for the rest of her life. Constance Fenimore Woolson and Henry James met in Florence, in 1880 while ‘the Master’ as he came to be known was working on Portrait of a Lady. Over the next fourteen years the two became intimate friends, there were times when James was away from CFW caring for his sister in England, and CFW had to rise above some of his criticism of her work – (he praised it too) the two appear to have meant a great deal to one another and Constance became friendly with Henry’s adored sister Alice too. There has been a lot of speculation about the relationship between the two writers; Colm Tóíbín has apparently touched upon the relationship in his novel The Master – which I am keen to read now.
In this biography Anne Boyd Rioux portrays the friendships which meant so much to CFW during her years in Italy with great understanding. Constance became good friends with Francis Boott, his daughter Lizzie and son in law who lived with him. She adored the baby son born to Lizzie, and next to Henry James the family were her greatest friends. When Boott returned to the States she missed him terribly. In later years Constance suffered from ill health, she had suffered from deafness for many years which had brought a sad end to her enjoyment of music. Towards the end of her life, Constance found herself short of money, unwell, lonely and often depressed. The last view we have of Constance therefore is a rather sad one.
Last week I reviewed a new collection of Constance Fenimore Woolson’s short stories edited by Anne Boyd Rioux I loved them. Having now read the biography which contains details of Woolson’s novels and short stories – I wonder whether her novels were just not destined to stand the test of time. Now perhaps a new generation of readers can decide for themselves as many of her works are available as e-books. I thought her short stories were excellent – and I suspect they represent some of her greatest writing. I hope very much I shall be able to get hold of more of her short stories in the future. There is also at least one of CFW’s novels that I would like to read however some of the others I was less sure of. Still all that is beside the point – because reading about CFW I became fascinated by the woman, her life, her work her travels and of course her friendship with Henry James about which not that much is known due to the deliberate destruction of many letters. CFW was buried in the protestant cemetery in Rome and there is a commemoration to her on Mackinac Island in Michigan called Anne’s tablet.
Anne Boyd Rioux’s biography does a wonderful job at exploring the woman who has appeared as a shadow behind her friend – now her own story, and her work can stand alone – no longer I hope, a footnote in the life of another.