‘Miss Grief and Other Stories’ by Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840 – 1894) – 287 pages Edited by Anne Boyd Rioux
I am always up for the reclamation of authors, especially woman authors who have been unnecessarily trivialized or ignored. Before Tim Page, who knew that Dawn Powell was probably the best United States fiction writer of last century, surpassing even Hemingway and Fitzgerald? And in all of England there is no writer I would rather read than Elizabeth Taylor. Randall Jarrell did an excellent job reclaiming the novel ‘The Man Who Loved Children’ by Christina Stead from the dustbin of history. I did my own small part in recovering Henry Handel Richardson and her ‘The Fortunes of Richard Mahony’ trilogy‘ early on in my blogging career.
Now Anne Boyd Rioux is reclaiming the nineteenth century author Constance Fenimore Woolson by writing Woolson’s biography and editing her ‘Miss Grief and Other Stories’.
Constance Fenimore Woolson was considered one of the best writers of her time in the late 19th century. Woolson was a quintessential American writer. She wrote stories of Ohio and the Great Lakes and later when she moved to Florida, stories of the American South. The characteristic scene for Woolson is on a boat or in a lighthouse along a sea shore or in a river or stream or even in a marsh. She excels in her descriptions of nature, makes you feel that you are there in the water with her. I don’t know how she got so much experience on boats, but it seems quite unusual for a woman of that time.
“You might call it a marsh, but there was no mud, no dark slimy water, no stagnant scum; there were no rank yellow lilies, no gormandizing frogs, no swinish mud-turtles.”
“The lazy gulls who had no work to do, and would not have done it if they had, rode at ease on the little wavelets close in shore.”
The style is of its time in the 1870s and 1880s, longer sentences and longer paragraphs, perhaps more description altogether. It takes a bit of getting used to. However as I read these stories, I got that rush I get only when I am reading fine fiction.
In her story ‘Solomon’, Woolson captures the dignity of a poor coal miner in eastern Ohio who spends all his free time painting primitive pictures of his wife until he finally dies, poisoned by the gas from the mine. I found this to be a deeply moving story.
The words used to describe a black person in Woolson’s story ‘Rodman The Keeper’ could easily be interpreted as racist which they are. But at the same time one must remember that the N-word was used by Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn 219 times, and that Henry James considered himself so aristocratic that he never even depicted black people in his novels. Otherwise, ‘Rodman The Keeper’ is a compassionate story that takes place at a Union cemetery in North Carolina a few years after the Civil War.
In 1879, Constance Fenimore Woolson made what I consider to be the most disastrous mistake of her writing career and perhaps even of her life. Why would a woman who was so in tune to the natural world of the United States move to Italy? Her story ‘Miss Grief” hints that Woolson was already in thrall of Henry James even before she met him. At this point Woolson was much the more famous writer with James still largely unknown. Later Woolson and Henry James became close friends in Europe, with the two of them keeping separate apartments in a shared rented villa for a time. They kept in touch until the end.
Early in Woolson’s career, George Eliot and her empathetic realism were her role models for fiction writing. However Woolson changed her writing style toward Henry James’ contrived brand of analytical realism. Her later story ‘A Florentine Experiment’ reads like warmed-over Henry James about insanely rich people traipsing around Italian museums and their own Italian mansions. This story was a severe disappointment to me after reading Woolson’s early original and forceful American stories.
The story of Constance Fenimore Woolson ends tragically. Woolson was always prone to bouts of depression and on the night of January 24, 1894, she fell or jumped from the third floor window of the bedroom of her Venetian villa to her death. Henry James afterwards told of how he disposed of Woolson’s old clothing in a Venetian lagoon three months later, but the dresses kept rising to the surface.