Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4528
SOURCE: "Miss Constance Fenimore Woolson," Harper's Weekly Vol. XXXI, No. 1573, February 12, 1887, pp. 114-15.
[In the essay that follows, James evaluates Woolson's writing as possessed by "a spirit singularly and essentially conservative," opposed to the entrance of women into public life.]
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- Critical Essays
SOURCE: "Miss Constance Fenimore Woolson," Harper's Weekly Vol. XXXI, No. 1573, February 12, 1887, pp. 114-15.
[In the essay that follows, James evaluates Woolson's writing as possessed by "a spirit singularly and essentially conservative," opposed to the entrance of women into public life.]
Flooded as we have been in these latter days with copious discussion as to the admission of women to various offices, colleges, functions, and privileges, singularly little attention has been paid, by themselves at least, to the fact that in one highly important department of human affairs their cause is already gained—gained in such a way as to deprive them largely of their ground, formerly so substantial, for complaining of the intolerance of man. In America, in England, today, it is no longer a question of their admission into the world of literature: they are there in force; they have been admitted with all the honors, on a perfectly equal footing. In America, at least, one feels tempted at moments to exclaim that they are in themselves the world of literature. In Germany and in France, in this line of production, their presence is less to be perceived. To speak only of the latter country, France has brought forth in the persons of Madame De Sévigne, Madame De Stael, and Madame Sand three female writers of the first rank; without counting a hundred ladies to whom we owe charming memoirs and volumes of reminiscence; but in the table of contents of the Revue des Deux Mondes, that epitome of the literary movement (as regards everything, at least, but the famous doctrine, in fiction, of "naturalism"), it is rare to encounter the name of a female contributor. The covers of American and English periodicals tell a different story; in these monthly sections of the ladder of fame the ladies stand as thick as on the staircase at a crowded evening party.
There are, of course, two points of view from which this free possession of the public ear may be considered—as regards its effect upon the life of women; and as regards its effect upon literature. I hasten to add that I do not propose to consider either, and I touch on the general fact simply because the writer whose name I have placed at the head of these remarks happens to be a striking illustration of it. The work of Miss Constance Fenimore Woolson is an excellent example of the way the door stands open between the personal life of American women and the immeasurable world of print, and what makes it so is the particular quality that this work happens to possess. It breathes a spirit singularly and essentially conservative—the sort of spirit which, but for a special indication pointing the other way, would in advance seem most to oppose itself to the introduction into the feminine lot of new and complicating elements. Miss Woolson evidently thinks that lot sufficiently complicated, with the sensibilities which even in primitive ages women were acknowledged to possess; fenced in by the old disabilities and prejudices, they seem to her to have been, by the very nature of their being, only too much exposed, and it would never occur to her to lend her voice to the plea for further exposure—for a revolution which should place her sex in the thick of the struggle for power. She sees it in preference surrounded certainly by plenty of doors and windows (she has not, I take it, a love of bolts and Oriental shutters), but distinctly on the private side of that somewhat evasive and exceedingly shifting line which divides, human affairs into the profane and the sacred. Such is the turn of mind of the author of Rodman the Keeper and East Angels, if it has not prevented her from writing books, from competing for the literary laurel, this is a proof of the strength of the current which to-day carries both sexes alike to that mode of expression.
It would not be hidden from a reader of Anne and East Angels that the author is a native of New England, who may have been transplanted to a part of the country open in some degree to the imputation of being "out West," who may then have lived for a considerable time in the South, and who may meanwhile constantly have retained as a part of her essence certain mysterious and not unvalued affinities with the State of New York. Such, in fact, so far as my knowledge goes, has been the succession of events in Miss Woolson's history. She was born, like her father, Dr. Charles Jarvis Woolson, before her, at Claremont, New Hampshire, and taken as a child to live at Cleveland. She was educated partly in that city and partly at a French school in New York—an establishment which she has sketchily commemorated (if, indeed, the term "sketchy" may ever be applied to her earnest, lingering manner) in certain chapters of Anne. Such at least is my inference; the charming figure of Madame Moreau, in that novel, may be assumed to be a reminiscence of the late celebrated Madame Chegaray. On the death of her father, in 1869, she entered with her mother upon an unbroken residence of several years in the Southern States, principally in Florida, where, as is manifest in every page of East Angels, she conceived a high appreciation of orange gardens and white beaches, pine-barrens and rivers smothered in jungles, and a peculiar affection for that city of the past, so rapidly becoming a city of the future, St. Augustine. Her early summers she was accustomed to spend, in the Cleveland phrase, "up the lakes," and particularly amid the beautiful scenery of Mackinaw, in the straits between Michigan and Huron. Mackinaw is obviously the rather tormentingly nameless island represented in the early chapters of Anne, represented with a vividness which causes the reader of that story to rage not a little at the perversity which leads the author to desert the brilliant frozen straits and the little snow-bound United States military post for scenes less remunerative—the only case that I can remember, by-the-way, in which she has abandoned an opportunity without having conscientiously pressed it out. Miss Woolson must have known Mackinaw by winter as well as by summer, and none of her novels contains an episode better executed than those interrupted pages of Anne which give the sense of the snowglare beating into small, hot, bare interiors, the dog trains jogging over the white expanse, and the black forests staring for long months at the channel of ice. When it is added that Miss Woolson is by her mother a grandniece of Fenimore Cooper, and that she cherishes a devotion for the charming little town on Lake Otsego which bears, for good reasons, the name of the great romancer, her stories will have been accounted for so far as the distribution of her years, superficially speaking, may account for them.
That is, there is only one element unaccounted for—the inevitable European element, which, oddly enough, is nowadays almost the sign and hallmark of American experience. Miss Woolson has, I believe, of late years lived much in Europe, and yet there is nothing about Europe in her writings. She has not pressed it into service; she appears to have an unassuming suspicion that she can get on without it. Her characters sometimes sail for foreign countries (in general they move about a great deal, and take many journeys), but she does not even accompany them to the plank of the Steamer to the office where they take their berths; it is the most if she will renew acquaintance with them when they come back. Has she a story about Europe in reserve (I remember two or three very short ones, which, apparently, she has been shy of republishing), or does she propose to maintain her distinguished Independence? It will be interesting to see, and meanwhile we may note this Independence as an unusual phenomenon, taken in connection with her personal familiarity with Rome, Florence, Venice, and other irrepressible cities. The habit of introducing these cities usually exhibits itself in connection with a want of familiarity with them.
Miss Woolson's first productions were two collections of short tales, published in 1876 and 1880, and entitled respectively Castle Nowhere and Rodman the Keeper. I may not profess and acquaintance with the former of these volumes, but the latter is full of interesting, artistic work. Miss Woolson has done nothing better than the best pages in this succession of careful, strenuous studies of certain aspects of life, after the war, in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. As the fruit of a remarkable minuteness of observation and tenderness of feeling on the part of one who evidently did not glance and pass, but lingered and analyzed, they have a high value, especially when regarded in the light of the voicelessness of the conquered and reconstructed South. Miss Woolson strikes the reader as having a compassionate sense of this pathetic dumbness—having perceived that no social revolution of equal magnitude had ever reflected itself so little in literature, remained so unrecorded, so unpainted and unsung. She has attempted to give an impression of this circumstance, among others, and a sympathy altogether feminine has guided her pen. She loves the whole region, and no daughter of the land could have handled its peculiarities more indulgently or communicated to us more of the sense of close observation and intimate knowledge. Nevertheless, it must be confessed that the picture, on the whole, is a picture of dreariness—of impressions that may have been gathered in the course of lonely afternoon walks at the end of hot days, when the sunset was wan, on the edge of rice-fields, dismal swamps, and other brackish inlets. The author is to be congratulated in so far as such expeditions may have been the source of her singularly exact familiarity with the "natural objects" of the region, including the negro of reality. She knows every plant and flower, every vague odor and sound, the song and flight of every bird, every tint of the sky and murmur of the forest, and she has noted scientifically the dialect of the freedmen. It is not too much to say that the negroes in Rodman the Keeper and in East Angels are a careful philological study, and that if Miss Woolson preceded Uncle Remus by a considerable interval, she may have the credit of the initiative—of having been the first to take their words straight from their lips.
No doubt that if in East Angels, as well as in the volume of tales, the sadness of Miss Woolson's South is more striking than its high spirits, this is owing somewhat to the author's taste in the way of subject and situation, and especially to her predilection for cases of heroic sacrifice—sacrifice sometimes unsuspected, and always unappreciated. She is fond of irretrievable personal failures, of people who have had to give up even the memory of happiness, who love and suffer in silence, and minister in secret to the happiness of those who look over their heads. She is interested in general in secret histories, in the "inner life" of the weak, the superfluous, the disappointed, the bereaved, the unmarried. She believes in personal renunciation, in its frequency as well as its beauty. It plays a prominent part in each of her novels, especially in the last two, and the interest of East Angels at least is largely owing to her success in having made an extreme case of the virtue in question credible to the reader. Is it because this element is weaker in Anne, which was published in 1882, that Anne strikes me as the least happily composed of the author's works? The early chapters are charming and full of promise, but the story wanders away from them, and the pledge is not taken up. The reader has built great hopes upon Tita, but Tita vanishes into the vague, after putting him out of countenance by an infant marriage—an accident in regard to which, on the whole, throughout her stories, Miss Woolson shows perhaps an excessive indulgence. She likes the unmarried, as I have mentioned, but she likes marriages even better, and also sometimes hurries them forward in advance of the reader's forecast. The only complaint it would occur to me to make of East Angels is that Garda Thome, whom we cannot think of as anything but a little girl, discounts the projects we have formed for her by marrying twice; and somehow the case is not bettered by the fact that nothing is more natural than that she should marry twice, unless it be that she should marry three times. We have perceived her, after all, from the first, to be peculiarly adapted to a succession of pretty widowhoods.
For the Major has an idea, a little fantastic perhaps, but eminently definite. This idea is the secret effort of an elderly woman to appear really as young to her husband as (owing to peculiar circumstances) he believed her to be when he married her. Nature helps her (she happens to preserve, late in life, the look of comparative youth), and art helps nature, and her husband's illusions, fostered by failing health and a weakened brain, help them both, so that she is able to keep on the mask till his death, when she pulls it off with a passionate cry of relief—ventures at last, gives herself the luxury, to be old. The sacrifice in this case has been the sacrifice of the maternal instinct, she having had a son, now a man grown, by a former marriage, who reappears after unsuccessful wanderings in far lands, and whom she may not permit herself openly to recognize. The sacrificial attitude is indeed repeated on the part of her step-daughter, who, being at last taken into Madam Carroll's confidence, suffers the young man—a shabby, compromising, inglorious acquaintance—to pass for her lover, thereby discrediting herself almost fatally (till the situation is straightened out) with the Rev. Frederick Owen, who has really been marked out by Providence for the character, and who cannot explain on any comfortable hypothesis her relations with the mysterious Bohemian. Miss Woolson's women in general are capable of these refinements of devotion and exaltations of conscience, and she has a singular talent for making our sympathies go with them. The conception of Madam Carroll is highly ingenious and original, and the small stippled portrait has a real fascination. It is the first time that a woman has been represented as painting her face, dyeing her hair, and "dressing young" out of tenderness for another; the effort usually has its source in tenderness for herself. But Miss Woolson has done nothing of a neater execution than this fanciful figure of the little ringleted, whitefrocked, falsely juvenile lady, who has the toilet-table of an actress and the conscience of a Puritan.
The author likes a glamour, and by minute touches and gentle, conciliatory arts she usually succeeds in producing a valid one. If I had more space I should like to count over these cumulative strokes, in which a delicate manipulation of the real is mingled with an occasionally frank appeal to the romantic muse. But I can only mention two of the most obvious: one the frequency of her reference to the Episcopal Church, as an institution giving a tone to American life (the sort of tone which it is usually assumed that we must seek in civilizations more permeated with ecclesiasticism); the other her fondness for family histories—for the idea of perpetuation of race, especially in the backward direction. I hasten to add that there is nothing of the crudity of sectarianism in the former of these manifestations, or of the dreariness of the purely genealogical passion in the latter; but none the less is it clear that Miss Woolson likes little country churches that are dedicated to saints not vulgarized by too much notoriety, that are dressed with greenery (and would be with holly if there were any) at Christmas and Easter; that have "rectors," well connected, who are properly garmented, and organists, slightly deformed if possible, and addicted to playing Gregorian chants in the twilight, who are adequately artistic; likes also generations that have a pleasant consciousness of a few warm generations behind them, screening them in from too bleak a past, from vulgar draughts in the rear. I know not whether for the most part we are either so Episcopal or so long-descended as in Miss Woolson's pages we strike ourselves as being, but it is certain that as we read we protest but little against the soft impeachment. She represents us at least as we would like to be, and she does so with such discretion and taste that we have no fear of incurring ridicule by assent. She has a high sense of the picturesque, and cannot get on without a social atmosphere. Once, I think, she has looked for these things in the wrong place—at the country boarding-house denominated Caryl's—in Anne, where there must have been flies and grease in the dining-room, and the ladies must have been overdressed; but as a general thing her quest is remarkably happy. She stays at home, and yet gives us a sense of being "abroad"; she has a remarkable faculty, of making the New World seem old. She succeeds in representing Far, Edgerly, the mountain village in For the Major, as bathed in the precious medium I speak of. Where is it meant to be, and where was the place that gave her the pattern of it? We gather vaguely, though there are no negroes, that it is in the South; but this, after all, is a tolerably indefinite part of the United States. It is somewhere in the midst of forests, and yet it has as many idiosyncrasies as Mrs. Gaskell's Cranford, with added possibilities of the pathetic and the tragic. What new town is so composite? what composite town is so new? Miss Woolson anticipates these questions; that is, she prevents us from asking them; we swallow Far Edgerly whole, or say at most, with a sigh, that if it couldn't have been like that, it certainly ought to have been.
It is, however, in East Angels that she has been most successful in this feat of evoking a local tone, and this is a part of the general superiority of that very interesting work, which to my mind represents a long stride of her talent, and has more than the value of all else she has done. In East Angels the attempt to create an atmosphere has had, to a considerable degree, the benefit of the actual quality of things in the warm, rank peninsula which she has studied so exhaustively and loves so well. Miss Woolson found an atmosphere in Florida, but it is not too much to say that she has left it still more agreeably dense—converted it into a fine golden haze. Wonderful is the tact with which she has pressed it into the service of her story, draped the bare spots of the scene with it, and hung it there half as a curtain and half as a background. East Angels is a performance which does Miss Woolson the highest honor, and if her talent is capable, in another novel, of making an advance equal to that represented by this work in relation to its predecessors, she will have made a substantial contribution to our new literature of fiction. Long, comprehensive, copious, still more elaborate than her other elaborations, East Angels presents the interest of a large and well-founded scheme. The result is not flawless at every point, but the undertaking is of a fine, high kind, and for the most part the effect produced is thoroughly worthy of it. The author has, in other words, proposed to give us the complete natural history, as it were, of a group of persons collected, in a complicated relationship, in a little winter city on a Southern shore, and she has expended on her subject stores of just observation and an infinite deal of the true historical spirit. How much of this spirit and of artistic feeling there is in the book only an attentive perusal will reveal. The central situation is a very interesting one, and is triumphantly treated, but I confess that what is most substantial to me in the book is the writer's general conception of her task, her general attitude of watching life, waiting upon it, and trying to catch it in the fact. I know not what theories she may hold in relation to all this business, to what camp or league she may belong; my impression, indeed, would be that she is perfectly free—that she considers that though camps and leagues may be useful organizations for looking for the truth, it is not in their own bosom that it is usually to be found. However this may be, it is striking that, artistically, she has had a fruitful instinct in seeing the novel as a picture of the actual, of the characteristic—a study of human types and passions, of the evolution of personal relations.
In East Angels the sacrifice, as all Miss Woolson's readers know, is the great sacrifice of Margaret Harold, who immolates herself—there is no other word—deliberately, completely, and repeatedly, to a husband whose behavior may as distinctly be held to have absolved her. The problem was a very interesting one, and worthy to challenge a superior talent—that of making real and natural a transcendent, exceptional act representing a case in which the sense of duty is raised to exaltation. What makes Margaret Harold's behavior exceptional and transcendent is that, in order to render the barrier between herself and the man who loves her, and whom she loves, absolutely insurmountable, she does her best to bring about his marriage, and endeavors to put another woman into the frame of mind to respond to him in the event (possible, as she is a woman whom he once appeared to love) of his attempting to console himself for a bitter failure. The care, the ingenuity, the precautions, the author has exhibited to make us accept Mrs. Harold in her integrity are perceptible on every page, and they leave us finally no alternative but to accept her. She remains exalted, but she remains at the same time thoroughly sound; for it is not a simple question of cleverness of detail, but a question of the larger sort of imagination, and Margaret Harold would have halted considerably if her creator had not taken the supreme precaution of all, and conceived her from the germ as capable of a certain heroism—of clinging at the cost of a grave personal loss to an idea which she believes to be a high one, and taking such a fancy to it that she endeavors to paint it, by a refinement of magnanimity, with still richer hues. She is a picture, not of a woman indulging in a great spasmodic flight or moral tour de force, but of a nature bent upon looking at life from a high point of view, an attitude in which there is nothing abnormal, and which the author illustrates, as it were, by a test case. She has drawn Margaret with so close and firm and living a line that she seems to put us in the quandary, if we repudiate her, of denying that a woman may look at life from a high point of view. She seems to say to us: "Are there distinguished natures, or are there not? Very well, if there are, that's what they can do—they can try and provide for the happiness of others (when they adore them) even to their own injury." And we feel that we wish to be the first to agree that there are distinguished natures.
Garda Thorne is the next best thing in the book to Margaret, and she is indeed equally good in this, that she is conceived with an equal clearness. But Margaret produces her impression upon us by moving before us and doing certain things, whereas Garda is more explained, or rather she explains herself more, tells us more about herself. She says somewhere, or some one says of her, that she doesn't narrate, but in fact she does narrate a good deal, for the purpose of making the reader understand her. This the reader does, very constantly, and Garda is a brilliant success. I must not, however, touch upon the different parts of East Angels, because in a work of so much patience and conscience a single example carries us too far. I will only add that in three places in especial the author has been so well inspired as to give a definite pledge of high accomplishment in the future. One of these salient passages is the description of the closing days of Mrs. Thorne, the little starved yet ardent daughter of the Puritans, who has been condemned to spend her life in the land of the relaxed, and who, before she dies, pours out her accumulations of bitterness—relieves herself in a passionate confession of everything she has suffered and missed, of how she has hated the very skies and fragrances of Florida, even when, as a consistent Christian, thankful for every mercy, she has pretended most to appreciate them. Mrs. Thorne is the pathetic, tragic form of the type of which Mrs. Stowe's Miss Ophelia was the comic. In almost all of Miss Woolson's stories the New England woman is represented as regretting the wholesome austerities of the region of her birth. She reverts to them, in solemn hours, even when, like Mrs. Thorne, she may appear for a time to have been converted to mild winters. Remarkably fine is the account of the expedition undertaken by Margaret Harold and Evert Winthrop to look for Lanse in the forest, when they believe him, or his wife thinks there may be reason to believe him, to have been lost and overtaken by a storm. The picture of their paddling the boat by torchlight into the reaches of the river, more or less smothered in the pestilent jungle, with the personal drama, in the unnatural place, reaching an acute stage between them—this whole episode is in a high degree vivid, strange, and powerful. Lastly, Miss Woolson has risen altogether to the occasion in the scene in which Margaret "has it out," as it were, with Evert Winthrop, parts from him, and leaving him baffled and unsurpassably sore, gives him the measure of her determination to accept the necessity of her fate. These three episodes are not alike, yet they have, in the high finish of Miss Woolson's treatment of them, a family resemblance. Moreover, they all have the stamp which I spoke of at first—the stamp of the author's conservative feeling, the implication that for her the life of a woman is essentially an affair of private relations.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4257
SOURCE: "Place and Race in American Fiction," in American Fiction: An Historical and Critical Survey, D. Appleton-Century Company, 1936, pp. 332-42.
[In the following excerpt, Quinn discusses Woolson 's ability to blend vibrant descriptions of physical settings with the actions of realistic characters.]
Usually a novelist's impulse to deal with the life of a locality was confined to one section, but Constance Fenimore Woolson dealt not only with the North-west and the South but also with the European scene. She was born in Claremont, New Hampshire, in 1840, her mother, Hannah Cooper Pomeroy Woolson, being the niece of James Fenimore Cooper. She was educated in Cleveland, Ohio, and as a girl spent her summers at Mackinac Island in the straits between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. In 1858 she graduated from Madame Chegary's school in New York City, which was to appear in her novel Anne, and began her contributions to periodicals with a sketch, "The Happy Valley," in Harper's for July, 1870. This description of a German community on the Tuscarawas River in Ohio, which she used later in a short story, "Wilhemina," was her first article to be written and shows how like Howells she began with an interest in the scene, out of which characters later developed. In the same month her sketch, "The Fairy Island," a description of Mackinac Island, appeared in Putnam 's. With this Lake region she was thoroughly familiar, and when she turned to it as material for fiction, after a few preliminary stories of a somewhat conventional character, it is interesting to see how the quality of her work improved. Even in a comparatively poor story, "One Versus Two," the writing becomes alive when the characters reach the Lake country.2 From 1872 to 1878 she made the Lake country the background for twenty-three stories.3
Miss Woolson had the rare gift of self-criticism, and her selection for her first volume of stories, Castle Nowhere; Lake Country Sketches (1875), includes the most significant of her early work, although "A Flower of the Snow,"4 might easily have been included. How far she had come in three years may be seen by comparing this book with her first published volume, The Old Stone House (1873), a rather pietistic story for children. How strong Bret Harte's influence was upon her is seen in the story "Misery Landing," in which the hero, who has fled from a love he does not wish to pursue, tells in his diary his admiration for Harte, "who shows us the good in the heart of the outcast," and who makes the shrewd observation that "everywhere it is the cultivated people only who are taken with Bret." "The Lady of Little Fishing" shows even more clearly Harte's influence. The narrator, Mitchell, tells of the saintly woman who suddenly appeared among the rough hunters and trappers, thirty years before, and preached to them, so that they worshipped her. The relapse of the rough men when they discover their idol is simply a woman, is not badly done, and the fact that the narrator is the one she loved is concealed to make a dramatic ending. It is the "moral contrast" again. Some of the stories deal with Mackinac Island, some with the shores of Lake Superior, some with Ohio. Nearly always, however, the scenery is the background; the central character is an outsider who proves sometimes a disturbing influence or, as in "The Old Agency," in which she describes from real life the courtly French priest who forms such a contrast to his parishioners, he is a mystery and a benediction. Miss Woolson, like Bret Harte, remains an observer rather than a partaker of the life. But her descriptions of the marshes in "St. Clair Flats" or of the fog in "Castle Nowhere" are masterly.
On account of her mother's health, Miss Woolson was constantly traveling, and between 1873 and 1879 she spent her time largely in Florida and the Carolinas. The result came, as before, in the form of travel sketches, short stories, and novels. Between 1875 and 1879 she published fourteen short stories with a Southern background. The best of these are included in Rodman the Keeper (1880). She used first the Florida scene. "Miss Elisabetha," laid before the Civil War, is a tragic story of the efficient Northern woman who manages the life of her ward, "Doro," keeps him from his proper career and sees him sink into contented laziness. "The South Devil" is one of her finest achievements. The way she establishes the mystical relation between the great swamp and Carl, the young musician who hears the harmonies the swamp sings only to him, and who cannot keep away from it though it may mean death to him, reveals her great power of understanding the relations of place and human character. It is not only vivid descriptions of the "rank luxuriance of the heart of the swamp, a riot of intoxicating, steaming, swarming, fragrant, beautiful tropical life, without man to make or mar it. All the world was once so, before man was made." The swamp is active, living. When Mark goes "into it to save his brother, "the matted water vines caught at his boat like hundreds of hands; the great lily leaves slowly sank and let the light boat glide over them." In "Sister St. Luke," a story of the boundless courage of a timid Spanish nun who saves two shipwrecked men from the tornado, Miss Woolson not only showed her knowledge of the seacoast of Florida, but also revealed the breadth of her understanding of races not her own. So in "Felipa," the passionate devotion of a little Minorcan girl to a man and a woman, themselves lovers, whom she adores in different ways, is rendered powerfully and objectively.
Next Miss Woolson turned to the mountain regions of Tennessee and western North Carolina. But in her first story of this region, "Crowder's Cove,"5 the mountaineer, John Crowder, appears only as a "neutral" in the Civil War, and the main characters are a New England woman and a Southern girl of very different origin from the mountain people. Even in "Up in the Blue Ridge," which appeared in Appleton 's for August, 1878, three months after Miss Murfree's first story had been published in the Atlantic, the mountaineers are described but are only the background. The conflict is between the Northern characters like Stephen Wainwright and John Royce, and the Southerner Richard Eliot, who, though he is associated with a gang of moonshiners, is distinctly one of the planter class. The story is really a study of the reactions of Wainwright, who risks his life to save Eliot, because of his interest in Honor Dooris, Eliot's cousin.
Much more significant than her stories of the mountaineers are Miss Woolson's sympathetic revelations of the conditions in Reconstruction days in the South. "Old Gardiston," laid in no very definite spot in the rice lands of the Carolinas, is a touching picture of a girl's proud resistance to her growing love for a Northern officer, made real by the description of brave economies a man could not have imagined. "In the Cotton Country," on the other hand, is a story of a woman's hopeless suffering from the effects of war, without any expectation of the future, a woman whose husband had been called away at the altar and whom she had never seen again. This picture of apathy, of courage only to endure, is as realistic as it well can be. It is to her credit also that while Negro rule was still being imposed upon the South with Federal bayonets, a Northern woman told through her fictional characters the truth. She made it even more evident in 1878 in "King David," a story of a New England teacher who goes South to educate the Negroes and fails hopelessly because of their shiftlessness and drunkenness. It is another Northerner, a liquor-seller and political organizer, who helps to defeat him, but King David's failure is inherent because he tries to treat the Negroes as his equals. The very title shows her skill in her implication of the magnitude of the problem. These, together with "Rodman the Keeper," a study in the isolation of a Northern officer who becomes the warden of a Union cemetery in a Southern community, are the best of the post-war stories.
Miss Woolson began her first novel, Anne (1882), on the island of Mackinac, which she knew so well, and the scenes of Anne's girlhood as she grows up, a strong, tender, brave nature, meeting the responsibilities of her young step-sister Tita and the boys, when her father's death leaves them to her, have been the favorite portions of the book. There are remarkable character portraits in Miss Lois, a New England Puritan who had come out to convert the Indians, and the two clergymen, Père Michaux and Dr. Gaston, who watch over Anne. It seems a pity that after establishing so well these characters and the atmosphere of an army post in the 'fifties, Miss Woolson should have taken Anne away to New York City, to the school she herself had attended, but after all she builds up by deft touches the girl's reaction to the social organization which meets her with the cruelty which is the lot of "the islander." Her life under the patronage of her wealthy aunt gives Miss Woolson ample opportunity for keen social satire, and there has hardly ever been written a better picture of an American girl of character and natural breeding thrown into unconscious rivalry with women of the world, first suffering defeat and finally accomplishing victory. Anne's relations with Helen Lorrington and their rivalry for the love of Heathcote are developed with that insight into the capacity of women for friendship, love, and hate in which the realist again shone. There is, of course, too much in the novel, especially at the end, where Helen's murderer is brought to confession by means hardly credible; but the novel created marked critical approval even in its serial form in Harper's Magazine.6
In For the Major (1883) Miss Woolson showed none of the faults but all the virtues of Anne. It is much shorter, and the tone is kept with a restrained power that is almost beyond praise. The people are Southerners with high standards of conduct, living in "Far Edgerley," a hill town on the eastern flank of "Chillawassee Mountain" in North Carolina. They are not mountaineers, however, but a little group of survivals from the past of the South. Major Scarborough Carroll; his second wife, Madam Marion Carroll; Sara, his daughter by his first wife; and "Scar," his little son by his second, live on the Farms. He has been a distinguished man, but he is beginning to fail. The skill with which Marion Carroll guards the Major from the townspeople, so that his mental faltering shall not be apparent, even more the way she keeps Sara from tiring her father by insistence on his preserving the high ideals which Sara has had from her childhood about him, is unusual. Gradually through the conversations of different characters we learn, just as we do in real life, how Major Carroll has married Marion, a widow much younger than himself, how her first husband had fled, after a shooting affray, taking their boy away with him, and how she had heard of the pursuit and the drowning of both of them. Beginning with gratitude, her love for the Major has grown into a devotion that makes her an epic figure. How she conceals her real age, not from vanity but because of the Major's delight in her youth, how her blonde beauty lends itself to her brave artifices, above all how her unwavering watchfulness fights for the security and peace which her earlier life makes precious to her, is told with an art that no one of that day could surpass. Then into that security comes the disturbing element. Her eldest son, who is not dead, finds her and, under an assumed name, comes to Far Edgerley. She cannot acknowledge him, and here Sara plays her part, acting as go-between and almost killing her own chance of happiness with the young rector, Frederick Owen, so that her father will not suffer. There is a remarkable scene in which Marion Carroll waits until the Major is asleep to go to the death-bed of her son, which for quiet heroism is hard to surpass. Then when the Major's mind finally fails and he becomes like a child, Mrs. Carroll at once relaxes her vigilance of years, becomes overnight her real age, and tells her story to Owen. The passage in which she reveals to Owen her wellguarded secret, is an example of the art of fiction in which a great novelist pays a tribute to the imaginative power of her reader:
" … And now I must come to my second reason for telling you. You remember I said that there were two. This is something which even Sara does not know—I would not give her any of that burden; she could not help me, and she had enough to bear. She could not help me; but now you can. It is something I want you to do for me. It could not be done before, it could not be done until the Major became as he is at present. No one now living knows; still, as you are to be one of us, I should like to have you do it for me."
And then she told him.
Miss Woorson scorns to spoil her effect by explanations. But when Owen marries the Major to Marion, the reader suddenly realizes that this is the last gesture of a great soul, who, having learned from her son that her first husband was alive at the time of her marriage to Major Carroll, does what she can to make herself in truth the wife of the man she has loved so dearly. All her life she has lived for others; this at least she can do for herself.
If For the Major reminds one of an etching in which one central figure stands out in exquisite proportions against a background whose very limitations present that figure to perfection, East Angels (1886) is a glowing canvas, rich with color, where the characters gain each in his own way in vividness from their contrast or association with the rich languor of the Florida landscape. The principal actors are from the North. Miss Woolson proceeds to build up slowly a strong moral contrast between two groups of characters, those who insist upon doing right even at the cost of happiness and those who demand their own happiness and sweep ruthlessly aside anyone in their way. Margaret Harold, married at seventeen to a charming, selfish husband who leaves her for a French-woman shortly after their union, is one of those women who builds her life on self-sacrifice. Not only does she crush down the love she begins to feel for Evert Winthrop, but she does the harder thing—she bears quietly the implicit blame of the separation. Miss Woolson shows how the others, led by Mrs. Rutherford, a professional invalid who succeeds in making the attentions she demands from Margaret seem like a favor to her, all expect Margaret to "do her duty." Even Evert Winthrop is deceived at first, but when Lance Harold returns to Margaret, leaves her again and once more comes back, an invalid, Margaret has to combat not only her own desire but also Winthrop's determined passion. To draw a character whose achievement lies in renunciation is not easy, for her very inarticulate acceptance of the path she has chosen forbids the expression of her deep feeling. Winthrop's final restraint and respect for her determination are not so credible, but, as he is drawn, they were at least possible.
Mrs. Thorne, the owner of East Angels, is another illustration of self-sacrifice. A New England school teacher who had married a Southern planter of English descent, she is described delightfully by her neighbor, Mrs. Carew:
" … However, I ought to say that poor little Mistress Thorne has certainly done her very best to acquire our Southern ways; she has actually tried to make herself over, root, stem, and branch, from her original New England sharpness to our own softer temperament, though I always feel sure, at the same moment, that, in the core of the rock, the old sap burns still—like the soul under the ribs of death, you know; not that I mean that exactly (though she is thin), but simply that the leopard cannot change his spots, nor the zebra his stripes, nor," added the good lady—altering her tone to solemnity as she perceived that her language was becoming Biblical—"the wild cony her young. …"
Mrs. Thome's desperate sense of duty, which makes her try to become a Southern woman, while she prays secretly during the Civil War for "her own people," leads to a remarkable scene on her death-bed when she confides to Margaret how she has loathed the life she has had to live. Opposed to these stern self-schooled people are not only Lance Harold and Mrs. Rutherford, who are drawn with malicious insight, but, more important, Garda Thorne, Mrs. Thome's daughter. With a good deal of Spanish" blood, her beauty, her utter selfishness and her rapidly changing emotional reactions make her very much alive. Miss Woolson does not draw any conclusions or preach any lesson; nor does she reward her good characters, like George Eliot, with the satisfaction of self-respect. They are unhappy, but they cannot do otherwise. Marriage, to Margaret Harold, is for better or worse, and divorce is out of the question.
There are some remarkable scenes, as usual, in East Angels. The landscape plays its part in the nightlong search of Winthrop and Margaret for Lance in the great swamp with its deadly poisonous sweetness. And how well Miss Woolson conveys her knowledge of woman's nature in the conversation between Margaret and Winthrop concerning Garda:
"We seem to have much the same idea of her," said Winthrop. "I shouldn't have thought it possible," he added.
"That we should agree in anything?" said Margaret, with a faint smile.
"No, not that; but a woman so seldom has the same idea of another woman that a man has. And—if you will allow me to say it—I think the man's idea often the more correct one, for a woman will betray (confide, if you like the term better) more of her inner nature, her real self, to a man, when she knows him well and likes him, than she ever will to any woman, no matter how well she may know and like her."
Margaret concurred in this.
"So you agree with me there too? Another surprise! What I have said is true enough, but women generally dispute it."
"What you have said is true, after a fashion," Margaret answered. "But the inner feelings you speak of, the real self, which a woman confides to the man she likes rather than to a woman, these are generally her ideal feelings, her ideal self; what she thinks she feels, or hopes to feel, rather than the actual feeling; what she wishes to be, rather than what she is. She may or may not attain her ideal; but in the mean time she is judged, by those of her own sex at least, according to her present qualities, what she has already attained; what she is practically, and every day."
In Jupiter Lights (1889), Miss Woolson combined the coast of Georgia and the Lake country, but as usual the characters dominate the scene. In Eve Bruce, a Northern woman who comes to Romney Island in the sounds south of Savannah, Miss Woolson depicted a strongwilled nature, impatient of the weaker but none the less tenacious Southern woman, her brother's widow. Her horror when she finds Cicely has remarried, her rescue of Cicely and her little nephew from the crazed dipsomaniac husband, her flight with them to Port aux Pins on Lake Superior, and her own ultimate love story make up a novel with more action than is usual with Miss Woolson, some of it, especially the final scenes in Italy, being too melodramatic. It is, however, a fine study of the havoc made by any woman who tries to manage another's life.
So far Miss Woolson had made a woman the central character of her novels, but in her last, Horace Chase (1894), she presented a study of the self-made man, thirty-seven years old, who marries a girl of nineteen, Ruth Franklin. The Franklins are from New York but live either in Asheville, North Carolina, or at St. Augustine because they have been left property there by an aunt who belonged to a North Carolina family. The situation is one of frequent occurrence in which a family without much energy depend upon a strong nature and at the same time secretly look down upon him as beneath their social stratum. Horace Chase dominates the novel, and his reception of Ruth's confession of her infatuation for a younger man, and her journey to her lover only to find he has forgotten her, is quite in keeping with a largeness of view which success has given Chase. But while there is good character analysis, especially of the women, who care more for the son and brother than they do for each other, Horace Chase does not leave the same sense of artistic completeness as do the earlier novels.
Miss Woolson's later short stories were concerned largely with European scenes. After her mother's death in 1879, she went to England and the Continent, staying most frequently in Italy. Her first short story written abroad, "Miss Grief,"7 is of special interest because the central character is a woman who dies of privation rather than change her powerful but crude drama to suit the critical judgment of a popular author. Curiously enough, it was not included in either of the two collections published after her death, The Front Yard and Other Italian Stories (1895) and Dorothy and Other Italian Stories (1896), for it is one of the best. The similarity of this theme to some of those used later by Henry James is also noteworthy, since it was in 1880, under his guidance, that she grew to know Florence, her favorite among Italian cities. In these later stories, the American characters are the most important; sometimes indeed they are the only ones. The European scene remains the background, but it is an integral part of the narrative. Sometimes, as in "The Street of the Hyacinth,"8 it is the belief that she can paint which brings an American girl to Rome, but it is her poise and courage under disappointment that lend distinction to the narrative. In "The Front Yard"9 not only the scene but also the Italian characters form a contrast to the American. This is a fine study of a New England woman, Prudence Wilkins, who has married an Italian and who takes care of his family after his death, including a terrible old woman, the grandmother of his first wife. Living in Assisi, Prudence is oblivious to its meaning. To her life is not beauty but duty. The one thing she longs for is a "front yard" such as she had had in New Hampshire, but each time she saves up enough to start one, she makes a new sacrifice for her adopted family. Courage and fixity of purpose make the Americans in the later stories memorable. The way Mrs. Azubah Ash, an elderly woman, rises to command the situation after her son has killed his rival in "Neptune's Shore,"10 the clear grit of the fourteen-year-old lad in "A Transplanted Boy,"11 who plays a man's part, without heroics; both are revelations of a power that showed no sign of weakening.
When the social scene is important, her Americans are never the vague uncertain figures of Henry James. Even the expatriated Americans like Mrs. Churchill in "A Pink Villa" are real. But what distinguishes Miss Woolson's stories from the usual magazine fiction is the way she can fix a character with one brief sentence. "No vulgar affluence oppressed Isabella. She had six hundred dollars a year of her own and each dollar was well bred." Her art is a fine art; one returns to her fiction for the sheer joy in well-controlled creation. She knew her own limitations as well as those of her characters. For the daring female of literature she had no respect, and she puts the case for her own manner brilliantly in one of her short stories, "At the Chateau of Corinne." In her delicate and distinguished art, she and Miss Jewett represented at its height that ability to guide with a firm hand the steeds of imagination and introspection which carried the so-called feminine impulse in American fiction very far toward perfection. Henry James in his Partial Portraits chose to place her with George Eliot, Trollope, and Turgenev, and his judgment was sounder than that which has apparently forgotten her. But at the time of her death (she fell or threw herself from her window in Venice in 1894), she was recognized as one of the most consummate artists in that great epoch of the novel.
…2Lippincott's, August, 1872.
3 See Kern, John D., Constance Fenimore Woolson (1934), for a complete analysis of these stories.
4Galaxy, January, 1874.
5Appleton's Journal, March 18, 1876.
6 See J. Henry Harper, The House of Harper, 484-487.
7Lippincott's Magazine, May, 1880.
8Century Magazine, May-June, 1882.
9Harper's Magazine, December, 1888.
10Harper's Magazine, October, 1888.
11Harper's Magazine, February, 1894.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5579
SOURCE: "Local-Color, Frontier and Regional Fiction," in The Rise of the American Novel, American Book Company, 1948, pp. 568-78.
[In the following essay, Cowie studies Woolson's five novels and argues that their principal qualities are simplicity of plot, realism of character and dialogue, and precision of description.]
An author able to elicit the high praise of so austere a critic as Henry James may be assumed to have mastered important elements in the technique of writing.84 Praise from such a quarter would indeed for some people be presumptive evidence that the writer was more skilled than readable. Yet Constance Fenimore Woolson was not only an able craftsman but also in the 1880's and 1890's a popular writer, especially with that relatively superior audience comprised in part of readers of magazines such as Harper's, in which many of her stories first appeared. Her popularity of course has long since waned, and she is now in the familiar category of the superior minor writer who is periodically "rediscovered" by a sensitive critic or a zealous historian. No number of such discoveries, of course, can make her over into a major novelist. At best her art was extremely sensitive and delicate. True, she undoubtedly won many readers by the sensational, even melodramatic, materials which she sometimes ineptly introduced into her work. Yet vigorous action was not her forte: it is vain to look in her work for any suggestion of the broad powers of her illustrious kinsman (her mother was a niece of James Fenimore Cooper). The structure of a long narrative she never mastered. It is her distinction, rather, that she skilfully employed some aspects of that type of impressionistic technique which was one of the principal interests of the more serious post-Victorian novelists. She also added to the domain of the local-color writers who were prominent in the seventies and eighties.
Miss Woolson was born in New Hampshire, educated in Ohio, "finished" at a school in New York City, lived for several years in the South (Florida and the Carolinas), and traveled extensively in Europe.85 She practiced writing at an early age, producing rapidly a considerable number of tales and sketches, the more successful of which are set in the Great Lakes country, where she spent her childhood. Her first volume of short stories, Castle Nowhere; Lake Country Sketches (1875), reprinted a number of pieces that had won favorable comment upon their first appearance in Harper's, Lippincott's, The Galaxy, and elsewhere. Her first novel, Anne, was published in 1882, and her last, Horace Chase, in 1894, the year of her death.
Anne is a long book, presumably autobiographical in the first part and certainly set in a region which the author well knew. Its action, surprisingly enough, is often sentimental, morbid, and melodramatic. The heroine is Anne Douglas, at sixteen a very large girl regarded as a conscientious but somewhat colorless person. Unlike her immediate predecessors in popular fiction, she is not superficially alluring: "This unwritten face, with its direct gaze, so far neutralized the effect of the Diana-like form that the girl missed beauty on both sides."86 The devoted daughter of a cultivated and amiable but eccentric old gentleman no longer gainfully employed, she does her best to stabilize his shaky personality and to bring up the four somewhat difficult children of his second marriage. Comforts are few and life is slow for Anne Douglas on the remote island (Mackinac) which is her home. Romance crosses her path in the person of a village lad named Rast, who asks her hand in marriage. But Rast must go off to college and, her father dying suddenly, Anne feels that she must accept the offer of a relative in New York who wishes to give her a year of tony schooling to the end that she may later become a teacher. New York itself proves to be a school of experience of more consequence to the story than the fussy little establishment of Mme Moreau, and Anne is involved with two men, one of them a millionaire who wishes to marry her. The other (Heathcote), to whom Anne is more drawn, is prevented from offering marriage by reason of a commitment to one of Anne's friends, Helen Lorrington. Anne, like a good domestic heroine, runs away. But Heathcote later comes back into her life: he has married Helen but loves Anne! Though now freed from her somewhat tepid engagement to Rast—whose heart has been successfully stormed by one of Anne's stepsisters, the bewitching, ruthless little quarter-breed Tita—Anne resists the entreaties of Heathcote. Ultimately the story broadens into melodrama: Helen is found murdered and it devolves upon Anne to do enough amateur detective work to prove that Heathcote did not perpetrate the deed: the real murderer was left-handed! And Anne gets Heathcote—or vice versa. The story is much too diffuse. It is best in the first part-in the charming description of Anne's circumscribed life on the island. Her queer old father is a more satisfactory character than Heathcote. The portrait of the housekeeper, Lois Hinsdale, is fine: a New England spinster whose severity in the kitchen is balanced by her High Church religious preference. Unconsciously in love with Douglas, she has bitterly resented his (second) marriage to a giddy female of French and Indian blood and of Catholic faith; but she does not weary of caring for his children, and she helps to bind together a story that often threatens to break completely into fragments.
Yet some of the fragments are precious. The opening of the story provides an excellent illustration of Miss Woolson's meticulous impressionistic method. Eschewing the traditional (Victorian) type of beginning—in which the author plainly states what he regards as essential facts for the reader: where the scene is, what sorts of persons are in it, what the time is, what the activity of the moment is, etc.—Miss Woolson, like James, begins at once to communicate an experience in the present. She does not wish to tell or relate an action but to present it; not to "introduce" a story but to begin it. Necessary facts will be found as experience is unfolded. Characters are not summarized but will grow out of detailed impressions.87 The quality of the whole book will be felt from the very beginning: indeed Miss Woolson at her best concretely illustrates James's opinion that
A novel is a living thing, all one and continuous, like any other organism, and in proportion as it lives will it be found, I think, that in each of the parts there is something of each of the other parts.88
Thus Miss Woolson does not begin with a statement of the "inorganic" facts (1) that it was Christmas Eve on Mackinac Island; (2) that a father was conversing affectionately with his daughter while she was decorating a provincial church; (3) that they have different opinions about a valued housekeeper named Lois, etc. etc. Instead, she opens a dialogue which begins to reveal the characters not only of the speakers but of the third person as well. It will be seen that the quality of these paragraphs is precisely that of all other valid parts of the book:
"Does it look well, father?"
"Does this look well?"
William Douglas stopped playing for a moment, and turned his head toward the speaker, who, standing on a ladder, bent herself to one side, in order that he might see the wreath of evergreen, studded with cones, which she had hung on the wall over one of the small arched windows.
"It is too compact, Anne, too heavy. There should be sprays falling from it here and there, like a real vine. The greenery, dear, should be either growing naturally upward or twining; large branches standing in the corners like trees, or climbing vines. Stars, stiff circles, and set shapes should be avoided. That wreath looks as though it had been planed by a carpenter."
"Miss Lois made it."
"Ah," said William Douglas, something which made you think of a smile, although no smile was there, passing over his face, "it looks like her work; it will last a long time. And there will be no need to remove it for Ash-Wednesday, Anne; there is nothing joyous about it."
"I did not notice that it was ugly," said the girl, trying in her bent posture to look at the wreath, and bringing one eye and a portion of anxious forehead to bear upon it.
"That is because Miss Lois made it," replied William Douglas, returning to his music.89
It would be hard to find in fiction of the time an example of more skilful indirect characterization than is here presented. True, the reader must wait for the gradual absorption of these details into the whole body of the work to understand their full relationship to structure. True, also, Miss Woolson falls away, as Anne proceeds, from the high technical standard here exemplified, but the same method reappears, more evenly sustained, in her next long narrative, For the Major (1883).
For the Major (called by the author a "novelette") is more successful as a whole than Anne perhaps because its action is simpler and, except for a few exciting episodes, more suited to her special talent for finely discriminating effects. The situation fundamentally involves two venial deceptions that undoubtedly appealed to Henry James. The first is revealed shortly after Sara Carroll returns from Connecticut to Far Edgerley, a small secluded community presumably set in the mountains of North Carolina. She at first feels queerly frustrated in her attempt to resume the filial relationship with her father which had always been such a joy to her. Jealously she blames Madam Carroll, Major Carroll's second wife. When, however, the latter finally explains that the Major's mind is beginning to fail, Sara promptly co-operates with her in devising every protection for him. This involves coping with an unforeseen crisis that calls for a second deception. The appearance in Far Edgerley of a poverty-stricken, impudently vagabondish musician called Louis Dupont arouses the resentment of Far Edgerley, but Sara's step-mother astonishingly takes him up. Even more incredible to Mr. Owen, the Episcopal clergyman in love with Sara, is the fact that Sara has several clandestine meetings with the gay but sinister Bohemian. As if to end all gossip, Sara stuns the community by announcing her engagement to Dupont. Actually she has no intention of marrying him: he is the son of her step-mother! She has been conspiring with her step-mother to take care of him without revealing to the Major (or to the gossipy village) the true facts concerning Madam Carroll's first marriage. Her husband had been a rotter who had finally killed a man in a duel and fled from the law, taking their boy with him. Both were reported drowned. Left with a ten-year-old girl to support, the mother passed herself off as twenty-three (though she was thirty-five) when the Major courted her, her excuse being that she couldn't bear to destroy the pleasure the Major took in her "youth" and that she needed protection for her daughter who, however, soon died. The stratagem thus begun has to be carried out through the ensuing years by means of dye, rouge, and kindred arts. When the son turned up, the critical condition of the Major forbade an explanation. The son presently dies, but on his deathbed reports that the father had also escaped death by drowning, and was living at the time of his mother's marriage to the Major. This intelligence necessitates a formal marriage with the Major. But the Major happily wakes up one morning with his mind almost completely gone, and it is easy to arrange a ceremony in which he takes part pleasantly with no knowledge of what it signifies. Madam Carroll has had to take Mr. Owen the clergyman into her confidence, of course, but that is now an easy matter, for he will soon himself belong to the family—as the husband of Sara.
Obviously For the Major contains plot material which would forbid the author's throwing stones at the artificial structures of the domestic novelists. Yet in this book as in others, it is not finally the exciting plot materials that the author is concerned with, but the motives of the characters.90 The difference between Miss Woolson and the domestic sisterhood lies in her comparatively condensed treatment of crude plot material and her artful elaboration of ethical problems created in the minds first of Madam Carroll and then of Sara. The impressionistic characterizations of the step-mother pleased Henry James:
The conception of Madam Carroll is highly ingenious and original, and the small stippled portrait has a real fascination … Miss Woolson has done nothing of a neater execution than this fanciful figure of the little ringleted, white-frocked, falsely juvenile lady, who has the toilet-table of an actress and the conscience of a Puritan.91
Sara Carroll is almost equally well characterized, though allowed less space. Despite temperamental differences between her and the Major's wife, she willingly shares in the bizarre fiction on which the Major's tenuous happiness rests. Even when her rôle calls for action that seriously damages her in the eyes of her lover, she does not flinch. The key to her character as to that of so many characters in the novels of Henry James is high-minded renunciation.
But quite as fascinating to watch as the raveling of the fantastic fabrication of Madam Carroll is the revelation of the nature of the community in which the story takes place. Far Edgerley, as James has implied, may be a bit too steeped in Anglicanism and provided with more suggested past than a town in the New World can actually be possessed of:
… Miss Woolson likes little country churches that are dedicated to saints not vulgarised by too much notoriety, that are dressed with greenery (and would be with holly if there were any), at Christmas and Easter; that have "rectors," well connected, who are properly garmented, and organists, slightly deformed if possible, and addicted to playing Gregorian chants in the twilight, who are adequately artistic; likes also generations that have a pleasant consciousness of a few warm generations behind them, screening them in from too bleak a past, from vulgar draughts in the rear.92
Far Edgerley is brought to life perfectly with brushstrokes that are as faultless as they are gentle. Cranford is not more authentic. Much can be done by patience in a quiet community where the church is the centre of social life and where manners are so conservative that "There were persons in the congregation who considered whist-playing a test of the best churchmanship."93 Genteel though these mountain folk be, they are so avid of personalia that the rector's every move coins local comment. Without effort Miss Woolson adjusts her tempo to miniature incident which, as in the following example, she often reports with genuine humor:
Far Edgerley was deprived of its rector. Mr. Owen had gone to the coast to attend the Diocesan Convention. But as he had started more than a week before the time of its opening, and had remained a week after its sessions were ended, Mrs. General Hibbard was of the opinion that he was attending to other things as well. She had, indeed, heard a rumor before he came that there was some one (some one in whom he felt an interest) elsewhere. Now it is well known that there is nothing more depressing for a parish than a rector with an interest, large or small, "elsewhere." St. John in the Wilderness was therefore much relieved when its rector returned, with no signs of having left any portion of himself or his interest behind him. And Mrs. General Hibbard lost ground.94
The subsequent novels of Miss Woolson do not vary greatly in quality from her first two. Her principal theme continued to be magnanimity expressed in one form or another. In East Angels (1886) the main character is a dauntless, an almost incredible, illustration of self-sacrifice. Margaret, the wife of Lansing Harold, has every reason in the conduct of her husband to break with him and marry the affluent and cultivated Evert Winthrop. Instead she willingly shoulders the blame for her unharmonious marriage, resists the agreeable approaches of Winthrop, and when her husband finally returns as an invalid, devotes herself to nursing him. Isabel Archer in James's The Portrait of a Lady (1881) is not more heroic, though she is perhaps more real. But the unhappy marriage of the Harolds is only part of the excellent social study of St. Augustine which comprises East Angels. The novel also reports the affairs of a giddy group of pleasureseekers of whom the most conspicuous, Garda Thorne, is a vivacious beauty who manages to get married twice. Her wanton conduct and obvious glamour make her a foil for the resolute Margaret. The book is comprehensive in its dramatis personae, being provided also with (principal) characters from the North, as well as full-blooded Spaniards, and the quarter-Spanish Garda. The characters, though individually well done, have a certain detached or "shipwrecked air"95 but the Floridan mise-en-scène is firmly established in all its opulence and fascination. Yet by a very fine contrast which is perhaps referable to Miss Woolson's own origin in New England, the author draws one of her most successful characters in the exiled New Englander, Mrs. Thorne, who wholeheartedly hates the entire (Florida) section. Before her death she pours out all her long repressed love of her native region in a finely conceived speech which serves to emphasize the disparities that existed in "American" character in the 1870's. Mrs. Thorne, said James, is the "tragic form of the type of which Mrs. Stowe's Miss Ophelia was the comic."95a Against these and other characters Margaret Harold is seen, the utmost symbol of renunciation in personal relationships. East Angels is perhaps the fullest, the roundest, the most significant of Miss Woolson's novels.
With what fine integrity Miss Woolson observed her own principles as a writer was amusingly illustrated in a letter written in response to one from a young person who, like a majority of popular readers, would have preferred a happy ending in East Angels—a consummation that could easily have been arranged if the author had been willing to decree the death of Lansing Harold. Miss Woolson replies:
My dear Miss Ethel.
Your letter made me laugh,—it was so frank! It would indeed have been more agreeable for everyone, if Lansing Harold could have been (as you express it) "taken." But, in real life, such fortunate takings-off seldom occur, & it is real life I was endeavoring to picture. It is seldom indeed that I ask anyone to write to me, as I find it almost impossible to answer the letters I receive. But you are so honest that I propose that, after my next novel, you send a few lines more; what do you say? About "the happy ending" you ask for, we will see!96
As it happens Miss Woolson's next novel, Jupiter Lights (1889), is equipped with a "happy ending" but only after a great quantity of trouble has been seen. The novel is interesting as a local color story "with scenes from each of the three regions with which Miss Woolson is associated: the South, the lake country, and Italy." Miss Woolson is particularly successful in her delineation of the South during Reconstruction.97 Yet the chief power of Jupiter Lights derives from the concentrated study of troubled personal relations, being in this case a study of a woman who interfered disastrously in the affairs of another. A whole train of difficulty is set in motion when Eve Bruce undertakes to meddle in the affairs of Cicely Morrison, formerly the widow of Eve's dead brother, now the wife of a dipsomaniac in a small rundown town on an island off the coast of Georgia during the period of Reconstruction. Results include a shooting, a flight to the Lake Superior region, the death of the degraded husband, a love affair for Eve, her retirement to a convent in Italy, and—the happy ending—her lover's arrival at the convent, where he "batters his way to her and takes her in his arms."98 Hemingway could have handled this strong plot in its externals much more plausibly than Miss Woolson: he might even have strengthened it by tossing in a few more shootings, stronger drinks, and more general violence. But he would have been puzzled by the ethical problems of Eve who is so troubled about a point of honor (her part in the episode that resulted in Morrison's death) that, like James's high-minded Strether, she wants to have gained nothing for herself "out of the whole affair."99 "Can have and will not"—that would be Hemingwayese for the attitude of many of the characters in Woolson. And it is precisely in the mental struggles of persons involved in such cases of casuistry that Miss Woolson, like James, succeeds most notably. In Jupiter Lights, however, the problem is largely lost in the frequently improbable action, and the book remains her least valuable novel. Miss Woolson can render setting and she can characterize quiet, well-bred people, but high tensions are likely to induce erratic fluctuations in the delicate instruments of her art.
Horace Chase (1894) marks a return to the narrower scope of action in which Miss Woolson moved with greatest freedom and sureness. Fundamentally it suffers from being too studied, too conscientious. It is unique among her novels in having for its centre of interest a man instead of a woman—in this case a successful businessman of considerable intelligence but of no great refinement. In type he is not far removed from James's Christopher Newman. His language is robust and colloquial. He is frankly interested in making money for the satisfaction of his ego: "For a big pile is something more than a pile; it's a proof that a man's got brains."100 The time comes when he must prove whether he has fineness of character as well as practical intelligence. His wife becomes infatuated with another man to the point of following him to the house of a friend—only to learn (what except for her blindness she should have known before) that he is interested not in her but in another girl, whom he is about to marry. No simple return to her own hearth is possible, for her husband untimely arrives at the house. A way out of making the embarrassing disclosure of her folly is devised by her sister, but doggedly the wife prefers to face the music, expecting to be sent away by an outraged husband. Instead, Horace Chase magnanimously but quietly indicates that he wishes her to stay: "Have I been so faultless myself that I have any right to judge you?"101 This is a typical situation with Woolson: a character proves his fineness by making a difficult decision when, so far as external pressure is concerned, he is a perfectly free agent. In this case the gesture is one of forbearance rather than of renunciation. To make the scene a mess of sentimentality based upon incredible self-sacrifice would have been easy, but the author prefers to handle the situations with the quiet restraint befitting a realist. The story, she revealed in a letter to the publishers, was based on an instance "from actual life."102 Her aim in the settings (Asheville, North Carolina, and St. Augustine) is to be utterly faithful to fact. The whole is a good miniature, possessed of much, perhaps too much, well-wrought detail. Yet that subtle process of artistic enlargement by which a work passes out of the specific into the universal is lacking in this book, as well as in most of Miss Woolson's work.
In Miss Woolson's novels the narrative situation is the thing. She carried no banners, religious, political, or sociological. Digressions seldom occur and such social criticism as she indulges in takes a subordinate place on her page. Yet her writing is informed with a realistic spirit that is gradually felt to be characteristic of her nature. Her childhood nickname "And why?" suggests in exaggerated form her critical proclivities. Thus she sees the beauty of the country but she realizes how a rural life limits the opportunities of the individual and intensifies the provincialism of the group, especially on the frontier. When in a minor matter Mlle Pitre fails to conform to village expectations, there is doubt about her integrity:
Simple comment swelled into suspicion; the pennysaving old maid was now considered a dark and mysterious person at Lancaster. Opinions varied as to whether she had committed a crime in her youth, or intended to commit one in her age. At any rate, she was not like other people—in the country a heinous crime.103
The border Indians of the Great Lakes region were not only part of her story in Anne but also a sociological problem. Without sentiment or romance Miss Woolson candidly reports the difficulty experienced by white folk who attempted to civilize them:
Years before, missionaries had been sent from New England to work among the Indians of this neighborhood, who had obtained their ideas of Christianity, up to that time, solely from the Roman Catholic priests, who had succeeded each other in an unbroken line from that adventurous Jesuit, the first explorer of these inland seas, Father Marquette. The Presbyterians came, established their mission, built a meeting-house, a school-house, and a house for their pastor, the buildings being as solid as their belief. Money was collected for this enterprise from all over New England, that old-time, devout, self-sacrificing community whose sternness and faith were equal; tall spare men came westward to teach the Indians, earnest women with bright steadfast eyes and lath-like forms were their aiders, wives, and companions … The missionaries worked faithfully; but, as the Indians soon moved further westward, the results of their efforts can not be statistically estimated now, or the accounts balanced.
"The only good Indian is a dead Indian," is a remark that crystallizes the floating opinion of the border. But a border population has not a missionary spirit. New England, having long ago chased out, shot down, and exterminated all her own Indians, had become peaceful and pious, and did not agree with these Western carriers of shot-guns. Still, when there were no more Indians to come to this island school, it was of necessity closed, no matter which side was right.104
Occasionally she pauses to correct false notions implanted in the popular mind by more sensational writers. When, for example, Anne takes her place in a fashionable school in New York, her fine character does not make her either hated or sanctified. An intermediate reaction on the part of Anne's mates seems more natural to Miss Woolson:
It was soon understood that "the islander" could sing as well as study. Tolerance was therefore accorded to her. But not much more. It is only in "books for the young" that poorly clad girls are found leading whole schools by the mere power of intellectual or moral supremacy. The emotional type of boarding-school, also, is seldom seen in cities; its home is amid the dead lethargy of a winter-bound country village.105
Similarly, the common conception of a nurse's romantic rôle during the Civil War is revised when a novice reaches the front:
But during that day, not only did the promised nurse from the Rivertown Aid Society arrive, but with her a volunteer assistant, a young girl, her face flushed with exaltation and excitement over the opportunity afforded her to help and comfort "our poor dear wounded heroes." The wounded heroes were not poetical in appearance; they were simply a row of ordinary sick men, bandaged in various ways, often irritable, sometimes profane; their grammar was defective, and they cared more for tobacco than for texts, or even poetical quotations.106
A fine restraint, then, distinguishes the realistic Miss Woolson from those scores of novelists who have erred on the opposite side of prolonged naturalistic descriptions of the horrors of war. Yet she does not lean over backward in this respect; and her sense of balance is shown by the fact that the same novice who found "her romance rudely dispelled" rose adequately to her situation; and since "there was good stuff in her, she would do useful work yet, although shorn of many illusions."107 This is typical of the author in her better works: she prefers decent proportion to cheap intensity.
On the positive side (for Miss Woolson was not one to spend much time or effort upon correcting others) there was her original and vivid treatment of comparatively new regions; her pioneer studies of the difference between "the Anglo-Saxon and the Latin temperaments" in the South;108 her faithful recording of Negro speech,109 and her use of natural if unusually sensitive girls as heroines in place of the pasteboard saints of the popular novelists.110 It was finally these heroines who inspired most of what was distinguished in the work of Constance Fenimore Woolson. She described their persons with a critical eye, understood the crises of their "private relations" with fine intuition, recorded their self-immolations with a quiet intensity that often lends exaltation to her page. Dynamic action jeopardized her art; larger structural units never quite found their equilibrium. But in the nooks and recesses of human experience she was wholly masterful. In Anne there is a church "whose steeple threw a slow-moving shadow across its garden, like a great sundial, all day." In some such sequestered place, where action is natural but unhurried, where light and shadow fulfill each other, belongs the special art of Miss Woolson.
84 See James's Partial Portraits, London, 1888, Chapter VI.
85 For a study of her life and writings see John Dwight Kern, Constance Fenimore Woolson: Literary Pioneer, Philadelphia, 1934. For such autobiography as is available in the abridged letters of Miss Woolson, see Clare Benedict (ed.), Constance Fenimore Woolson, London . This latter work is the second part of a three-volume study entitled Five Generations (1785-1923). For a brief biographical and critical study, see Lyon N. Richardson, "Constance Fenimore Woolson, 'Novelist Laureate' of America," South Atlantic Quarterly (January, 1940), XXXIX, 18-36.
86Anne, A Novel, New York, 1882, pp. 2, 3.
87 Cf. an observation in one of her notebooks: "Character … should … grow and develop on the scene; in the book. Not to be introduced completely formed in the beginning." Clare Benedict (ed.), Constance Fenimore Woolson, p. 99. Few novelists of the nineteenth century (except Hawthorne and James) have left such copious laboratory or workshop notes—comment on technique, ideas for stories, etc.—as Miss Woolson … At many points her notes distinctly show her kinship with Hawthorne and James. Hawthorne might have been interested by this (ibid., p. 137): "To imagine in an old Italian palace or villa a bell which rang at the top of a very high ceiling, now and then. No one can find any cord or handle to it!" A turn of thought that James might have found interesting (ibid., p. 138): "An American who has lived so long abroad that he is almost de-nationalized, and conscious of it fully; which makes him an original figure."
88 "The Art of Fiction," Partial Portraits, p. 392.
89Anne, pp. 1, 2.
90 Cf. a comment in her notebook: "I care only for motives; why a man or woman does or has done so and so. Ditto a nation. It is the mental state—the mental problem that interests me." Constance Fenimore Woolson, pp. 118-19.
91Partial Portraits, p. 183. As it happens, James achieves this neat antithesis at some slight expense of truth. It was the daughter who was really the Puritan, as Madam makes it clear when she says in discussing her stratagem with Sara: "Under the same circumstances you would never have done it, nor under twenty times the same circumstances. But I am not you; I am not anybody but myself. That lofty kind of vision which sees only the one path, and that the highest, is not mine; I always see … the cross-cuts." For the Major, New York, 1883, p. 160.
92Partial Portraits, p. 184.
93For the Major, p. 179.
94Ibid., p. 131.
95 James, op. cit., p. 187.
95aIbid., p. 191.
96 Kern, op. cit., p. 88.
97 Indeed among Northern writers it was Miss Woolson who had the "surest grip upon a mood of plantation life, the bewildering numbness of that civilization after the full import of the change was realized." Gaines, The Southern Plantation, pp. 68-69. The poignant suffering of the South (spiritual and material) after the War is brought out in an almost perfect short story, "Old Gardiston" (published first in Harper's Magazine in 1876; collected in Rodman the Keeper, 1880).
98 Kern, op. cit., p. 91.
99 Cf. below, p. 723.
100Horace Chase, A Novel, New York, 1894, pp. 269-70.
101Ibid., p. 419.
102 Kern, op. cit., p. 94.
103Anne, pp. 185-86.
104Ibid., pp. 53-54.
105Ibid., p. 156.
106Ibid., p. 368.
108 Cf. Kern, op. cit., p. 176.
109 In this, observed James, Miss Woolson antedated J. C. Harris. Partial Portraits, pp. 180-81.
110 Cf. Miss Vanhorn's comment on another character in Anne, a character who reminds her of the "creole" type of beauty: "It is a novelty … which has made its appearance lately; a reaction after the narrow-chested type which has so long in America held undisputed sway. We absolutely take a quadroon to get away from the consumptive, blue-eyed saint, of whom we are all desperately tired." Anne, p. 196. The Creole was at about the same time making her fascinating appearance, it may be noted, in the works of G. W. Cable….
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4819
SOURCE: "The 'Immeasurable World of Print': The Short Fiction," in Constance Fenimore Woolson, Twayne Publishers, 1963, pp. 41-50.
[In the essay that follows, Moore discusses Woolson's first collection of short stories and examines its increasingly sophisticated character development.]
Constance Woolson's first contributions to the great national magazines were descriptive articles in the guise of fiction. She wrote of the Zoar Community in the Tuscarawas Valley of Ohio, of Mackinac in the far north of the Lake country, and of Lake Otsego near the ancestral home of the Coopers. Gradually she began to concentrate more on her characters and less on description, though she never lost her concern for setting and background even after she had lived for years in Europe. Her first sketches and stories dealt, with few exceptions, with the country she knew best—the Great Lakes area, Ohio, and New York. Later, after she had lived for some time in the South, she began to treat Southern characters and scenes in her fiction. Finally, when she had spent many years in Europe, she began to use European (especially Italian) characters and setting in her tales, though her favorite approach at this point in her career was to place Americans in Old World backgrounds. Thus she took advantage of her experience and of her knowledge of place to produce more than enough fiction to comprise four volumes of short stories: Castle Nowhere (1875); Rodman the Keeper (1880); The Front Yard (1895); and Dorothy (1896).
I. Castle Nowhere
Though she had won a prize for a volume she had written for children in 1872, Miss Woolson considered Castle Nowhere: Lake-Country Sketches her first book.1 In it she brought together nine stories, all of which (with the exception of the title piece which was appearing for the first time) had been published first in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly, Scribner's Monthly, Harper's New Monthly, the Galaxy, and Appletons' Journal. These pieces, selected from a number of sketches dealing with lake-country settings and characters, represent, on the whole, her best work in this vein, though there are several other stories that might have been included in this volume.2
James R. Osgood, the Boston publisher, apparently suggested to Miss Woolson in 1874 that he would be interested in bringing out a collection of her best sketches. After an agreement was reached, the volume was scheduled for publication in 1875. On January 20 of that year she wrote Stedman about her forthcoming book: "I do not know whether you will approve of my volume, or rather, of any volume at all from me at present. But it seemed to me best to make a beginning, and it is a modest one, the best of my stories led by one which gives the name to the collection. Please keep this secret at present, as I have told no one…. The whole collection belongs to the lake-country."
The book appeared a month or two later and was, on the whole, favorably received by the critics. A reviewer in Appletons' Journal, April 3, 1875, thought, for example, that the "promise" of this early work presaged a "very bright" literary future and that Miss Woolson had made "a contribution of something fresh and vigorous beyond the common" (439). Howells' criticism in the June Atlantic found much to praise in many of the stories—especially those which had first appeared in the Atlantic's own pages—and in the author's concern for "truth to human nature," though the champion of realism was "harassed … by a disagreeable fantasticality" in "Castle Nowhere."
That sketch, by the way, had been written especially for this collection and had therefore not appeared first in a magazine. If one needed to advance other reasons for the story's failure to come out in one of the great monthlies, they are ready at hand. It is, for example, very long (it runs to ninety-one pages in book form), and the central character espouses principles repugnant to the family reading circles so important to magazine circulation in the late nineteenth century. Furthermore, the story centers around a love that supersedes moral principles, but this is no ordinary love story, for the love described is that of a foster father for the child he has reared.
In order to get away from the trappings of civilization, Jarvis Waring goes into the wilderness "bordering the head of Lake Michigan." There he chances to meet an old man named Amos Fog, who steals certain of Waring's possessions. In his search for the thief, Waring discovers a beautiful girl named Silver living in a log fortress called Castle Nowhere. (At this point readers of Cooper are likely to recall the "castle" in The Deerslayer.) Waring locates his stolen treasures and remains to find that Silver considers Fog her father and to be told Fog's story: he is an escaped murderer performing expiation through his loving concern for the girl—"a life for a life." Fog will do anything for Silver. He lures lake steamers to their doom in order to provide for her needs, telling himself that the crews lost are nothing to Silver's "delicate life." Yet he refuses to let her know the Bible, for "religion is fancy."
Before Waring becomes completely enthralled by Silver's naïveté, he leaves the castle, but is later rescued by Fog from the ice and cold. Finally surrendering to his feelings for the girl, Waring agrees to marry her, but he insists that they return to civilization after the ceremony. After leaving, however, Silver persuades him to return to Castle Nowhere, where they find Fog dying. They watch over the old man in his last hours, and he tells them he is "content," though his last words—"Is it expiated, O God?"—receive "no answer … on earth." With the death of Fog, the lovers leave the castle to fall in ruin and to become "indeed Nowhere."
Fog's lack of regard for conventional religion and his adoption of any means to a good end (i.e., the comfort and protection of Silver) did not endear him as a character to Miss Woolson's readers, a number of whom wrote to her questioning this aspect of his make-up. In an undated letter presumably written in 1875, Miss Woolson took up this matter with her friend Mrs. Washburn:
At least twenty awful letters have I received because I made 'Old Fog' say he did not believe in eternal punishment. Is it possible that I am to be held personally responsible for the theology and morality of all my characters? I want you to think of me not as your old friend, when you read my writings, but as a 'writer,' like anyone else. For instance, take 'Adam Bede.' … Would you like to have a friend of yours the author of such a story? Dealing with such subjects? And yet it was a great book…. The truth is, Belle, whatever one does must be done with one's might and I would rather be strong than beautiful, or even good, provided the 'good' must be dull. All this applies more to what I hope to do in the future, of course, than to the slight sketches I have already brought out [Benedict, II, 20].
Even the critics were concerned. Howells' review in the Atlantic put it this way:
A subtle confusion of all the conceptions of right and wrong is wrought by this old reprobate's devotion to the child, and his inability to feel that any means to her pleasure and comfort can be bad; but we doubt whether this is an intended effect, and if it is, we think it not worth the writer's or reader's pains. Castle Nowhere is the least satisfactory of the stones … [XXXV, 736].3
This aspect of Fog's character is hardly likely to disturb the modern reader. It is Fog's eagerness to sacrifice himself for the girl that may now arouse the wonder of readers, though it should be added that Fog's actions have been provided for in the motivation and analysis of his character. In this sense, Fog takes his place in a long line of Woolson characters who devote themselves to some unselfish goal. Fog is not altogether credible as a character, but neither is he completely "fantastical." The sketch's chief failure lies not so much in his confusion of right and wrong as it does in the failure of Waring and Silver to come off as believable human beings and in the introduction, as Kern has pointed out, of an "improbable series of events" into the narrative. Waring's conventional cynicism and Silver's wraithlike quality make the old outcast's elements of humanity appear all the more realistic by contrast. In the end, the sketch, though it is something less than an unqualified artistic success, is saved from total failure by the portrait of Fog and the vivid realization of the lake-country setting.
The next two pieces, "Peter the Parson" and "Jeannette," both appeared first in Scribner's Monthly.4 "Peter the Parson" capitalizes, as the title implies, on the author's interest in Episcopal clergymen and is a study in dramatic contrast. The Reverend Herman W. Peters, a high-church Anglican priest, has come to a raw little settlement on Lake Superior as a missionary of his church; but he finds himself ridiculed by the Harte-like miners who inhabit the place and whose interest in religion can only be aroused by Brother Saul, a miner himself who enjoys "a-holding forth" among his comrades. The contrast between the two men themselves and the two widely divergent approaches to the faith they represent, to say nothing of the implied contrast between frontier and civilization, makes for a story rich in suggestion and overtone. Seldom in her tales did Miss Woolson elaborate anything more carefully fashioned than the poignant but never sentimental contrast she drew between the brawling, lusty settlement and the little, ascetic Anglican priest who, though he failed to convert the miners to his faith, lived up to it and died for it himself.5
Contrast is also vital in "Jeannette," in which a French half-breed girl is the central character. Her beauty and coquetry attract the attention of Rodney Prescott, the scion of an old New England family and an officer in the army at Mackinac Island, Miss Woolson's favorite summer resort and a natural background for much of her early fiction.6 The contrast between Jeannette's ignorance and natural grace and Prescott's culture and acquired polish is skillfully developed in this sketch, and her scornful rejection of his suit in favor of one of her own kind is brought off nicely.
"The Old Agency," although it was published in the Galaxy, appeared in December, 1874, the same month as "Jeannette," and is a sort of companion piece to that tale. The setting and background of "The Old Agency" is Mackinac Island, and the narrator in both stories is Mrs. Sarah Corlyne, the aunt of an army officer at Fort Mackinac. In this work, however, the point of view is that of Father Piret, a beloved Roman Catholic priest whose aristocratic bearing and mysterious past have cast a romantic aura about a personality that is mythic in nature and substance. Piret's tale is about Jacques, an old and penniless soldier of the French Empire who has sought a place of refuge where he may dream of the glories of the past and prepare to die. The use of the double point of view in this instance provides less contrast than one might imagine, since Mrs. Corlyne is entirely sympathetic to Father Piret's qualities and to the loyalties of Jacques. If this point of contrast is not realized, the effort of the gentle old priest to infuse Christian precepts and attitudes into the grenadier's pagan worship of Napoleon affords Miss Woolson an opportunity subtly to contrast the two men as aliens and brothers and to show their different religions as expressive of two approaches to faith that are universal and timeless and that transcend the immediacy of the nineteenth century and Mackinac Island.
"Misery Landing," published in Harper's in May, 1874, is the only sketch in this collection to appear first in the monthly organ of the publishing firm with which Miss Woolson later made such pleasant arrangements concerning the publication of her work. Though its setting is an island near the western end of Lake Superior, its central character, John Jay, is from the metropolitan centers of sophistication and, in many ways, resembles Jarvis Waring in his cynical attitude. The contrast is strong between civilization and frontier, but the story does not quite come off because Jay fails to come alive, though his efforts to help others suggest some quality of humanity. The piece is chiefly interesting because of Jay's remarks regarding Bret Harte. In an entry in his diary, for example, he discusses Harte's "deep-hearted prose." "After all," he writes, "as long as I can read his pages, I can not be so bad as I seem, since, to my idea, there is more of goodness and generosity and courage in his words than in many a sermon. He shows us the good in the heart of the outcast." Later, he observes:
I read aloud last evening. George [an ignorant boy of the region whom Jay has befriended] did not seem much interested in Bret Harte, but was captivated with the pageantry of 'Ivanhoe.' Strange that it should be so, but everywhere it is the cultivated people only who are taken with Bret. But they must be imaginative as well as cultivated; routine people, whether in life or in literature, dislike any thing unconventional or new .
Remembering her letter to Mrs. Washburn and not taking these views expressed by Jay as being too literally hers, one might yet suspect from reading this and other passages indicating similar opinions that Miss Woolson herself accepted the general tenor of these remarks.
The only sketch in this volume to have appeared originally in Appletons' Journal (October 4, 1873), "St. Clair Flats" contains some of Miss Woolson's most interesting early work, a view shared by her and expressed in a letter to Samuel Mather written in 1875: "I have all along cherished a special regard for 'St. Clair Flats,' and have felt troubled because no one else seemed to care for the poor thing; now here comes along a young man, for whose literary taste I have a sincere respect, and this delightful young man picks out my poor neglected sketch for special commendation!" (Benedict, II, 22-23).
In this piece, two men, one of whom narrates the story, visit the flats of the St. Clair River, near Detroit, to fish and hunt; and they find a place to stay with Waiting Samuel, an eloquent but uneducated religious fanatic whose religion is compounded of "a strange mixture of Jacob Boehmen, chiliastic dreams, Christianity, sun-worship, and modern spiritualism," and his wife Roxana, a native of Maine. Roxana tells her story to the visitors, and the reader becomes aware that Miss Woolson has deftly sketched a memorable character. Because of her great love for her husband, Roxana has given up her own name, her family, and her native heath. She is lonely and sometimes memories of the past overwhelm her, but she is steadfast in her faith in Samuel's "great gifts" (one cannot help thinking here of Deerslayer "Christian's gifts" and "white gifts") and in her love for him; and she does not seriously consider returning to the land of lost content. Thus, the author turns to contrast again in showing the differences between these two wedded for life, the one poetic and prophetic and the other prosaic and pathetic; yet these two accept their lot and neither complains of incompatibility.
The treatment of the background also adds distinction to this sketch. Miss Woolson is at her best in describing the natural features of the St. Clair Flats.
The word "marsh" does not bring up a beautiful picture to the mind, and yet the reality was as beautiful as anything I have ever seen—an enchanted land, whose memory haunts me as an idea unwritten, a melody unsung, a picture unpainted, haunts the artist, and will not away. On each side and in front, as far as the eye could reach, stretched the low green land which was yet no land, intersected by hundreds of channels, narrow and broad, whose waters were green as their shores. In and out, now running into each other for a moment, now setting off each for himself again, these many channels flowed along with a rippling current; zigzag as they were, they never seemed to loiter, but, as if knowing just where they were going and what they had to do, they found time to take their own pleasant roundabout way, visiting the secluded households of their friends the flags, who, poor souls, must always stay at home. These currents were as clear as crystal, and green as the water-grasses that fringed their miniature shores. The bristling reeds, like companies of free-lances, rode boldly out here and there into the deeps, trying to conquer more territory for the grasses, but the currents were hard to conquer; they dismounted the free-lances, and flowed over their submerged heads; they beat them down with assaulting ripples; they broke their backs so effectually that the bravest had no spirit left, but trailed along, limp and bedraggled. And, if by chance the lances succeeded in stretching their forces across from one little shore to another, then the unconquered currents forced their way between the closely serried ranks of the enemy, and flowed on as gayly as ever, leaving the grasses sitting hopeless on the bank; for they needed solid ground for their delicate feet, these graceful ladies in green [306-7].7
"St. Clair Flats" is, on the whole, an interesting sketch which gives promise of better work to come.
The remaining sketches in the collections were all published first in the Atlantic.8 Howells thought these three the "best in this book." Two of these—"Solomon" and "Wilhelmina"—are set in the Zoar Community in Ohio and are not strictly lake-country work. In his review of Castle Nowhere, Howells describes "Solomon" as
a triumph of its kind—a novel kind, as simple as it is fresh. The Zoar Community, with its manners and customs, and that quaint mingling of earthy goodfeeling and mild, coarse kindliness with forms of austere religious and social discipline, which seems to characterize all the peculiar German sectarians, has had the fortune to find an artist in the first who introduces us to its life. Solomon's character is studied with a delicate and courageous sympathy, which spares us nothing of his grotesqueness, and yet keenly touches us with his pathetic history. An even greater success of literary art is his poor, complaining wife, the faded parody of the idol of his young love, still beautiful in his eyes, and the inspiration of all his blind, unguided efforts in painting. His death, after the first instruction has revealed his powers to himself, is affectingly portrayed, without a touch of sentimentalistic insistence. It is a very complete and beautiful story .
In "Wilhelmina," Miss Woolson apparently described too accurately some of her originals at Zoar, for the publication of the piece disturbed people at the Community, as she acknowledged in a letter to Samuel Mather in 1875. "Some one sent me a New Philadelphia paper containing a savage article on 'Wilhelmina,' based upon the idea that my charac ters were all from life, and consequently 'the leathery woman' was the good Mrs. Beiter, the gardener's wife, etc., etc. Of course the article in the country paper was of no consequence, but I was distressed to think that perhaps the Beiters, always good friends of mine, thought so, too. I therefore wrote to Mr. Beiter telling him it was but a fancy sketch" (Benedict, II, 22).
Howells thought "Wilhelmina" "not quite so good" as "Solomon." The reason is not far to seek. Wilhelmina herself somehow fails to come alive, and her emotional attachment to her lover Gustav never seems quite real. The use of a detached observer-character to narrate the story also influences adversely the credibility and effectiveness of Wilhelmina as a character. In this instance, as Claude M. Simpson has pointed out in another connection, the "personality" of the narrator becomes a "formidable barrier between reader and scene." Despite these handicaps, Miss Woolson does manage, as Kern has maintained, to stimulate some sympathy in the reader for the plight of the "pathetic girl at the apathy of her erstwhile lover."
"The Lady of Little Fishing," the last story in the collection—though it had appeared concurrently with "Peter the Parson"—is in many ways also the best. The Lady is a beautiful Scottish missionary who appears suddenly one night among the rough trappers and hunters of Little Fishing, a camp on an island in Lake Superior, and whose beneficent influence on their lives reminds one of the "Luck's" impact on the miners of Harte's Roaring Camp. Almost as rapidly as her influence has waxed does it wane, when the men discover that she has fallen in love with one of their number (ironically, the only man there who is not in love with her); and thus, in Miss Woolson's sketch, "the problem of their unnaturally restrained behavior," as Simpson puts it, is resolved "by the strictly human device of disenchantment, where Harte resorted to chance calamity."9
Pattee, in his Development of the American Short Story, compares Miss Woolson's story with Harte's and then generalizes briefly on her artistry in the short story:
'The Lady of Little Fishing,' … greatly surpassed in short-story art Harte's 'Luck of Roaring Camp.' The motif of Harte's piece centers about the abnormality of a group of men isolated completely from all feminine and domestic influences and the grotesque extremes to which such a group may go when such an element appears suddenly among them…. Miss Woolson does all that Harte does, and then she adds a touch that makes her work a model short story, as Harte's is not. All the men but one are in love with the Lady, and she is forced to choose one from among them. She chooses Mitchell, who refuses her absolutely, and then explains himself to the amazed group whom she had rejected: 'I never gave in to her influence; I was never under her thumb. I was the only man in Little Fishing who cared nothing for her.' 'And that is the secret of her liking,' murmured the Doctor. 'O woman! woman! the same the world over!'
This is the real motif of the story; not the mere grotesqueness of an abnormal situation presented merely for entertainment and wonder. The story is not finished when the reader has read it: it becomes with him a haunting suspicion, a peep into the heart of life .
Pattee concludes that Miss Woolson "must be rated with James and Aldrich as a strong influence toward more careful short-story workmanship at a moment when such influence peculiarly was needed" (255). There is little one may add to this critical and historical appraisal today. In this story Miss Woolson's insight has touched upon the universal, and she has bettered the work of one of her masters.
As a whole, Castle Nowhere (1875) is a good first book. In comparison with Sarah Orne Jewett's Deep-haven (1877) and Mary N. Murfree's In the Tennessee Mountains (1884), to choose only two titles of similar quality from among the first books of Miss Woolson's feminine contemporaries, Castle Nowhere holds its own pretty well. In treatment and development of character and in the realization of background and locale, these early sketches give promise of the work to come. They are pioneer work, a fact one should not forget in assessing their value. "The ground is new," Howells wrote in the Atlantic in 1875, "and Miss Woolson gathers from it a harvest out of which the grain had not been threshed long ago." That the granaries were later to be filled to overflowing from the work of many harvesters should not obscure the fact that Miss Woolson made a distinct contribution in this book and others to follow both in local-color fiction and in analysis of character….
1 Benedict, II (1932), 553. Miss Woolson's juvenile, called The Old Stone House, was written under the pseudonym of Anne March. D. Lothrop & Company published it in Boston, 1872.
2 See, for example,'"Margaret Morris," Appletons' Journal, VII (April 13, 1872), 394-99; "Ballast Island," Appletons', IX (June 28, 1873), 833-39; and "A Flower of the Snow," The Galaxy, XVII (January, 1874), 76-85. The first of these concerns a proud young lady from New England who feels contempt for her fellow passengers on a lake steamer. She comes to her senses only after a storm sinks the vessel and she discovers that those whom she had despised have more courage in the face of danger than she has. The account of the sinking of the Chippewa is the best part of this piece.
"Ballast Island" contains within its conventional love-story framework one of the most memorable sketches of character in Miss Woolson's early work: Miss Jonah, a North Georgia woman who leaves her home for an island in Lake Erie so that her fiancé may marry her sister. In the treatment of Miss Jonah's character and dialect, this work looks forward to the Southern sketches to come; in the development of the theme of self-sacrifice, it also anticipates the novels.
Like "Ballast Island," "A Flower of the Snow" is a love story; and, like so many of the lake-country sketches, it has a Mackmac setting. Flower Moran, a plain little teacher from New England, falls in love with Lieutenant Maxwell Ruger, a "stalwart young Saxon" at Fort Holmes, who at first takes the romance rather lightly. When, however, Flower, feeling that he does not truly love her, leaves the village with the mail pack, Max follows her in the knowledge that he loves her enough to brave a blinding snowstorm. He catches up with her after both have been almost frozen by the storm, and they are married by Père Ronan, a hermit priest who reminds one of both Père Piret and Père Michaux in other lake-country fiction and whose portrait in this piece may well be a preparatory study for the later characterizations of Piret and Michaux.
3 In a letter of June 15, 1875, to Hayne, Miss Woolson remarks on Howell's review of the book in general and his criticism of "Castle Nowhere" in particular:
But the criticism, as a whole, was very high praise, I thought; of course I am smarting a little about the 'Castle,' which, to tell the truth, was something of an ideal, instead of a real tale—like the others. But then I had been abused so for writing such deadly 'real' stories, that I did branch out, in that one, into the realm of the imagination. Still, Mr. Howells is mistaken in thinking that situation fantastic; the islands, the fogs, the false lights, the wreckers, the Mormons are all exactly from real life, true descriptions.
4 VIII (September, 1874), 600-10 and IX (December, 1874), 232-43. "Peter the Parson" has recently been reprinted in American Local-Color Stories (1941).
E. C. Stedman apparently persuaded Richard Watson Gilder, one of the editors of Scribner's, to publish both stories. Miss Woolson refers to them in a letter to Stedman of April 13, 1874: "I shall be ever so glad if you can stir up Mr. Gilder to publish 'Jeannette.' Not that it is a good story; but it is weary waiting for a first appearance." A few lines later, she points out that the editors "don't like" "Peter the Parson" and concludes: "… in my opinion it is the most powerful thing I have ever written." This letter and another of October 10, 1876, are in the Yale University Library.
5 Miss Woolson was criticized for allowing the minister to be killed in the story. Her reaction was expressed in a letter of April 25 [1875?] to Samuel Mather: "Under the abuse which has been showered upon me for my 'brutal' killing of 'Peter the Parson,' I have steadily maintained to myself that both in an artistic and truthful-to-life point of view, my ending of the story was better than the conversion of the miners, the plenty to eat, and the happy marriage proposed by my critics." Part of this letter has been printed in Benedict, II, 23.
6 Despite her modest reference to "Jeannette" in her letter to Stedman, Miss Woolson liked the story, as she wrote James R. Osgood, because it was "such an accurate picture of Mackinac" (Kern, p. 25).
7 "St. Clair Flats" has been reprinted in Benedict, II (1932), 431-57.
8 "Solomon," XXXII (October, 1873), 413-24; "Wilhelmina," XXXV (January, 1875), 44-55; and "The Lady of Little Fishing," XXXV (September, 1874), 293-305. The first of these has been reprinted in American Local-Color Stories (1941), pp. 188-206; the last, in The Local Colorists: American Short Stories, 1857-1900 (1960), pp. 130-51.
9The Local Colorists, p. 130. For other views of "Solomon" and "Wilhelmina," see p. 129 and Kern, pp. 33-34.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3774
SOURCE: "Cultural Ambivalence in Constance Fenimore Woolson's Italian Tales," in Tennessee Studies in Literature, edited by Richard Beale Davis and Kenneth L. Knickerbocker, Vol. XII, University of Tennessee Press, 1967, pp. 121-29.
[In the following essay, White considers Woolson 's letters and short stories as expressions of American ambivalence toward "the foreign " in general and Italy in particular.]
Until recently, Constance Fenimore Woolson, grandniece of Fenimore Cooper and a respected authoress in her own right during the 1870's and '80's, was a figure but dimly remembered by most students of American literature, a figure occupying one of the shadowier niches in the gallery of "local color writers." In the past couple of years, however, her name has been broadcast by two separate scholars. Professor Rayburn Moore has published a book-length study of Miss Woolson which asserts she was a writer of modest but genuine talent who produced, along with a variety of readable short fiction, several novels of merit and substance. And Professor Leon Edel, in his continuing biography of Henry James, has made us aware of the long and pathetic intimacy which existed between the two writers, and of the extent to which James' fiction reverberates with his slow realization of Miss Woolson's wouldbe love for him.1
My concern with Miss Woolson is neither biographical nor strictly literary—although I suppose I should remark my agreement with Mr. Edel's assessment of her as a dispiritingly banal writer. Instead, I should like to discuss the ways in which a distinctive portion of her work lights up one of the most intriguing facets of America's involved relationship with Europe—how a number of her tales are symptomatic of the ambivalent responses of nineteenth-century Americans to Italy: the European land which, simultaneously, United States citizens found the most attractive and most repulsive.2 (Although Miss Woolson's literary merit is questionable, it is certain that she was a writer whose tales about Italy were popular with magazine editors and, presumably, magazine readers. It seems proper, then, to assume that the attitudes toward Italy to be discerned in her work are symptomatic of the middle-class culture in which she found her audience. Simply because her tales are so mediocre and lacking in individual lustre, they can all the more properly be viewed as an index to the culture which produced and ingested them.3)
One of a host of nineteenth-century American sojourners abroad, Miss Woolson sailed for Europe in 1879 and remained there until her death in Venice fifteen years later. She was never an expatriate, in the twentieth-century sense of the term, but she seems to have enjoyed keenly her succession of outre-mer years. She passed most of those years in Italy, and it was Italy, among all the lands of Europe, which most engaged her affections. Once, after a visit to England, she wrote relatives that she was "very fond of the misty, green island" but that she was happy to be returning to Italy; Italy was, she said, "the country I love best of all European ones. It comes next in my heart after Florida."4
Miss Woolson's letters home and her published travel sketches constantly descant upon the charms of Italy; several of her short stories, however, reveal an anxious revulsion from Italy. They suggest that the witchery of Italy is not altogether wholesome and that perhaps Americans would be better off if they were not so fascinated by the grace and beauty of Italian life and landscape. These tales, all very unimpressive as fiction, are nevertheless intriguing as documents which reveal the deep-seated distrust with which Americans have always been inclined to regard Europe—and the o'erweening pride with which they flesh out their own inadequacies. Many Americans, of course, have been scornfully leery of Europe; in Miss Woolson's case, what is interesting is not so much the revulsion from Italy discernible in her fiction as the fact that the dark undercurrent of the stories runs counter to her elsewhere expressed affection for Italy. Her letters and travel sketches voice a willed and conscious love; the stories embody doubts, suppressed but nonetheless real, of the worthiness of that love.5
Not long after her arrival in the Old World, Miss Woolson announced, in a letter from Florence, that attitude toward Italy she was' to maintain outwardly the rest of her life. "Florence is," she wrote, "all that I have dreamed and more…. Here I have attained that old-world feeling I used to dream about, a sort of enthusiasm made up of history, mythology, old churches, pictures, statues, vineyards, the Italian sky, dark-eyed peasants, opera music, Raphael and old Michael, 'Childe Harold,' the 'Marble Faun,' 'Romola,' and ever so many more ingredients—the whole having, I think, taken me pretty well off my feet." Miss Woolson's continuing infatuation with Italy found outlets all up and down the peninsula. After one of her first walks in Rome, she wrote: "I come home so excited with it all that I fairly glow! For it is so interesting, so wonderful, so beautiful. You see I have 'gone over' body and soul to Rome!" In Venice, some years afterward, she exclaimed: "Venice is enchanting. Last night, in the full moon, the canal was dotted with gondolas, and music filled the air. It was beautiful as a dream." And in 1887, after she had taken up residence atop the heights of Bellosguardo, she told one of her friends back in America: "Everywhere … I see the most enchanting landscape spread out before me; mountains, hills, river, city, villages, old castles, towns, campaniles, olive groves, almond trees and all the thousand divine 'bits' that make up Italian scenery."6
Miss Woolson's persistent love affair with Italy is evident in most of her letters home, but perhaps it is most strikingly revealed in one addressed to an old teacher. She musingly recalls how she had been fascinated by the name of one of her classmates, "Italia Beatrice," and then goes on to remark: "Since then, I have lived much in Italy itself. But it still remains fully as beautiful and romantic as it seemed in imagination, then."7
Given the fervor of Miss Woolson's professed enchantment with life in Italy, one might expect her Italian tales to be imbued with a like affection for the land and its people. The short stories do depict a land which is "beautiful and romantic"—but they also project an Italy with imaginative contours strikingly similar to those which coil about the Italy of Hawthorne's The Marble Faun. The Italy of both authors is compellingly beautiful, but beneath the mask of beauty lurk violence and evil. Miss Woolson's stories, like Hawthorne's novel, do not deny the charm of Italy; several of the stories, however, suggest that the charm is unwholesome and that, on the moral plane at least, the plain simplicity of America is superior to the beguiling loveliness of Italy.
Altogether, Miss Woolson published, in such major periodicals as The Century, The Atlantic Monthly, and Harper's Magazine, eleven long tales with Italian settings. Not all display ambivalent attitudes toward Italy; several are merely saccharine love tales set against Florentine and Roman backdrops. Generally, these neutral tales date from the first years of her stay abroad. It was only when her absence from America grew apace, and while she was seemingly growing more fixed in her love for Italy, that her stories begin increasingly to suggest that she was not really convinced of the propriety of her affections. Generally, in these later fictions the note of doubt is expressed in one of two fashions. Several stories intimate that Italians, seemingly the embodiments of charm and grace, are depraved and animalistically vicious beneath the veneer of their picturesque attractiveness. In other stories, the hero or heroine brought forward for our admiration is a person representative of strictly American virtues, one who is unswayed by the spell of Italy and steadfast in his or her upright Americanism.
This second motif is sounded for the first time in a story titled "In Venice." The tale is filled with visits to San Marco, gondola rides, and excursions through the lagoons; but it is centrally concerned with the seeming struggle of a quiet and aging American wife to safeguard her husband's love against the blandishments of a younger and more beautiful woman. The struggle is "seeming" in that the wife knows there is no danger her husband will prove unfaithful; the young girl, however, pathetically thinks it is her destiny to rescue the man, a would-be artist, from what she takes to be the mediocrity and dullness of his wife. Given the straightlaced tone of Miss Woolson's "love" tales with an American setting, it is perhaps noteworthy that something about the atmosphere of Venice prompted her to essay a tale which hints at illicit sex; even more significant, however, is her handling of the differing responses of her two female protagonists, both Americans, to the charms of Italy. Claudia, the young girl, is particularly enamoured of Venice and wishes she could have been a citizen of the Republic during the fifteenth century. The wife, Mrs. Lenox, harbors no such fond desires. She is happy to admit that she and her husband are "very completely of this poor nineteenth century." When Claudia compares the prow of a gondola to "the shining blade of St. Theodore," Mrs. Lenox suggests that "it looks a good deal like the hammer of a sewing-machine." Mrs. Lenox is respectful of the beauty of Venice, but she confesses that she "would give it all for the fresh odor of the fields at home, and the old scent of lilacs."8
Claudia is scornful of Mrs. Lenox's response to Venice. She feels that the wife, who spends most of her time caring for a sickly nephew, ought to devote more attention to her husband. During a visit to San Marco, she luxuriates in the warm and magical darkness of the interior and unabashedly observes: "I do believe that if some of our thin, anxious-faced American women could only be induced to come and sit here quietly several hours a day they would soon grow serene and physically opulent, like … the women of Veronese." Claudia, convinced of her own Veronesque sumptuousness, feels that Mrs. Lenox's thinness could be modified by a proper diet of Italian art and romance; but the story proceeds toward a dramatization of Mrs. Lenox's heroic New England virtues and toward Claudia's realization that her own enthusiasm for Italy has led her astray. At the end of the tale, after Mrs. Lenox has had singlehandedly to watch the death and burial of her little nephew because Claudia has dispatched the husband on a futile quest after some rumored Titian drawings, Claudia admits the wife's superiority, and the Lenoxes decide to return to America. The stay in Venice has not been harmful to them, but they have no desire to cut themselves off from America. The husband says: "We may return some time … but at present I think we want a home."9 The clear implication is that, for Americans, a palazzo in Venice cannot be a home.
Two other stories similarly suggest that Italy is a land of dangerous passions and similarly employ figures of Americans impervious to the spell of Italy to suggest the basic wholesomeness of American values. In "Neptune's Shore," a lurid tale of jealousy, attempted murder, and suicide, Miss Woolson devotes much time to describing the splendors of the Mediterranean landscape, but her chief concern is a sympathetic portrait of the mother of the violent man who, within that landscape, tries to murder a rival in love and then destroys himself. Though older, Azubel Ash is much like the Mrs. Lenox of "In Venice." She is totally oblivious to the heralded charms of Italian scenery and classic architecture. At her hotel in Salerno, she spends most of her time gazing upon the kitchen garden. Indifferent to the view of the sea from the front terrace, she apologetically observes, "I don't know as I care about the sea; it's all water—nothing to look at," and explains that she sits by the back garden because she likes "ter see the things grow." At the end of the story, after a night spent by the side of her dead son, she has moved from a position of obliviousness to the Italian landscape to a lonely domination of that landscape. Her stature is rivalled only by the ancient Greek temples which have long brooded over the countryside—and Miss Woolson consciously couples the grandeur of the temples with the dignity of the American woman who has turned her back on them: "The sun, rising, shed his fresh golden light on the tall lonely figure with its dark hair uncovered…. Looking the other way, one could see in the south the beautiful temples of Paestum, that have gazed over that plain for more than two thousand years."10
The other story, "A Pink Villa," differs from the general run of Miss Woolson's Italian tales in that it employs a masculine figure to exemplify the peculiar virtues of Americans. David Rod, a young planter from Florida, enters the pink villa on the Sorrentine cliffs to disrupt the plans of an ambitious American mother to marry her daughter to a foppish European nobleman. When Eva, the daughter, meets Rod she immediately falls in love with him—even though his clothes are unfashionable, his hands are brown and hardened, and his mission in Italy is not the pursuit of culture but the recruitment of laborers for his Everglades plantation. The mother struggles against her daughter's love for the young American, but the forth-right Rod imbues Eva with his own firmness. The story ends happily with the departure of the wedded lovers for Florida—with Eva's ultimate decision to abandon a life of ease in Italy for a life of striving in America. Although the young planter is depicted as a man of discrimination and foresight, some of Miss Woolson's other tales might lead readers to think him ill-advised in coming to Italy to seek laborers for his Florida acres. The Italians of these stories are handsome, colorfully picturesque, and seemingly gracious and amenable; beneath their smiling exteriors, however, they are selfish, dishonest, treacherous, animally sensual, and brutally violent. The duplicitous nature of Italian character is explicitly outlined in three of Miss Woolson's tales. In two, "A Christmas Party" and "A Waitress," Americans who have naively been taken in by the winning ways of Italian servants suddenly discover that the domestics in whom they have put their trust are capable of horrifyingly passionate criminality.
Modesta, the Tuscan servant in "A Waitress," is a good cook, loyal to her employer, kind to animals and old men, and fervent in her religious devotions; the American tourist who thinks her such a gem learns, however, that she is capable of sensual abandon and insane jealousy. One fiesta night, she attempts to stiletto a Swedish maidservant who is dancing with her betrothed, and the American tourist looks on as the countenance of the good Italian servant is animally transformed: "It was like nothing human; her head was thrust out, the eyes were narrowed and glittering, the nostrils flattened, and the lips drawn up and back from the set, fierce teeth; … she was like a wild beast who had made one spring and is about to make another."11 In "A Christmas Party," the seemingly perfect Italian servant is not so much transformed as literally undisguised. Carmela is a pert and handsome maid whose only concern seems to be the care and feeding of her American employers. Her real concern, however, is the safety of her son, a thief and murderer, and she coolly deceives the Americans while helping her son escape the police. When her complicity is finally detected, Carmela's façade crumples before the eyes of the police and her employers. She is not young and handsome, but old and withered—and it seems not amiss to infer that Miss Woolson is troubledly suggesting, in the image of the unmasked Carmela, that beneath the shell of Italian loveliness fester decrepitude and ugliness: "What was left was an old, old woman, small and withered, her feeble chest rising and falling in convulsions under her coarse chemise, and the rest of her little person scantily covered with a patched, poverty-stricken underskirt."12
"The Front Yard," title story of the first collection of Miss Woolson's Italian tales, doubly calls into question the putative fascination of Italy by coupling sketches of deceitfully charming Italians with an idealized portrait of a simple American heroine unmoved by the supposed wonders of Italian scenery and culture. The heroine of the tale, Prudence Wilkins Guadagni, has received her surname from a handsome Italian waiter who beguiled her into marriage and then soon after left her a widow—with a step-family of seven children by a previous wife, a wastrel nephew, a sonnet-writing uncle, and a querulous grandmother to take care of.
In an exaggerated fashion, the characteristics of the American heroines of "In Venice" and "Neptune's Shore"—a disregard for the attractions of Italy and a homesick longing for the domestic niceties of New England—provide the basis for the narrative action of "The Front Yard." In Prudence's eyes, Italy is primarily a land of "indecent Antiquity," a land where everything is "old and dirty." In picturesque Assisi, where she lives with her new family, she finds these qualities heightened to "a degree that the most profligate imagination of Ledham (New Hampshire) would never have been able to conceive." Her most intense disgust, however, is reserved for a fragment of Antiquity strewn at her very door—a ramshackle stable and pigsty surrounded by heaps of refuse and manure. Her great ambition is to earn enough money to have the eyesore removed and a proper New England front yard laid out. In her dreams she envisions "a nice straight path going down to the front gate, set in a new paling fence; along the sides currant bushes; and in the open spaces to the right and left a big flowerin' shrub—snowballs, or Missouri currant; near the house a clump of matrimony, perhaps; and in the flower beds on each side of the path bachelor's-buttons, chiny-asters, lady's slippers, and pinks; the edges bordered with box."13
Prudence's hopes, however, are repeatedly frustrated by the machinations of the Italians whom she toils to support. Working from dawn to dusk to accumulate enough money to fulfill her vision, she sees her savings again and again depleted by the importunities and treacheries of her in-laws. The grandmother repeatedly demands costly foodstuffs, one son plunders a carefully watched fig crop, another extorts money from her to go off to Florence, the uncle must be rescued from debt, one of the daughters, a shiftless and vain creature, wheedles money from Prudence for a trousseau and then refuses to invite her to the wedding feast. Finally, after several years of constant toil, just when she is on the verge of realizing her goal, another son, a handsome creature upon whom Prudence has lavished a mother's love, steals all the money and flings it away in a bout of dissipation.
Eventually, Prudence Guadagni does get her front yard landscaped after a New England pattern, but only after she has been taken under the care of an American tourist who finds her tottering about Assisi—and only after long years of unceasing labor have brought her to her death bed. When she finally does look upon her renovated front yard, she approvingly sighs, "It's mighty purty." The American lady who has wrought the miracle for Prudence also observes that the view has been much improved since the removal of the pigsty, but her view is that of the "great landscape all about," the landscape which she opines is "the very loveliest view in the whole world." Prudence, however, in spite of her companion's efforts to point out the beauties of the vistas unfolding on every side, will not lift her eyes beyond her new front yard. She will not be taken in by the reputed excellences of the larger view, and the judgment she passes on the Italian countryside may very well echo sentiments deep-rooted within the breast of the maiden American lady who had created her—and who, outwardly at least, was never uncertain of her love for Italy: "The truth is," Prudence says, "I don't care much for these Eyetalian views; it seems to me a poor sort of country, and always did."14
1 Rayburn S. Moore, Constance Fenimore Woolson (New York, 1963); Leon Edel, Henry James, vols. 2 and 3 (London, 1963).
2 As yet, there is no adequate account of American fascination with Italy during the nineteenth century. Van Wyck Brook's impressionistic The Dream of Arcadia (New York, 1958) and Paul R. Baker's pedestrian The Fortunate Pilgrims (Cambridge, 1964) are surpassed in many respects by earlier works by two Italian scholars: Giuseppe Prezzolini's Come gli Americani scoprirono l'Italia (Milano, 1933) and Angelina La Piana's La cultura americana e l'Italia (Torino, 1938). For a discerning account of the reactions of American novelists to Italy during the early and middle years of the nineteenth century, see Nathalia Wright, American Novelists in Italy; The Discoverers; Allston to James (Philadelphia, 1965).
3 For a discussion of the ways in which literary documents may be utilized as indices of cultural assumptions see the stimulating essay by Bernard Bowron, Leo Marx, and Arnold Rose, "Literature and Covert Culture," in Studies in American Culture, edited by Joseph Kwiat and Mary Turpie (Minneapolis, 1960), 84-95.
4 Clare Benedict, Constance Fenimore Woolson (London, 1930), pp. 292-93. Miss Benedict's memorial volume is mostly a compilation of letters and journal entries. It has obviously been selectively edited, but it seems unlikely that the relevant material about Miss Woolson's responses to Italy has been grossly tampered with.
5 In a previous article, "Washington Allston: Banditti in Arcadia," American Quarterly, XIII (1961), 387-401, I have attempted to demonstrate how a similar pattern of ambivalence is to be discerned in the paintings and fiction of one of the first American travellers to Italy. Although he does not develop the point, Umberto Mariani suggests that Henry James also was torn between his expressed love for Italy and his tendency, in his fiction, always to image Italy as a "ruffled nymph": "The Italian Experience of Henry James," Nineteenth-Century Fiction, XIX (1964), 237-54.
6 Benedict, pp. 184-85, 242, 273, 298.
7Ibid., p. 45.
8 Constance Fenimore Woolson, The Front Yard and Other Italian Stories (New York, 1895), pp. 242, 244, 255. Miss Woolson's Italian tales were brought together in two books published shortly after her death in 1894.
9Ibid., pp. 252, 266.
10Ibid., pp. 64, 89-90.
11 Constance Fenimore Woolson, Dorothy and Other Italian Stories (New York, 1896), p. 229.
12The Front Yard, p. 231.
13Ibid., pp. 3, 16.
14Ibid., pp. 47-48.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6095
SOURCE: "Editor's Introduction," in For the Major and Selected Short Stories, College & University Press, 1967, pp. 7-22.
[In the essay that follows, Moore provides a general introduction to Woolson's short stories.]
In her own day Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840-1894) was popular with both public and critics. Many American and British readers read her work when it first appeared in Harper's New Monthly and other literary magazines, and incomplete figures from her publishers Harper and Brothers on the sale of eight of her twelve volumes show that more than one hundred thousand copies of these books were sold. Anne, her first novel, accounted for almost sixty thousand copies of this total.
The critics were also enthusiastic about Miss Woolson's fiction. A writer in the New York Tribune asserted that the author of Anne stood "without question at the head of American woman novelists"; a reviewer in the Century remarked that "a fragment, and not an inferior fragment, of the mantle of George Eliot" had come to rest on Constance Woolson's "capable shoulders"; and a critic in the Boston Globe conjectured that she might "easily become the novelist laureate." Nor were her fellow artists slow to offer their praise. Edmund Clarence Stedman, William Dean Howells, and Henry James expressed their approval in various ways—Stedman in personal letters and in several editorial capacities; Howells in the critical columns and editorial departments of the Atlantic and Harper's; and James in a warm friendship during the last fourteen years of her life and in perceptive criticism of her work.
Despite this friendly reception by her contemporaries, Miss Woolson has not been widely read in the twentieth century. Readers of fiction have allowed her books to languish on library shelves, one suspects, because they smack too much of Victorian taste and morals. Scholars and critics, however, have from time to time expressed interest; and over the past forty years Fred L. Pattee, John D. Kern, Arthur H. Quinn, Lyon N. Richardson, Jay B. Hubbell, Van Wyck Brooks, Alexander Cowie, and Edward Wagenknecht have all discussed Miss Woolson's fiction favorably. But her novels and stories have, with the exception of two or three anthology pieces, remained out of print for years prior to this present collection.1 …
Constance Woolson began taking a serious interest in writing in the late 1860's, and her articles and stories appeared in prominent magazines in 1870 and thereafter. These pieces were at first a clumsy combination of fact and fiction, the result of an explorative creative effort to deal with imaginary characters and situations (sometimes thinly disguised treatments of her own experience) in authentic backgrounds and settings. She learned gradually to handle these elements more gracefully and to motivate and analyze her characters on the basis of commonsense experience and a knowledge of psychology. By 1875 when Castle Nowhere: Lake-Country Sketches (her first volume of fiction for adults) was published, she had written a number of respectable short stories and sketches. These pieces are set either in the Great Lakes country or in a German Pietist settlement in eastern Ohio; and they reveal a knowledge and appreciation of locale, manners, customs, and people that led many to consider her primarily a local colorist and to compare her work with that of Bret Harte. Few were inclined to disagree with this view when D. Appleton brought out in 1880 her next collection, Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches. But many were amazed that she, a staunch Unionist and descendant of New England forebears, could treat so dispassionately and sympathetically the land of the recent "rebellion" and its people.
By 1880, when Rodman appeared, Miss Woolson had sailed to Europe and had turned to the novel. She continued to write short fiction, but no collections appeared until after her death, though she had agreed to select enough stories for a volume or two for Harper before she died. These books—The Front Yard and Other Italian Stories (1895) and Dorothy and Other Italian Stories (1895)—contain (with one or two exceptions) the best tales she wrote during her European period and deal mainly with American characters in European settings. They reflect her interest in the contrast between the cultures of the Old World and the New, and especially in the effect the Old World has on Americans who have lived there for some time. In this way Constance Woolson contributed to another important literary current of her day—the fiction of international incident, a theme that had also fascinated James and Howells.
After her arrival in Europe near the end of 1879, Miss Woolson concentrated chiefly on the novel, a literary development coinciding with the beginning of the serialization of Anne in Harper's December, 1880. She had thought about writing a novel as early as 1874 and several years later had expressed her interest in such a project to her friends Edmund Clarence Stedman and Paul Hamilton Hayne. Anne was finished by the spring of 1878; but since James R. Osgood, the Boston publisher for whom it was intended, failed to bring it out and since Harper, the New York firm which accepted the manuscript, wanted to begin to serialize the work in the first issue of the English edition of its monthly magazine, the novel did not appear until two and one-half years later.
Anne was well received by all, and Miss Woolson thereafter devoted her creative energies to long fiction, working slowly but steadily and publishing the fruits of her labor first in Harper's and then in book form. In this manner she produced For the Major (1883); East Angels (1886); Jupiter Lights (1889); and Horace Chase (1894). During this period she did not entirely neglect short fiction, but she found it difficult to write many sketches while working on a novel. In fact, she published only thirteen stories after Rodman appeared in 1880.
Her fiction of the 1880's is distinguished chiefly by an interest in local color, in analysis of character, and in relationships between Europe and America. Local color and character analysis manifest themselves principally in the long fiction, and international relationships are most clearly developed in the short stories. In the materials of the present collection, For the Major and later pieces such as "The Street of the Hyacinth" and "The Front Yard" amply illustrate these qualities.
During a sojourn of more than fourteen years abroad, Miss Woolson lived in Florence and Venice, in London and Oxford, and spent some time in Switzerland, Germany, and France. She read widely among the nineteenth-century European writers of fiction and admired especially the work of George Eliot and Ivan Turgenev. She became the intimate friend of Henry James, a fellow artist whose principles and craftsmanship appealed to her and whose influence on her later work, along with that of Eliot and Turgenev, was extensive. Her literary tastes and standards were cosmopolitan; but, unlike James, she was no expatriate in either a literary or a political sense. She loved her Uncle Fenimore's novels and Bret Harte's early stories, and throughout her long stay in Europe she constantly wrote to friends and relatives at home of her love for her country and of her ambition to return to it for a leisurely retirement in Florida.
In January, 1894, after a debilitating bout with influenza the previous summer and after completing the galley proofs of Horace Chase, Constance Woolson contracted the flu for the second and last time. On January 24 (slightly more than a month before her fifty-fourth birthday) in a state of delirium she either fell or threw herself from her bedroom window while her nurse was momentarily out of the room. She died before daybreak without having regained consciousness.2
As a book of local-color sketches Castle Nowhere (1875) compares favorably with the first collections of such work in the 1870's by Miss Woolson's contemporaries: Bret Harte, Sarah Orne Jewett, and George W. Cable. The better stories in Castle Nowhere—"Peter the Parson," "Solomon," "St. Clair Flats," and "The Lady of Little Fishing"—offer an effective treatment of Lake-country setting, plausible interpretations of human nature in various situations, and a growing mastery of technique and material. "The Lady of Little Fishing" represents the author at her best during this early period.
Published first in the Atlantic for September, 1874, and praised by both Howells and Stedman, this tale of the influence of a beautiful woman on the miners and trappers of a camp on an island in Lake Superior reflects Miss Woolson's interest in the work of Harte. The Lady is a Scottish missionary who appears suddenly one night in Little Fishing, and her beneficent reign over the men of the settlement cannot help reminding one of the "Luck's" impact on the roughs of Roaring Camp. The Lady's power declines, however, when the men discover that she has fallen in love with one of their number (ironically, the only man who fails to be bewitched by her spell). But, as both Fred L. Pattee and Claude R. Simpson have pointed out, Constance Woolson went beyond the work of her master. In her sketch the problem of the "unnaturally restrained behavior of the men," as Simpson explains in The Local Colorists (1960), is resolved "by the strictly human device of disenchantment, where Harte resorted to chance calamity." Pattee had earlier remarked in his Development of the American Short Story (1923) on the keenness of Miss Woolson's insight into human nature in the tale, and he concluded that it "greatly surpassed in short-story art" Harte's "Luck of Roaring Camp."
These comments are valid despite the Lady's failure to become anything more than a shadowy figure and the absence of a necessary robustness in both the narrator and the rough men of this wilderness. The author's purpose, however, lies in another direction: she is concerned with setting, situation, and universal human emotions, and she handles these with assurance and skill. The situation is carefully developed, and the resolution is achieved by a reasonable treatment of the foibles and perversities of human nature. Indeed, in "The Lady of Little Fishing" Miss Woolson has wrought the particular into the universal and produced a work worthy of Harte himself.
In the fall of 1873 Constance Woolson made the first of a number of long seasonal visits to the South, where she spent much of the next six years. In the spring of 1875 she began publishing short fiction with Southern scenes and characters in Appletons' Journal, Harper's, the Atlantic, and other Northern literary magazines. She thus became, along with John W. De Forest, one of the first Northern writers of any significance to deal with such material on a large scale. Ten of these pieces were brought together in Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches (1880), her best collection in this vein and one which Henry James found "full of interesting artistic work." Rodman, like Castle Nowhere, clearly exhibits Miss Woolson's interest in local color, analysis of character, and the impingement of one culture upon another; but it also reveals a maturity of insight and a sureness of technique that mark it as an advance over the first volume. Three sketches—"Old Gardiston," "Rodman the Keeper," and "King David"—represent these qualities in the present edition.
"Old Gardiston" first appeared in Harper's in April, 1876, before Federal troops were removed from South Carolina and before the flag of reconciliation had been very far advanced in either section. Yet, as Kern and others have suggested, the point of view developed in the sketch is basically sympathetic to the region, which was hardly the case with many of Constance Woolson's Northern contemporaries who were writing about the South during the seventies. Old Gardiston is a home in the rice country not far from Charleston, but it also symbolizes a family whose vitality has reached a low ebb at the time the story begins. The only surviving members—Gardis Duke, a beautiful but proud young belle, and her cousin, Copeland Gardiston, a gentle old dreamer whose primary interest in life is genealogy—seek to maintain some dignity in the midst of the poverty-stricken times of the Yankee occupation. The action revolves around the efforts of Gardis to live according to family custom and tradition despite war's impoverishment and the presence of Federal troops. When, however, Cousin Copeland dies and the old house is destroyed by fire, Gardis accepts the inevitable in the form of a proposal from Captain Newell, the commander of the occupation forces in the locality and a faithful admirer. Thus the work ends on a note of national harmony, but one of larger scope than that found in the mere bonds of matrimony; indeed, this reconciliation results in the union of the pride and courage of the South with the generosity and forbearance of the North.
One of Miss Woolson's contemporaries, Thomas Sergeant Perry, did not like "Old Gardiston." In a review of Rodman published in the Atlantic in July, 1880, Perry condemned the story chiefly on the grounds of the characterization of Gardis Duke, a "little chit" whose "cantrips … read like what one finds oftener in poor novels than in real life." But later critics have found much to praise in this work. Kern remarks on the "understanding and deep sympathy" of the author for the "stricken people" of the area; and Cowie, who touches on the same point, concludes that "Old Gardiston" is "an almost perfect short story." If the heroine's pride has become stereotyped and the reconciliation theme shopworn, one must grant that Miss Woolson was a pioneer in the treatment of these matters in fiction, that she achieved a nice balance between objectivity and sentiment, and that she managed her characters (Northern and Southern) and her material with a comprehension and tolerance worthy of attention today.
"Rodman the Keeper," which appeared about a year later, also deals with reconstruction in the South in a more objective manner than that in "Old Gardiston." It is a tale which depends on character and situation for its effect and, one might add, on the author's knowledge and understanding of both. The central character, a former Federal officer turned keeper of a national cemetery in Georgia after the war, exhibits the aspects of courage and devotion Miss Woolson admired in people in difficult situations, yet he seems altogether plausible without being in the least sentimental. The crux comes when Rodman, though ignored by the community, puts himself in a new relation to it by nursing a wounded ex-Confederate soldier who has returned to his ruined plantation to die. The materials are again available for a symbolic reunion of the states through an understanding established by the two former soldiers. Contrary to the acquiescence eventually achieved in "Old Gardiston," Miss Woolson has no intention of dealing with the theme in this way in "Rodman the Keeper." Rodman and De Rosset never fall on each other's necks and never mention the matter of reconciliation. The former, indeed, may give vent to a modicum of sentiment at the end when he seeks to acquire the piazza greenery from the old De Rosset place, but even this whim is treated ironically when the Maine man who now owns the place offers to sell the vines to him.
The sketch was well received by contemporary critics, and its merits led one publisher (presumably Harper) to offer to take "every line" Constance Woolson wrote and to allow her "to set" her "own price" for her work. Twentieth-century scholars have also thought well of it. Pattee, Richardson, and Hubbell have commented on it favorably; and Quinn has characterized it, along with "Old Gardiston" and "King David," as the best of the author's "post-war stories." More recently, Edel, in the second volume of his biography of James, has cited the piece as "one of her most celebrated sketches," though he has also mentioned its "limitations."
"King David" repeats with some variation the theme of "Old Gardiston" and "Rodman the Keeper," the contrast between Northern and Southern political views of reconstruction in the old Confederacy and the well-meaning efforts of Northern idealists to do something constructive in a land which is quite strange to them and amongst a people whom they do not understand. David King, a "narrow-chested" young man from New Hampshire, feels "called" upon to go south after the war and to teach the "blacks." He settles in a plantation community, establishes a school for the freedmen, and proceeds to try to inculcate both the three R's and morals in his pupils; but he discovers after months of patient labor that his lessons have little effect on his childlike charges of Jubilee Town, that a "glib-tongued" compatriot from the North ("knighted with the initials C. B.") has more influence over them with his demagoguery and liquor, and that a retired planter of the neighborhood (who thinks the blacks an "inferior race by nature") nevertheless understands and appreciates the Negroes and their needs better than either Yankee visitor. Giving up and returning home in the hope that a colored "minister-teacher" will be sent in his place, King David (the Negroes themselves had given him the name) accepts defeat. His mission to the Israelites elicits a final ironic comment from a New England gossip: '"Didn't find the blacks what he expected, I guess.'" King fails, as the narrative makes quite clear, because he understands neither the region nor the Negro and because he "shrinks from personal contact" with the black man (though he is a staunch believer in equality) and goes about his work from a sense of "duty, not liking."
Again, as in "Rodman," the artist has shown her strong interest in contrast; in each case Miss Woolson examines a character out of his proper element, an idealistic Yankee in the devastated South. Rodman, of course, is made of sterner stuff than King, and he comes closer to success, though he is dealing not with Negroes but with white Southerners; still, he manages to reach only an uneasy armistice with Bettina Ward, De Rosset's cousin and a hearty hater of anything representing the Federal government or the Union cause.
Interestingly enough, though T. S. Perry liked neither "Old Gardiston" nor "Rodman the Keeper," he thought that "King David" was "very good" and that it contained no "exaggeration" and no "inclination toward the use of melodramatic devices, such as are only too apt to make their appearance in the other stories." Kern, Quinn, and Hubbell have also found the sketch to their liking. Certainly, it reveals a knowledge and an understanding rarely manifested in the work of other Northern writers of the day and an objectivity seldom achieved by Southerners in their fictional treatments of the particular problem.
The other stories in the present collection all have European settings. The earliest of these was " 'Miss Grief'," a tale never reprinted by Miss Woolson though it later appeared in the fourth volume of a Scribner's series entitled Stories by American Authors (1884). Published first by Lippincott's Magazine in May, 1880, only six months after her arrival in Europe, " 'Miss Grief' " is the author's first effort to deal with Americans abroad (the scene is Rome); and it is interesting to note that the piece appeared shortly before Constance Woolson had either been to Rome or met Henry James, though both these "deficiencies" were speedily remedied. James, for example, came to visit her in Florence at about the same time that the May issue of Lippincott's was appearing in America. He was, as she wrote home, "perfectly charming" to her and a "delightful companion" during a month of trips to museums and churches, of walks in the Cascine and on Bellosguardo, and of discussions about art and literature.3
Miss Woolson had, of course, long known his work and admired it—a fact which perhaps explains certain aspects of " 'Miss Grief.' " The narrative itself concerns an American woman who goes to Rome to seek literary advice from an expatriated American author who has found financial success in Europe. Aaronna Crief (Moncrief, one learns later) is no longer young, but she has written a drama of great power, something immediately recognized by the expatriate who has only reluctantly undertaken to read the manuscript. The sketch develops as the mentor (who also narrates the proceedings) fails either to improve the play or to get it published. As interesting as the work itself is the resemblance between the narrator and Henry James. Both are men who have inherited money and know the "way of society"; both model their work a "little on Balzac"; both are interested in analysis and motivation in their fiction; and both use the term "the figure in the carpet" in similar ways.
Moreover, " 'Miss Grief' " bears some interesting marks of similarity to "The Street of the Hyacinth" (also set in Rome and brought out after Miss Woolson had not only visited the Holy City several times but had on at least one occasion in the spring of 1881 enjoyed the sights there in the company of James himself). In both stories the chief male character is an American expatriate writer and critic whom an inexperienced and naïve American female seeks out for counsel about work or culture. Both women feel they can get what they need from their advisers, but there are some differences. First, Ettie Macks in "The Street of the Hyacinth" has no artistic talent and Miss Grief has; and, second, Ettie finds her fulfillment in a marriage with her mentor, whereas Miss Grief fulfills herself in her work. Both men remind one of Henry James. They possess Jamesian qualities of aesthetic sophistication and perhaps something akin to his literary position in the early 1880's, and each, indeed, may have been in part modeled on James himself. Also, as both Kern and Richardson have suggested, there is something of the method of James in the telling of these two tales.
Contemporary critics had little to say about either story, but later students of Miss Woolson's fiction have commented on both. Kern, for example, notes that the "central problem" of " 'Miss Grief " anticipates by eight years James's "Lesson of the Master" and remarks that "the sketch is wholly a study of character and of artistic method in the manner later made famous by James." Richardson describes "The Street of the Hyacinth" and two other late stories as "especially noteworthy." Despite the Jamesian characters and method, however, these pieces are Miss Woolson's own, particularly the later one in which the careful development of character and the treatment of the background reveal the hand of a mature artist at work. Both sketches place characters (chiefly American) in an appropriate Old World setting and allow them to grow within the context of a dramatic contrast between the new and the old, between innocence and experience, between shallowness and depth.
"The Front Yard" also deals with American characters in a European background, but it concerns itself with a social and economic level of life seldom examined by James or Howells. Prudence Wilkin, a plain New England woman of humble class, finds herself stranded in Italy upon the death of her wealthy cousin whom she served as "companion and attendant." She marries an Italian waiter who offers her the only romance she has ever known and who dies after a year, leaving her to care for his large and demanding family. Accepting with stoicism the duty imposed on her, she struggles for years rearing the numerous progeny of her dead husband and dreaming of replacing the "noisome" cowshed in the front yard with a gate and fence, a "straight path," "currant bushes," and "boxbordered flower beds." The glories of Italy which figure so prominently in fiction by James and Howells (and also in " 'Miss Grief' " and "The Street of the Hyacinth") fail to stir in Prudence the conventional response of the Jamesian "passionate pilgrim." Rather, she is a Pilgrim of another sort: a New Hampshire Prudence whose "idea of Antiquity" is anything that is "old and dirty." This is the way she views Assisi, her present home, and its "picturesque" environs. She never notices the "serene vast Umbrian plain," she never enters the church of St. Francis, and she is of course unaware of Giotto, whose frescoes adorn the walls of that edifice. Yet she has her own notions of beauty, and her dream of establishing a colorful New England front yard on her hill in Italy suggests a different esthetic from that of the cultural antiquity and artistry of the Old World.
Another idea dear to Miss Woolson's heart is developed in "The Front Yard": the theme of "high-minded renunciation" (also typical of Jamesian women), as Cowie characterizes it. Prudence Wilkin spends the best years of her life rearing her dead husband's children and caring for several elderly members of his first wife's family, but she considers this a responsibility incurred by her marriage vows and acts on this obligation until she breaks down after working fourteen hours a day for sixteen years trying to support these largely worthless people. Prudence's notions of honor and duty may appear quixotic to some, but they are basic to her character and so consistently maintained that even the reader who is unwilling to suspend his disbelief is bound to admit that such a nature is possible or, if not, run the risk, as James says in regard to another of Miss Woolson's characters, "of denying that a woman may look at life from a high point of view."
At least one contemporary reviewer thought well of this story. Writing in the Critic for December 28, 1895, he pointed out that "The Front Yard" was a "brilliant piece of genre-painting executed by an artist who understood her subject to the heart." He was also pleased that its "originality of invention" reflected not "the least straining after effect," and he concluded that its method was "entirely adequate" to its "idea." Many years later Kern cited the piece as one of the best of Miss Woolson's "Italian tales" and described Prudence Wilkin as one of her "finest creations," a view with which Quinn and Richardson have concurred. "The Front Yard" deserves a high place in the canon of the author's short fiction on the basis of a memorable characterization of the protagonist, the effective use of contrast on the levels of both character and culture, and a discriminating treatment of a dominant theme in the whole corpus of her work.
Though "A Transplanted Boy" appeared in Harper's several months before Miss Woolson's last published story, it is said by some to have been the last tale she wrote…. A bit long for a short story—its almost eighteen thousand words make it longer by about one thousand than "The Street of the Hyacinth" and, therefore, the longest work in the present collection save For the Major—its length approximates the nouvelle rather than the novelette and its scope gives the author ample opportunity to examine her chief character in terms of the influences on him and to show his native self-reliance in response to a situation that steadily grows worse for him. Maso's predicament, of course, is that he has been "transplanted"; and when he is left to his own devices in Pisa, he discovers that Americans think him Italian and that Italians think him American and that, consequently, neither assistance nor sanctuary is likely. He nevertheless "plays a man's part, without heroics," as Quinn puts it; and the author's restrained treatment of his sturdy courage and perseverance in the face of his plight, despite the sentiment inherent in several aspects of the situation, gives distinction to this poignant tale.
Miss Woolson's readers have liked this story and so have some of the critics. After reading over the letters she received in response to the distribution of her Five Generations (the piece is reprinted in the second volume), Clare Benedict reported in her foreword to Appreciations (1941) that "A Transplanted Boy," along with "Old Gardiston" and "Rodman the Keeper," were "favourites" with her aunt's public. The critics have been generous in their praise. Writing in the New York Times Saturday Review under the pseudonym of Leigh North, Mrs. Elizabeth Steward Phelps commended the author for a "divine gift of sympathy" which enabled her "to put herself in the place of someone else, to look at life through his lens, for the time being." In 1929 Miss May Harris remarked on Miss Woolson's "magical Italian stories" in the Saturday Review of Literature and cited "A Transplanted Boy" as one of five "perfect or finished examples of what a short story should be." Several years later Kern characterized as "notable" the author's "interpretation of the effect of long-continued foreign association upon an American boy," and Quinn observed that the tale was a revelation of a "power that showed no sign of weakening." The sketch of Maso is a memorable one, and the artist's careful use of point of view suggests indeed that her command of technique was as sure as ever.
For the Major, Miss Woolson's only novelette, appeared as a serial in Harper's and then was brought out in book form in 1883. Contrary to the episodic quality of Anne (1882) and the panoramic sweep involved in its three basic changes of scene, For the Major offers a unity and concentration in structure and setting, though the theme of self-sacrifice runs through both stories. The idea in the shorter work, as James describes it, is that of the "secret effort of an elderly woman to appear really as young to her husband as (owing to peculiar circumstance) he believed her to be when he married her." Complications force Madam Carroll to solicit help from her stepdaughter Sara and to practice a few deceptions, all for the best of reasons. Sara herself is put in an awkward position before her lover, the Reverend Frederick Owen. Such material, to be sure, may not seem very promising to the modern reader, but Miss Woolson is concerned more specifically with matters of character, background, and idea.
Madam Carroll's actions are carefully analyzed and well motivated, and her portrait is a well-rounded one. Henry James found its conception "highly ingenious and original" and concluded that the author had "done nothing of a neater execution." The treatment of Sara Carroll is hardly less successful, although she is definitely secondary to her stepmother in Miss Woolson's scheme. Major Carroll is an early sketch of a Southern aristocrat in decay but one without moral or sociological overtones. The contrast indeed between the Major's noble and chivalrous earlier life and his present serene senility assures the reader that his wife's sacrifice has a worthy object.
Even the minor characters, as is frequently the case in Miss Woolson's longer fiction, are among her best achievements. Senator Ashley, Mrs. Greer, and other parishioners of St. John in the Wilderness make the North Carolina mountain village of Far Edgerley come to abundant life. These village folk also provide the author with frequent opportunities for an unpretentious display of quiet humor in the conversation of Senator Ashley, a garrulous elderly gentleman of the old school whose favorite topic is the Crimean War; in the gossip of Mrs. Greer who considers "whistplaying a test of the best churchmanship" and whose talent for talk is subtly exploited by Madam Carroll when she wishes certain news spread throughout the town; and in the antics of the members of the choir at St. John's, whose musical and other qualities are universal enough to shock even readers of today into amused recognition.
Despite her own remark that the novelette was a "little genre picture of village life, with strong local color," Miss Woolson is not merely concerned with local color per se (Kern, as a matter of fact, has asserted that the "element" of local color is "more faint" in this work than in any of her novels). Far Edgerley is also characterized by its people in a manner reminiscent of Jane Austen. The reader's view of the community takes on dimensions as he observes the people's conservative temper, as he becomes aware of their hospitality and concern for others, even strangers, and as he comes to know their customs and manners and attitudes. As Cowie points out, the "revelation of the nature" of Far Edgerley is as "fascinating to watch as the raveling of the fantastic fabrication of Madam Carroll."
In matters of style and technique, For the Major is assuredly the author's most impressive performance in short fiction, and to some, it is the best work she ever did. The omniscient point of view is concentrated on Madam Carroll and her affairs, but since the narrative is developed from the outside, the totality of village and characters can be easily surveyed and assessed. This portrayal is accomplished with a minimum of commentary, and the story line is seldom obstructed by excessive analysis, digression, or asides by the author. The central situation is handled with restraint and economy, and the concluding scenes are treated in a rather unconventional manner for romantic fiction of the 1880's, for Miss Woolson refuses to spell out Madam Carroll's appeal to Owen to make her an "honest" woman. This aspect of the work alone, as clearly as anything else, suggests the writer's quality as an artist.
The critical reaction to For the Major was immediate. Reviewers in Harper's for July, 1883, and in the Century the following December were enthusiastic; and though critics in the Atlantic for July and in Lippincott 's for August were not so warm in their praise, the former admitted that the novelette was "very ingenious" and "skillfully managed" and the latter thought it "rare, delicate, and exquisitely told." Miss Woolson herself considered it the best piece of work she had done. More recent opinions have also been favorable, although Wagenknecht has expressed a few reservations. Hubbell cites it as "probably the best of her novels," and Kern characterizes it as a "distinguished little book" and as "one of the finest American novels of the time." Quinn is reminded of an "etching" in which "one central figure stands out in exquisite proportion against a background whose very limitations present that figure to perfection." Cowie comments on the author's "special talent for finely discriminating effects," her "artful elaboration of ethical problems," and her ability to bring Far Edgerley to "life perfectly with brush-strokes that are as faultless as they are gentle." In this work Miss Woolson has successfully created a community which, though based on solid reality, has a fictional validity of its own and is inhabited by characters whose motives and actions play an integral part in establishing the credibility of this world of the imagination. For the Major is, in its own quiet way, a little masterpiece.
1 See Pattee's appraisal in The Development of the American Short Story (1923) and in "Constance Fenimore Woolson and the South," South Atlantic Quarterly, XXXVIII (April, 1939), 130-41; Kern's in Constance Fenimore Woolson: Literary Pioneer (1934); Quinn's in American Fiction (1936); Richardson's in "Constance Fenimore Woolson, 'Novelist Laureate' of America," South Atlantic Quarterly, XXXIX (January, 1940), 18-36; Hubbell's in "Some New Letters of Constance Fenimore Woolson," New England Quarterly, XIV (December, 1941), 715-35, and in The South in American Literature, 1607-1900 (1954); Brooks's in The Times of Melville and Whitman (1947); Cowie's in The Rise of the American Novel (1948); and Wagenknecht's in Cavalcade of the American Novel (1952). More recently, Leon Edel has considered, albeit generally unfavorably, some of Miss Woolson's fiction in the second and third volumes of his biography of Henry James: The Conquest of London: 1870-1881 (1962) and The Middle Years: 1882-1895 (1962). These discussions—together with Clare Benedict's Five Generations (3 vols., 1929-1932), the second volume of which deals entirely with Constance Woolson, and Rayburn S. Moore's Constance Fenimore Woolson (1963) and "The Full Light of a Higher Criticism: Edel's Biography and Other Recent Studies of Henry James," South Atlantic Quarterly, LXIII (Winter, 1964), 105-14—comprise the chief twentieth-century considerations of Miss Woolson's work. James's "Miss Constance Fenimore Woolson" (Harper's Weekly, XXXI [February 12, 1887], 114-15; reprinted with a few changes in Partial Portraits, 1888) is the most authoritative treatment of the nineteenth century and remains today the best essay on his friend's fiction, though for obvious reasons it contains no discussion of her work after East Angels (1886).
2 For varying opinions regarding Miss Woolson's death, see Kern, pp. 159-62; Edel, The Middle Years, pp. 356 passim; and Moore, Constance Fenimore Woolson, pp. 8, 36-39.
3 For the fullest account of this friendship, see the second and third volumes of Edel's biography of James; for disagreement with some of Edel's interpretations (especially in regard to his inferences concerning Miss Woolson's part in the relationship), see Moore, "The Full Light of a Higher Criticism"; and for earlier treatments of this matter, see the second and third volumes of Clare Benedict's Five Generations and Kern's study.
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SOURCE: "Constance Woolson's Southern Sketches," Southern Studies, Vol. XXV, No. 3, Fall 1986, pp. 274-83.
[In the following essay, Dean praises Woolson 's sensitivity to the complex position of women in the South which is evident through her fictional accounts of Southern society during Reconstruction.]
Constance Woolson was not a Southerner. Born in Claremont, New Hampshire, on March 5, 1840, she moved that winter to Cleveland where she lived, aside from schooling in New York and summer visits to Mackinac Island, Michigan, until her first of many extended visits South in 1873. From 1873 to 1879, she spent much of her time in Florida, Virginia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Georgia, and from 1879 until her death in 1894, she lived in Europe, particularly in Italy. Typically writing about the places where she lived and visited, Woolson published her stories in regional collections: Castle Nowhere: Lake Country Sketches (1875), Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches (1888), The Front Yard and Other Italian Stories (1895), and Dorothy and Other Italian Stories (1896). Though her novels move from place to place, several are set primarily in the South: For the Major, (1883), East Angels (1886), Jupiter Lights (1889), and Horace Chase (1894). As a result of her interest in the South, Woolson has been numbered as a Southern, as well as a Lakes Country, local colorist, as one of the more successful Northerners to write about the South during Reconstruction, and as a writer with the ability to understand, without sentimentalism, the social conditions of the South.1 In Partial Portraits Henry James, early on an admirer of Woolson, said of Rodman the Keeper:
Miss Wooison has done nothing better than the best pages in this succession of careful, strenuous studies of certain aspects of life, after the war, in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. As the fruit of a remarkable minuteness of observation and tenderness of feeling on the part of one who evidently did not glance and pass, but lingered and analysed, they have a high value, especially when regarded in the light of the voicelessness of the conquered and reconstructed South. Miss Woolson strikes the reader as having a compassionate sense of this pathethic dumbness—having perceived that no social revolution of equal magnitude had ever reflected itself so little in literature, remained so unrecorded and unsung. She has attempted to give an impression of this circumstance, among others, and a sympathy altogether feminine has guided her pen. She loves the whole region, and no daughter of the land could have handled its peculiarities more indulgently, or communicated to us more of the sense of close observation and intimate knowledge.2
James's assessment is astute, for what emerges in nearly every story of Rodman the Keeper is the voice of one who loves and understands the South and can assess the position of women within the South. Though James notes a "dreariness" in her sketches, as if she gathered her impressions "on the edge of rice-fields, dismal swamps, and other brackish inlets,"3 Woolson also treats the South with humorous indulgence instead of maudlin pity at its condition during Reconstruction. Perhaps because she was not a Southerner, she can keep a distance which enables her to reveal a living and complex region. Woolson exposes the kinds of extremism, both Northern and Southern, that led to the Civil War and that blocked Reconstruction, and she examines both the extremism and sensitivity of Southern religious attitudes. Beyond these perspectives on the South, Woolson finds in the region a metaphor for art and an ideal medium to reflect her concern about women's tendency to perpetuate their limited role in society.
As a Northerner come South in 1873, Woolson is quick to see the havoc the war has played on the Southern way of life, the inefficiency and unwillingness to accommodate of both Northerners and Southerners during Reconstruction. She never looks with a blaming eye on either side; rather she portrays people's inability to change, more than their overt resistance. She captures the typical rigid Northerner in her portrait of Stephen Wainwnght and his handwriting in "Up in the Blue Ridge." Stephen's "letters carried themselves crookedly, and never twice alike; but owing to their extreme smallness, and the careful way in which they stood on the line, rigidly particular as to their feet, although their spines were misshapen, they looked not unlike a regiment of little humpbacked men, marching with extreme precision, and daring you to say that they were crooked" (276).4 The Southern woman in that story represents Woolson's typical portrait of a rigid Southerner as she works diligently on a composition called "Reflections on the Book of Job," complete with references to "authorities" and "dictionaries" (290). Whether male or female, both Northerners and Southerners represent extreme forms of behavior. As strangers to the South, Northerners like Woolson must necessarily play the part of foreigners; in turn, as soon as they come in contact with a Northerner, Southerners themselves adopt a role of conquered but still proud enemy.
The advantage of Woolson's outsidedness—and her own role-playing as an outsider—is that she can exaggerate the foibles of both North and South to make the point that their enmity represents any kind of destructive and self-destructive extremism. In fact, this may be the real issue of a curious story called "Felipa" where the young girl named Felipa loves an engaged Northern couple, loves the male and the female equally. This is, says Woolson's narrator, "a case of color-blindness, as it were—supposing [the] two were colors" (216). Not only does the love reflect color-blindness, with all its implications for abolition, but it also represents the kind of love/hate relationship involved in the Civil War. Felipa tries to kill one of the lovers, themselves engaged in a love/hate relationship, when she feels they do not collectively return her love. She had for them "two loves, and the strongest thrust the knife" (220); that is, the one that most desired union between North and South would rather kill than separate.
This ambivalent love/hate between North and South is captured strongly in the story "King David." The hate is muted here because David King is a wellmeaning Northerner who simply cannot understand and, therefore, really love the South. For all his Northern philanthropic notions, King's prejudice runs rampant, and Woolson leaves no doubt that she wishes us to see through his false altruism in coming South to educate the Negro. Aloud, he calls his scholars "colored" or "the Children of Ham" because he doesn't want to call them what they are, "black—black as the ace of spades" (254). He considers the blacks "ignorant, childish, irresponsible" (256), thinks in terms of their "animal features" (263), and lives and eats always a little distant from them. Woolson's perception here is far in advance of someone like Harriet Beecher Stowe who could call the Northerners to arms with the kind of philanthropy David himself displays. Nor is she simplistic, simply poking snide remarks at Northern do-gooders. It is, after all, David King that she has voice a warning to the South, represented by the Southern planter to whom he is speaking: "But if you, sir, and the class to which you belong would exert yourselves, I am inclined to think much might be done. The breach will only grow broader every year; act now, while you still have influence left" (266). Of course, they do not act; the Northern carpetbaggers have their day, the Southerners nod their I-told-you-so's, and only David King is duly humbled because he knows the "lesson of failure" (274). In her study of Woolson, Anne Rowe notices that the North has dropped its self righteousness and is ready to hear this kind of softened attitude toward Northern culpability.5 Perhaps for this reason Woolson can treat the very real problems of Reconstruction with humor and understanding.
In part, David King cannot respond to the Southern world because he cannot accept its climate and the casual attitudes that climate seems to darken the work ethic with. This same inability to respond is displayed by the keeper of a cemetery dedicated to Union soldiers in "Rodman the Keeper." Here, Woolson plays up the natural environment and the way it mirrors, and perhaps even engenders, the extremism of North and South and the extremism within the South, particularly on the part of Southern women who have lost so much in the war. Returning to the South after the war, Rodman has no intention of exploiting it or even aiding it, though he is not indifferent to its charms: his "New England eyes" have seen "the magnificence and carelessness of the South, her splendour and negligence, her wealth and thriftlessness" (11). His mission, to bring his Northern sense of order to the cemetery, is, of course, not embraced by the Southerners who vent their bitterness on him "not in words, but in averted looks, in sudden silences when he approached, in withdrawals and avoidance, until he lived and moved in a vacuum" (11-12), finally withdrawing totally to the solitude of his cemetery, content to keep it and its records with the "infinite pains and labor" (13) of his Northern meticulousness. Woolson captures Rodman's alienation from the whole Southern landscape in an episode where a young Negro brings his supplies from town, "whistling and shuffling along, gay as a lark" (15-16), offending Rodman merely because he is "stirring up the heat" (16). What Woolson implies in the story is that until Northerners accept this Southern way of life instead of trying to impose on it the energy of their Northern work-ethic, they will remain outsiders to the South.
Much of "Rodman the Keeper" centers as well on the loss of ancestral homes and the whole way of life this loss represents. Rodman comes across a wreck of a house, inhabited by a wreck of a Confederate soldier, whom he slowly nurses to a peaceful death, over the objections of the soldier's never-relenting female cousin. This experience prompts him to accept the South so that his final act in the story is to buy a vine from the soldier's home to plant as symbol of the indolent but graceful South to soften his Northern cemetery. This house, however, represents Woolson's perspective on the man-made things of place that create so poignant a picture of the Southern past and its loss, a perspective that Rowe has also identified as typical of Woolson's Northern contemporaries.6 The house, its doors barred and windows blinded, its "clapboards gray and mossy," its piazza floor "fallen in here and there from decay" (17) is a monument to Southern loss just as the cemetery, significantly to Rodman a "more cheerful place" (17), is a monument to the less devastating losses of the North. To clinch the loss, Woolson has the dilapidated house bought, in the end, by an "energetic Maine" (41) man who, always ready to make a profit, sells Rodman the vine.
Woolson uses the symbol of fallen house to its greatest advantage in the story "Old Gardiston," a story Henry James may have had in mind when he wrote The Spoils of Poynton. Old Gardiston is a "Manor house down in the rice-lands six miles from a Southern seaport" (105), a house dating back to Colonial days. The church that was once part of the house is gone, the road to it overgrown, and the ancestral members of the family are all buried in the churchyard. The house still has its latticed windows and Chinese ornamental vases and "spindle-legged side-board, covered with dark-colored plates and platters ornamented with dark-blue dragons going out to walk, and crocodiles circling around fantastically roofed temples as though they were waiting for the worshippers to come out in order to make a meal of them" (106). These cannot mask the house's decay, its "sunken and defaced" marble floor, its dampness, its hearth fireless because wood is too expensive. Woolson fills her story with marvelous details of the faded South, none better than the portrait of the mistress of the house who one day is forced to entertain Union soldiers and serves them using the four forks that are left of the family silver. For the occasion, she wears an old-fashioned gown and mildewed, blue kid slippers that she has "bravely" (121) mended. As her name suggests, the mistress of the house, Gardis Duke, is guardian of the noble Southern past, joined in her endeavors by her cousin whose life's work has been to keep a genealogy. But it is the house that is in some sense the main character of the story, certainly the major symbol. The denouement of "Old Gardiston" involves the burning of the house, complete with the footnoted and red-inked genealogy. In the process of invoking this loss, Woolson is gentle, understanding, and very funny. Her meaning is clear, and it is the meaning only someone who remains distant from the Southern pain could voice. This past, she implies, cannot be guarded but it can be loved, and in loving it, it should not be transformed, as was the house in "Rodman the Keeper" by social climbing Northerners. Better to burn than to sell. Further, only when there is a true union between North and South, when the old South symbolized by the cousin and the genealogy is dead, can a new South be formed. That South is symbolized here in, for Woolson, a rare happy ending where Gardis accepts the offer of marriage to a Union officer.
Woolson's sense of the South's permanent beauty is directed at the landscape rather than at the houses that suggest a past that must be let go. Through the landscape, the artistic soul can respond to the South. In the story "Miss Elisabetha," for instance, Woolson paints a typical shabby gentility and the humor of a cultivated artistic response to the silvery loveliness of lagoon and ocean. Miss Elisabetha's nephew, Theodore, is a student who has been under her tutelage for sixteen years. When he nearly sucumbs to the snares of a famous singer who wants to correct his "bad" method (95) of singing and make him her protégé, Woolson lets us see that this is no more true than the heart-felt response Elisabetha has tried to instill in Theodore toward the land. Woolson is not measuring profound responses to the South, but true ones, and perhaps this genuineness is what caused her to number this story as one of her "favorites."7 Miss Elisabetha has her crisis, and her martyrdom. She watches Theodore marry a Minorcan girl and their children wreck havoc in the house, especially on the piano, but neither she nor Woolson judge against his adoption of Minorcan carelessness, for his life is filled with love, if not with art. As for Miss Elisabetha, though she is ever the Northerner, an "old, old woman, but working still" (104), she has been enriched by pain and her response to the South, however shallow artistically, remains genuine.
A more profound artistic response to the South emerges as the dominant note in "The South Devil" where Woolson best defines the quality of Florida that so attracts her. Here a Florida swamp serves as metaphor for the Southern natural beauty that intrigues the receptive Northern mind. As always, Woolson deals with Northerners come South, but here she defines more clearly what separates the true responders to the South, like Miss Elisabetha and the soldier in "Old Gardiston," from the false or incomplete, like David King and Rodman. In this story, Mark Deal is the workaholic Northerner who has brought his stepbrother Carl Brenner to recuperate on an old Spanish plantation. While Carl lies under a majestic, symmetrical live-oak tree listening to the call of the swamp and even sneaking away to its unhealthy depths, Mark energetically cleans up its overgrown orange grove. Woolson uses Mark and Carl to pinpoint responses to the South. Carl can respond to the artistic mystery of the swamp because he can accept the South as it is. However, Woolson recognizes that Carl's response is not necessarily "better" than Mark's. It is he who gambles away Mark's money and who instigates Mark's marriage to a Northern woman who will be the final cold insurance that Mark will never learn a more genuine artistic appreciation. Woolson is also clear that the Southern swamp represents a stifling, sinister quality, a spur to the exploitative, nonproductive side of Carl's character, a quality that also became dominant in Theodore in "Miss Elisabetha." This danger, Woolson implies, must be courted. The artist must be open to beauty. It may paralyze him but without it he can never get his art right. Woolson develops this concept in analogous experiences of Mark and Carl. Mark, before coming South, had nearly died on an ice-island in the Arctic where he had spent a whole day and night drifting among dead bodies. Carl had a similar experience alone, without the dead bodies, in the Florida swamp. Mark's experience does not enrich him. Only for a fleeting moment, before he accepts his Northern wife, does he feel the power of the swamp, the aloneness and mystery and threat that is the lot of the artist. Carl, on the other hand, takes his experience and finally produces from it. He not only hears music in the swamp, but he gets the music right, though it is too late for him to write it down. And so on his last journey, when dead, he rides through the swamp with his eyes open to a South that Woolson knows can touch the soul. Woolson uses the South to point not only to the dichotomy between Northern and Southern attitudes and artistic and nonartistic responses, but also to serve as the perfect ground to laugh at religious extremism and hypocrisy. Again, as she laughs, she also understands and sees that sincerity is valid even when it lacks brilliance. Where David King is the young Israelite with courage and good intentions come to deliver a people from the Philistines, Sister St. Luke, in the story of that name, is the epitome of religious patience. In this case, the industrious Northerner is a woman who marries a Spaniard, but rather than be married in a Catholic church she is married by a justice of the peace because she considers "the padre of the little parish and one or two attendant priests as so much dust to be trampled energetically under her shoes, Protestant and number six and half double-soled [pun intended?] mediums" (43). Again the South serves as the perfect place for Woolson's humor toward extremism. Here there are dilettantish city men enjoying country living for a time and unable to take seriously Sister St. Luke's religious sincerity. Small wonder, for this little nun parrots a faith she blindly obeys. She keeps for "her most precious treasures—a bead of rosary that had belonged to some saint who lived somewhere some time" (62), a prayer in the handwriting of an early-dead nun, and a list of her own faults. Yet for all this poking fun at Sister St. Luke, Woolson sees a kind of mystical power in her simplicity when a tornado calls her to walk across water she fears in order to save her friends. She is dull, certainly, but there is a power that can move her. Rayburn Moore captures the essence of her religious nature and Woolson's portrait of it: "She is gentle and sentimental, yet her character is not developed sentimentally; and she represents the best qualities of any religious order; that is, she is kind and thinks of others before herself, she is brave and courageous in the face of dangers that frighten her, and she possesses a simple and abiding faith in her order and church…. "8 After the rescue episode, when Sister St. Luke returns to her convent, she returns not just to dull-wittedness and shelter but also to peace and beauty, to what Woolson might have defined as the calm, not ignorant, Southern nature that has nurtured her religion.
The story "Sister St. Luke" is thrown nicely into relief by "Up in the Blue Ridge" where Woolson pokes wonderful fun at religious fanaticism. The treatise writer Honor Dooris prays hourly for a person who turns out to be a renegade cousin; her supporter Brother Bethue, one of nine ministers on a stage-coach that the story opens with, is a man so engulfed by religion that he gets drunk on five drinks of spring water. Woolson extends the extremism to matters nonreligious as well and has a melodramatic heyday with the story's bootlegger and federal agent plot. Like the stories "Rodman the Keeper" and "Old Gardiston," beneath its humor, "Up in the Blue Ridge" emphasizes the crushing power of extremism on a woman's world. Gardis Duke may find her way to a union with a Northern moderate and point the way for a new Southern woman, not bound to the loyalties of a lost cause, but the self-imprisoned woman in "Rodman the Keeper" is a more typical portrait for Woolson. In fact, it is Rodman who best voices the real issue in his frustrated response to the dying soldier who has been listening to his female cousin's Southern viewpoint: "Bringing you here… here; that is my offense, is it? There they lie, fourteen thousand brave men and true. Could they come back to earth they would be the first to pity and aid you, now that you are down. So would it be with you if the case were reversed; for a soldier is generous to a soldier. It was not your own spoke then; it was the small venom of a woman, that here, as everywhere through the South, is playing its rancorous part" (27). Unlike Gardis, that woman never forgives, and when she takes her last leave of Rodman she still cannot bring herself to sign the register book that would indicate that she has been willing to visit at least the cemetery on whose premises her old cousin has been cared for in death.
Through this kind of extremism, Woolson portrays the trap that Southern women build for themselves in their preference for living in a lost past rather than building a future for themselves as vital women. Perhaps this sense of a preference for the honor of suffering is what is at the heart of Woolson's maudlin language in the worst story of the collection, "In the Cotton Country." Here Woolson beautifically describes a young/old woman and her massive sadness, the fruit of losses in the war. When Woolson has the woman tell her own version of the cruelty of war, which takes up the majority of this story, the language is untypical of any of the other pieces. It has no humor and is unconvincingly sentimental, enough different from the rest of the collection that one must wonder if Woolson was not, as Moore points out, drawing on a true story and showing sympathy for Southern pain,9 but was purposely showing the futility of living in the past.
Far more successful than the sympathy of "In the Cotton Country" is the humor that pervades "Up in the Blue Ridge" and Honor's betrayal of her sense of honor by turning in her bootlegging cousin rather than allowing him to murder the man she loves. Later, she marries that man, a Southerner to whom she becomes subservient. After her marriage, she never realizes her potential for beauty, at least in the eyes of the manipulative Northern lady who is left with Honor's rejected Northern choice, Stephen Wain-wright. Woolson ends the story by commenting that this woman could give Stephen love where Honor could give him only gratitude, and by asking "What would you have?" (339). One would like, as Woolson surely must, to say neither, for the choice offered here is between the manipulative North or the fanatical South, not the kind of union into a more wholesome future seen in "Old Gardiston."
The kind of imprisonment of women typical in the South is perhaps best represented in the story "Bro" which concerns a love triangle between Marion Manning, whose mother is worried because she is not married, a faithful but silent admirer Bro, and Lawrence Vickery, the returned grandson of an established family. The story is conventional enough: Marion loves Vickery; Bro uses money from an invention to buy land anonymously from Vickery for ten thousand dollars so Vickery will stay in town and marry Marion; Vickery complies and, years later, learns of Bro's purchase when Bro wills the land to Marion. Bro, an inventor, knows that with the loss of Marion his inspiration for inventing is gone, and he dismantles his workroom. Through the Marion-Bro relationship, Woolson provides insight into Marion's position as a member of an old, impoverished Southen family and into the reason why this position has shaped her attitudes so that she never will rise out of it. She is Bro's inspiration, but she is also his mathematician, the one person who can figure the math so that Bro can get an invention patented. Lawrence Vickery is duly impressed with Marion's ability, and Woolson delights in exposing the kind of mentality that spurs his comment, "What will you do next? … Build a stone-wall—or vote? Imagine a girl taking light recreation in equations, and letting her mind run hilariously among groves of triangles on a rainy day!" (240). The response is doubly amusing when we learn that Marion's mathematical ability is not so good after all, for this invention of Bro's is not accepted for patent. The pleasure of arithmetic learned from a teacher at the Episcopal seminary in town is really no more than a Southern lady's idle hobby and Marion shows her feminine weakness when, well-timed, she swoons at the false news that Vickery is dead. What, Woolson seems to be saying, can one expect from a woman who "had never said 'don't' or 'can't' in [her life]" (235)? The freedom to accept such language is all that the liberated Vickery delivers.
All of Woolson's fiction deals in some way with the position of women in nineteenth-century society. It is not didactic; it does not call women to join in any kind of reform movement any more than the stories in Rodman the Keeper pretend to offer a plan for Reconstruction. This quiet, amazed view of the wellintentioned but mundane behavior of individuals gives Woolson's writing the subtlety and power that Henry James was so quick to recognize. The South serves her especially well because in it she can capture a whole spectrum of human perspectives: the pride and humility of a defeated culture; the indolence of a land whose beauty can also trigger the energy of art; the ambiguity of sincerity and fanaticism in a religious milieu; the self-inflicted role of women as subservient creatures, and the endurance that women can display in the face of great suffering. Woolson shows all this and, in the tradition that James after her perfected, she never judges. Nor could she judge the South her fiction celebrates.
1 Fullest early discussions are John Dwight Kern, Constance Fenimore Woolson: Literary Pioneer (Philadelphia, 1934), Jay B. Hubbell, "Northern Writers: Constance Fenimore Woolson," in The South in American Literature 1607-1900 Durham, 1954), 733-37, and Claude M. Simpson, ed., The Local Colorists: American Short Stories 1857-1900 (New York, 1960), 129-51. At this time, the most valuable book-length source is Rayburn S. Moore's Twayne Series, Constance F. Woolson (New Haven, 1963). Sybil Weir has studied some of Woolson's Southern women in "Southern Womanhood in the Novels of Constance Fenimore Woolson," Mississippi Quarterly, 29 (1976), 559-68, and Anne Rowe has written on Woolson as one of a number of Northern writers in the South (The Enchanted Country: Northern Writers in the South, 1865-1910, Baton Rouge, 1978).
2 Henry James, Partial Portraits (New York, 1888), 179-80.
3 James, p. 180.
4 Page references are to Constance F. Woolson, Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches in The American Short Story Series, v. 87 (New York, 1880; 1969).
5 Rowe, pp. 57-58.
6 Rowe, pp. 62-65.
7 Moore, p. 54.
8 Moore, p. 53.
9 Moore, p. 57.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8249
SOURCE: "Women Artists as Exiles in the Fiction of Constance Fenimore Woolson," Legacy: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers, Vol. 3, No. 2, Fall 1986, pp. 3-15.
[In the essay that follows, Weimer studies Woolson 's reflections on the extent to which "women artists … are ultimately exiled from their own art."]
American women starting to write just after the Civil War found themselves standing on uneven new ground. Not because it was an act of daring for women to present themselves as professional writers: women novelists of the previous generation had broken that ground, and some, like Susan Warner and Maria Cummins, had written best sellers. These "literary domestics," however, had atoned for their presumption in departing from women's sphere; they made domesticity their subject matter, and justified their work by its moral uplift (Kelley 335, 329).
But among this new generation of women, many writers, like Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Sarah Orne Jewett, Kate Chopin, and Constance Fenimore Woolson, made no excuses for themselves. They rejected the commitment to moral uplift along with the domestic ideology of the literary domestics. Irony, not sentimentality, characterized the realistic fiction they rooted in the regions they knew best. Labelling them as "regionalists" and "local colorists" has trivialized their work and obscured its universality and artistry. For they were the first American women writers of fiction who saw themselves not just as professionals but as artists, and who saw themselves competing with male writers not just for readers but for laurels.
One of these writers has left a remarkable record of a woman artist's struggle to place herself in relation to the literary domestics, to the male and female giants of literature, to her material, her society, and her sexuality. Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840-1894) published five novels and four volumes of short stories, as well as numerous reviews, sketches and poems, in her short life. Her work deserves to be better known for its complexity, ambiguity, irony, and wit; for its close observation of people and their environments; for its keen analysis of unacknowledged motives; and for the range of voices and tones its style accommodates.1
Woolson is of particular interest in women's literary history because she was acutely conscious of her situation as a woman writer. She could hardly be anything else, as the great-niece of James Fenimore Cooper, whose name she bore, and as the "extremely intimate" friend of Henry James (Edel 160), who wrote an admiring essay about her work which he included with his 1888 Partial Portraits of Turgenev and George Eliot. These connections forced her to compare herself with major male writers, and raised urgent questions about women and art which she dramatized in a group of short stories.
If a woman wants passionately to be an artist, but lacks talent, what kind of life can she make for herself in the shadow of great art and criticism by men? Or in the shadow of a woman genius of another age? If a woman writer has enormous power, would her work be perceived as being so flawed by the anomaly of genius in woman that it would fail to find an audience? Would her genius be so deforming that it would deprive her of men's love as well as success? If she is drawn to women but loses them to male rivals, would not her loveless state limit her as an artist? If she allows herself to love a man, won't she become an ordinary woman whose words have no weight with men?
In working out these chilling questions, Woolson's fiction presents only once a character who is successful both as woman and as artist. She is a figure of fantasy who materializes on a Florida beach sitting on a tiger skin, wearing purple velvet, and singing operatic arias ("Miss Elizabetha," Rodman the Keeper). When Woolson presents women artists realistically, rather than fantastically, she envisions them as she does most of her women characters—as exiles. And she furthers her exploration of alienation by presenting their proper subject matter as other exiles.
Some of Woolson's female characters begin as voluntary exiles, leaving their homes in order to become painters or preachers, only to find themselves involuntarily exiled from love and self-respect. Some are exiles from their own painful feelings of inadequacy; some from self-knowledge; some from relationships whose loss leads to such devastation that solitude is preferable. The women artists, whether mediocre or brilliant, are ultimately exiled from their own art.
Woolson felt Jierself an exile for much of her life, her wanderings associated with bereavements. When three of her five older sisters died of scarlet fever in Woolson's first month of life, her parents left their home in New Hampshire with its unbearable memories and moved to Cleveland.2 When Woolson was 12, her oldest sister contracted tuberculosis from her husband of a few months and died. The next year, her remaining older sister died in childbirth. She learned to be cautious of all attachments, and wary of marriage; by her early twenties she declared herself a spinster. When her father died in her twenty-ninth year, Woolson gave up an independent life in New York to begin a decade of wandering with her mother in the South. Although she found excellent material for fiction in the post-Reconstruction South, she complained to the poet Paul Hamilton Hayne that "a trunk is all the home I have had," and that "I am so eager to go north that I can scarcely wait; an 'exile longing for home.' I like the South; no Yankee-born northerner ever liked it better; but, the years away from home! I have no real home, however" (Hubbell 720, 731).
That nomadic period ended with her mother's death, which destroyed even the fragile home they had built out of their trunks. Abruptly on her own at 39, Woolson was devastated. To bring her out of her depression, her one surviving sister took her to Europe—a removal which turned out to be a permanent exile. While there, she wrote to her fellow expatriate Henry James, who became her first close friend in Europe, that his writings "are my true country, my real home. And nothing else ever fully is—try as I may to think so" (Edel 93).
At the same time that Woolson was describing herself as a rather pathetic, homeless creature, she was developing her phenomenal powers of observation of people and places and learning to transform this raw material into fiction which brought her recognition and an independent income. Her women characters reflect Woolson's sense of exile but not her success. A remarkable distance exists between Woolson's authorial voice—assured, ironic, in control—and the debilitated lives she assigns to women artists, or to women whose intense interest in human feeling, behavior and motivation identifies them with the writer. These characters' situations seem to reflect her deepest feelings about women and art, convictions which persist from her earliest stories despite the improvement in her own circumstances.
Woolson set many of her early stories in the American equivalents of desert islands: Fort Mackinac on Lake Michigan; a closed community of Zoarites in Ohio; a mining camp on an island in Lake Superior; a solitary house in a salt marsh on Lake Huron; an abandoned cotton plantation after Sherman's march. These isolated settings justify the intensity of the relationships among the castaways who meet there, and function as metaphors for women's various forms of exile. Several stories that are not explicitly about women artists probe the limits of subject matter available to women writers. They present the woman writer as an outsider among outsiders, driven by her own isolation to prey on, even cannibalize, the lives and passions of other women.3
The narrator of "Jeannette" (1874) is the widowed aunt of a young lieutenant at Fort Mackinac, where she fills some lonely hours trying to teach a beautiful half-breed woman to read, and encouraging a cold young surgeon to fall in love with her protégée. She seems to expect the doctor to seduce and abandon the girl, so that she can enjoy vicariously the thrill of romantic heart-break. Instead, the surgeon becomes obsessed with the girl and decides to lower himself to marry this "ignorant half-breed" (Castle Nowhere 171). The girl escapes his condescension and the woman's manipulation by refusing to marry the doctor. But if the narrator has missed the opportunity to enjoy the girl's broken heart, she still has the pleasure of feeding on the doctor's pain and passion, wondering "how long the feeling lived,—the feeling that swept me along in its train down to the beach-cottage that wild night" (175). She admits no responsibility for the doctor's suffering, nor any inclination to imagine Jeannette's pain had her plot turned out more predictably. She believes she has fallen "into the habit of studying persons very closely" (154), but Woolson's irony shows clearly that she has failed to include herself in her scrutiny.
Despite this distance from her narrator, Woolson seems also to share her fascination with a woman who is everything she and the narrator are not—beautiful, gay, proud, vital, daring—and who therefore attracts and experiences violent romantic passions. Woolson's interest in such women recurs in other stories. It is a complex mixture of envy and attraction, which never evolves into romantic friendship or into the love between kindred spirits which many nineteenth-century women freely enjoyed (Faderman 161, 205). No doubt the deaths of her five sisters made Woolson fearful of devastating loss following intimacy with women. Through women narrators who distance themselves from both men and women, she explores the fictive possibilities and psychological risks in the position of the solitary outsider, the literal or emotional exile.
The narrator of a weak but revealing early tale, "Wilhemena" (1874), is like the narrator of "Jeannette" in her unsettling mixture of manipulation and vicarious romantic involvement, although, unlike the lonely widow, she is a "romantic wife" whose "heart went out to all lovers" (Castle Nowhere 273). She tells herself that her interest in Wilhemena is to help her leave her closed Zoarite community to marry her beloved Gustav, who will have none of the community's restrictions now that the Civil War has shown him more of the world. When she runs to tell Wilhemena the news of Gustav's arrival, however, it is in order to experience both the girl's passions and those of her lover: "Her emotion resembled the intensest fire of fever, and yet it seemed natural … her slender form throbbed, and pulses were beating under my hands wherever I touched her" (285).
Like the narrator of "Jeannette," this woman is strongly attracted to the woman whose life she manipulates. When Gustav predictably leaves without her, and the girl cries out after him, the woman "drew her head down on my shoulder to stifle the sound; it was better the soldier should not hear it, and its anguish thrilled my own heart also (300). In reserving for herself the cry meant for Wilhemena's lover, the narrator plays his role. Because she admits to none of her real motives, she is driven to practice a rather chilling form of possession of both lovers, trying like the narrator of "Jeannette" to expropriate the passions—even the painful ones—that are absent from her own life.
In a fine early tale, "In the Cotton Country" (1876), the passion preyed upon is not love, but the despair of a woman who has lost everything and everyone in the Civil War. The predatory narrator is a Northern woman whose own life is so empty that she spends much of it as a "solitary pedestrian," and whose own sense of homelessness is so great that she follows a flock of crows, thinking, "The crows at home—that would be something worth seeing" (Rodman the Keeper 179). They lead her not to their home but to a "solemn, lonely old house" whose wretched isolation fascinates her: "Now if there had been two, I should not have gone on…. Two houses are sociable and commonplace; but one all alone on a desolate waste like that inspired me with—let us call it interest, and I went forward" (181).
What else might one call it? Certainly a compulsive fascination with solitude perhaps greater than her own, as well as a need to feel someone else's pain. This narrator excuses her own prying into the Southern woman's tragic story by telling herself she is a "Sister of Charity … bearing balm and wine and oil for those who suffer" (184). But in fact, she is testing her own tendency toward solitude, wondering how great a deprivation could be endured.
Ann Douglas Wood finds in this "superb story" the narrator's "almost uncontrollable need to … get at some stifled part of herself, mysteriously locked in the other woman's past and capable not only of pain but of creativity" (30). Wood is certainly right about the narrator's deprivation and need: she is so fascinated with the other woman's "dry, still eyes of immovable, helpless grief" that she admits, "I used to wait impatiently for the hour when I could enter into the presence of her great silence," even though the other woman's eyes ask, "'By what right are you here?'" (Rodman the Keeper 182). But while Woolson can find powerful material in the Southern woman's tragedy, her narrator finds only confirmation of her unstated beliefs that human connection cannot last but can only betray, and that the best protection against such loss is accepting homelessness and habitual solitude. She allows herself only the tenuous, temporary connection that a woman exiled from herself can make with other such exiles.
These narrators, along with their vicarious experience of women's passions, obviously reveal an author in search of material. But they also reveal a guilty awareness that such "material" is the experience of other human beings who cannot be intimately observed without damaging their lives and the observer's own integrity. This was the dilemma Hawthorne had dramatized in tales like "Ethan Brand," "The Birthmark," "Rappaccini's Daughter," and in The Scarlet Letter. Since Woolson said that Hawthorne was "always" one of her "gods" (Moore 23), she must have studied eagerly and apprehensively his uneasy "burrowing" into the secret caverns of human nature (Hawthorne 590).4 She would have recognized her own anxiety in his. But she would have seen too that as a single woman artist she ran risks that Hawthorne did not. He felt rescued from the worst of his isolation, if not from his guilt, by love and marriage. For Woolson, however, love of women threatened devastating disappointment, while love of men, if it didn't kill women outright, could be a trap for the woman who wanted to be an artist.
This dilemma is dramatized in "The Lady of Little Fishing" (1874), one of Woolson's most admired and most misread tales. Here, the central character is a Scottish woman missionary whose power over language links her with the woman artist; her words have such immense authority that they transform the behavior of a group of brutal hunters camped on an island in Lake Superior. The men, awed by her pale, nun-like beauty, call her "Our Lady" (Castle Nowhere 359) and treat her like the Madonna. But the moment they discover that she has fallen in love with one of them, her influence is destroyed.
Critics who admire the story tend to take as its theme one character's observation that women perversely care only for the men who care nothing for them: '"O woman! woman! the same the world over!'" (383). But the story is ultimately not about love or women's choices of love objects, but about the perception that a woman's words have weight just so long as she is seen as an angel, a madonna, a sexless, wholly spiritual being. Then she is safe among wolfish men, who will even cook for her, nurse her when she's ill, build a meeting-house for her to conduct services, and build themselves new houses to hold their new, clean, orderly selves. For this mother, sibly, or angel, men become good children, docile, domestic, and sexless. They are spellbound by "that spotless woman standing alone in the glare of the fire" (361), whose severe words hold back not "one grain of denunciation, one iota of future punishment" (360).
This powerful figure is barely recognizable after she falls in love. Once the men see that she is "common flesh and blood" (379), she is "our Lady no longer; only a woman like any other,—weak and fickle" (392). The Madonna has become Eve, and powerless. The change is not only in the men's perception of her, but in herself, most dramatically in her language. Her "steady voice" becomes "softer, the words at times faltering" (374). When she throws herself at the feet of the man who does not love her, her rhetorical degradation is as great as her personal fall: "Oh, take me with you! Let me be your servant—your slave—anything—anything, so that I am not parted from you, my lord and master, my only, only love" (384). Love is a terrible affliction of which people die—in this case, I think, of shame.
Love leads the Lady not only to the loss of her dignity and verbal power, but to a devastating revelation. She learns that she was deluded in thinking of herself as God's instrument in the wilderness of America and of men's hearts. Since the men reform only out of their idolatrous adoration of her, their reform ends when she falls from her niche. The story thus comments on the contemporary ideology of womanhood and on the strategy of the literary domestics who excused their unladylike entry into man's public sphere by claiming to be God's instruments called to save souls (Kelley 295). Woolson suggests not only that God's instruments may be deluded, but that they can retain their power only by sacrificing their capacity for passionate love.
The story also subverts the nineteenth-century belief that a woman's selfless love of one man gives her power over him, and through him, in the world. Instead, love robs a woman of her integrity and power. The story even undercuts the ideology of "the angel of the house." Despite her silvery paleness, her devotion to religion, her strenuous efforts to redeem fallen men, this angel is confined to no home, but takes the whole American wilderness as her sphere. Her role is not to sacrifice herself for men, but to save them by her preaching. They in fact sacrifice for her, giving up their liquor, fights, and dirt, giving her their food and labor. They do give her worshipful love and a home in the wilderness. But Woolson's point is that women's words have power only as long as they are indifferent to these traditional sources of women's power. The lovelessness and homelessness that torment the narrators of "In the Cotton Country," "Jeannette," and "Wilhemena" here have at least the potential for artistic success.
Another early story, however, which deals explicitly with a woman artist, finds lovelessness as disabling as love. Catherine, the narrator of "Felipa" (1876), has never known the success and power of the Lady of Little Fishing. She describes herself as "an artist, poor and painstaking" (Rodman the Keeper 199) who lives a "poor gray life" (218). Her obvious foil is her beautiful friend Christine, whose arrogant power over her lover Edward makes Catherine say to herself, "Fate, in the next world make me one of those long, lithe, light-haired women, will you? I want to see how it feels" (216). But Catherine has a true alter-ego in Felipa, the Minorcan child they meet in Florida. She shares the sexual amiguity implied by Felipa's name and made explicit by the child's passionate attachment to both Christine and Edward—an attachment which amuses and puzzles the adults, but which in fact expresses Catherine's own unacknowledged feelings.
Perhaps because of this repression of her passions, Catherine lacks Felipa's Orpheus-like power over nature. The child dances in circles of pine cones and knows the trees listen when she talks to them. Felipa's artistic powers are still developing, but she worships them in the form of a goddess she has made of saw palmetto pieces and crowned with flowers, and to whom she offers food and other treasures. Catherine does not acknowledge Felipa's artistic gifts, but tries systematically to socialize the child into a properly repressed female like herself who is "gentle," "quiet and good" (209), giving her a "respectable, orderly doll" (217) to replace the palmetto goddess. For such efforts, Catherine wins exactly nothing—"I was forgotten as usual" (210)—and turns to her painting to escape her pain and anger at being rejected by both children and adults. She sanitizes these emotions as "cynicism" which she calls "a small brass field-piece that eventually bursts and kills the artilleryman. I knew this, having blown up myself more than once; so I went back to my painting and forgot the world" (211). We might also identify these explosives as sexual longings, directed toward women as well as men, which Catherine uses art to evade rather than to express, understand, or transform.
When Christine finally accepts Edward's proposal, Catherine tells herself that she is "glad that the old simple-hearted love was not entirely gone from our tired metallic world" (218). But Felipa recognizes and deals directly with the self-hatred and rage they both feel. She eats the "poison things" (219) in Catherine's paint box, grasping what the woman artist does not—that art can poison when it is used to repress rather than to express honest feeling. Seriously ill, Felipa responds to Edward's attempts to comfort her by stabbing his arm with Catherine's little dagger.
Catherine tells the child's grandfather that since Felipa loved Edward and Christine "both alike," her love "is nothing; she does not know." The old man agrees that Felipa doesn't know the meaning of her attachments, "but I know. It was two loves, and the stronger thrust the knife" (220). The stronger love was the one for Christine; the attack was on the man who chose her instead of Felipa, and who also took away the woman she loved. Catherine truly "does not know" what she feels.5 Using art to deny unfulfillable longings, Catherine finds her attempts to capture on canvas Felipa's complex character or the subtleties of the salt-marsh are "hopeless efforts" (296). Denial of her complicated feelings dooms her as woman and as artist.
Two years after writing "Felipa," Woolson drew attention to the power of women's love for each other in a review she wrote for The Atlantic of Esther Pennefather. She called the novel a ridiculous book but one with an original subject: "The singular power one woman sometimes has over another…. I myself have seen tears of joy, the uttermost faith, and deepest devotion, in mature, well-educated and cultivated women, for some other woman whom they adored" (503). Although Woolson says that as soon as an agreeable man appears, "the whole cloud structure topples over, its battlements dissolve" (503), she does not quite present women's love for each other as "a rehearsal in girlhood of the great drama of woman's life," as Longfellow did in his 1849 novel Kavanaugh (Faderman 170). Instead, Woolson describes such women lovers as thinking after marriage "of that old adoration which was so intense and so pure, so self-sacrificing and so far away" (503). But her imagery of cloud castles indicates what her stories dramatize, that women who love women lose them to men.
The troubled relationship between love and art became even more urgent for Woolson when she moved to Europe in 1879 and developed an intense friendship with Henry James.6 Three stories she wrote in the next three years place an American woman artist in Europe, and in the shadow of a successful male writer or critic who resembles James. Although her Continental scenes offer women more options than the American desert islands of her earlier fiction, none of these women find success in art or love. This, despite the warmth of James's friendship and her own success as a writer. Her first novel Anne came out during her first year abroad, and was one of Harper's best-sellers. But Woolson apparently mistrusted her success. When she imagined a woman writer of real genius, she called her "Miss Grief" and made her work incomprehensible to the reading public. Her other women artists attract the love of masterful men who insist they give up art. Their decisions to marry these men are presented as a "great downfall" (Dorothy 193).
Ettie Macks, the heroine of "The Street of the Hyacinth" (1882) has a complexly developed consciousness that shows James's influence on Woolson's work.7 At the same time, this heroine has important resemblances to the shadowy, mythic Lady of Woolson's earlier tale. Like the Lady, out of place among the savage hunters of Lake Superior, Ettie Macks is an exile in Rome. She has rented the family farm in her tiny Western town of Tuscolee Falls so she can come with her mother to live on the dirty, narrow street of the Hyacinth in the shadow of the Pantheon, to study male masterpieces as part of her education as an artist. In this dedication to her goal, and in her impersonal indifference to the men around her except as they can help her to reach it, Ettie is again like the Lady. Like her too, Ettie has seriously overestimated her own powers. She is finally persuaded by a series of male mentors that she has not a shred of talent.
Although Ettie resembles the Lady in loving a man who doesn't love her, she retains more of her self-respect and dignity than the woman missionary did. When the James-like Raymond Noel, an aloof and successful art critic, proposes marriage not because he loves her but because he is eager to receive her ardent love, Ettie refuses him. Admitting she loves him, she tells Noel she's ashamed to love a man she can't respect or admire, and will learn to overcome her feeling for him. Ettie's honesty and pride shock Noel into realizing he does indeed love this remarkable woman. She agrees to marry him only when she is persuaded she cannot be an artist, and is worn down by his persistence and her mother's, by her strenuous labors to support herself and her mother by teaching, and by her own reluctant love of Noel. Rayburn Moore concludes that Ettie has found "fulfillment in a marriage to her mentor" (67). But Noel's ironic remark that in marrying him Ettie has suffered "a great downfall" from her "superhuman" heights of integrity (193) is closer to the truth. The imagery of hyacinths makes Woolson's intention clear.
Ettie's "downfall" is linked with the demolition of the Street of the Hyacinth, which "experienced a great downfall, also" (193), pulled down so it would no longer "disfigure" the Pantheon, "the magificent old Pagan temple" (191) it adjoined. In "Pagan" mythology, Hyacinthus suffered a downfall worse than Ettie's at the hands of his loving mentor, Apollo, who accidentally killed him while teaching him to throw the discus. The street where Ettie came to live is named for the doomed Hyacinthus because Ettie's mentor has slain his beloved's faith in herself as artist and woman. Such female self-assertion would evidently "disfigure" the monumental principles of male culture which Noel upholds both as art critic and as suitor. When Ettie marries him, her integrity, which had survived her admission that she had no talent as an artist, suffers a genuine "downfall."
Woolson imagined another male mentor persuading a woman to give up her artistic ambitions, not because her writing is bad—Woolson never reveals its quality—but because he believes that genius in women is a disfigurement or a delusion. In "At The Chateau of Corinne" (1880), Katherine Winthrop has to choose between her literary ambitions, symbolized by Madame de Staël, whose home on Lake Lehman provides the setting and title of the story, and marriage to John Ford, who cannot abide Madame de Staël or any other literary woman. Ford offers marriage on condition that Katherine cultivate the "simple and retiring womanly graces" and "write no more" (Dorothy 263, 285). Katherine's acquiescence, like Ettie's, is a "downfall."
Ford loathes Madame de Staël. His stated objections are personal: she wore a turban, forced her guests to discuss the subject she was writing about, made egotistical demands for sympathy. But his serious, unspoken objections are to de Staël and her heroine Corinne as models of female greatness. Woolson's admiration of them was shared by contemporaries as different as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Harriet Beecher Stowe (Parker 13, 37). Margaret Fuller, another "martyr to her own uniqueness" (Welter 78), was known as "the American Corinne." But a real cultural ambivalence about these female geniuses emerges in the warning in a popular magazine that while women with minds "equal to any human undertaking" exist, "happily these giants of their kind are rare" (Young Lady's Companion qtd. in Welter 76). Such women have unsexed themselves. By going beyond male-defined limitations, they have become monsters, not women at all.
Ford would emphatically have agreed. He responds to Kathenne's defense of Madame de Staël as "a woman of genius" by exclaiming, "'A woman of genius! And what is the very term but a stigma? No woman is so proclaimed by the great brazen tongue of the Public unless she has thrown away her birthright of womanly seclusion for the miserable mess of pottage called "fame." "'The seclusion of a convent? or a prison?'" asks Katherine (263). This exchange is a fair example of her witty defense of women and Ford's bombastic severity. Yet she masochistically chooses Ford to tell her "the truth, your real opinion" (265) of the volume of poetry she has written and published anonymously. Ford responds with a remarkable outburst of misogyny which seeks to disguise itself as a generous masculine desire to save women from themselves:
We do not expect great poems from women any more than we expect great pictures; we do not expect strong logic any more than we expect brawny muscle. A woman's poetry is subjective. But what cannot be forgiven—at least in my opinion—is … a certain sort of daring. This is its essential, unpardonable sin … because it comes … from the lips of a woman. For a woman should not dare in that way. Thinking to soar, she invariably descends…. And to see her leave [her sphere], and come in all her white purity, which must inevitably be soiled, to the garish arena where men are contending, where the dust is rising, and the air is tainted and heavy—this is indeed a painful sight. Every honest man feels like going to her, poor mistaken sibyl that she is, closing her lips with gentle hand, and leading her away to some far spot among the quiet fields, where she can learn her error, and begin her life anew. (268)
Remarkable words from a man who devotes himself to exposing other people's posturing, and prides himself on male logic.
Ford's misogyny is so overwhelming that it suggests a tangle of motives. Perhaps he wants to punish Katherine for making him a "victim" of her charms while she is engaged to someone else. Perhaps he wants to offend her so as to put distance between himself and a woman whose independence frightens him. Perhaps he wants to set the terms under which he would feel safe enough to marry her. In any case, the violence of his opinions and the space Woolson gives to them indicate that she believed opinions like his were a real obstacle to women writers. The overblown rhetoric she assigns him is a clear sign of her disapproval of this stereotypical masculinity, just as the Lady's romantic effusions signalled the demise of her integrity
When she loses her fiancé and her fortune and decides she must marry Ford, Katherine agrees without much of a struggle to his conditions that she "write no more" (285). Her greater conflict is over losing the independence which wealth had given her, and which Ford saw as an equally serious obstacle to their marriage. He prefers her impoverished, so that she will "in a measure be dependent upon your husband, and that is very sweet to a self-willed man like myself. Perhaps in time I can even make it sweet to you" (281).
Katherine is not so sure. She tells him, "You are narrow, prejudiced; you do not believe in progress of any kind. You would keep women down with an iron hand" (284). It seems she is right. After their marriage Ford keeps in his study a complete set of Madame de Staël's works as a kind of trophy of what he took from his wife: her independence of mind, her literary aspirations.
The structure of the story indicates Woolson's regret that modern women lack the genius and the independence of Madame de Staël. The story is built on four visits to Coppet, each of which marks a decline in de Staël's prestige and Katherine's independence. In the first, Katherine's fiancé praises Madame de Staël's genius. In the second, Ford savages Katherine's poem. In the third, Katherine has been jilted. And in the fourth, which takes place on a comfortless, wet, cold day, Katherine has lost her fortune, her fiancé, and her hopes for herself as a writer, and accepts Ford's proposal. Katherine's story, worked out in the shadow of a great woman's place of exile, has the same outcome as Ettie's, in the shadow of the Pantheon and the galleries of great male painters. Neither male nor female models of greatness seem of much help to women who would be artists, but who are persuaded that they have no talent and that their only recourse is marriage to men unable to accept independence or talent in women.
By taking Ford's misogynistic, manipulative opinions as Woolson's own, her literary biographer Rayburn Moore mistakenly concludes that she shared his "entire disbelief in the possibility of true fiery genius in women" (157, n. 35).8 Evidence that Woolson believed in and was inspired by women of genius is found both inside and outside the story. She made her own pilgrimage to Coppet "to stand there just for its association with [Madame de Staël]" (Benedict 226), and placed Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot among her literary luminaries. And in her journal, Woolson objected to the critic Edmund C. Stedman for his condescension to Elizabeth Barrett Browning: "Mr. Stedman does not really believe in woman's genius. His disbelief peeps through every line of the criticism below, whose essence is—'She did wonderfully well for a woman'" (Benedict 93). Since Stedman was her own first literary mentor, she must herself have felt the sting of his condescension. "At the Chateau of Corinne" should be read as a critique of men who belittle women writers.
Woolson wrote one tale about a woman writer of genius. Although "Miss Grief" (1880) is generally considered Woolson's best story, Harper and Brothers did not include it in the two anthologies of her stories they issued shortly after her death, which included every other story she had published since the last collection of her short fiction in 1880. Since the story depicts a woman genius whose tragic failure is the fault of her society and not of herself, perhaps the publishers felt that like Miss Grief's own work, Woolson's account would not be acceptable to the public.
"Miss Grief" is narrated by a male writer who is everything the woman writer is not: "Young, well and strong, passably good-looking, with some money that one has inherited and more that one has earned," the narrator admits that he takes a "deep, although of course carefully concealed, satisfaction in my own little fame" (574), and in his popularity in the superficial American and English society in Rome. The woman who seeks his help in getting her work published is not young, though younger at 43 than she looks. (Woolson was then 40.) Miss Aaronna Crief, whose name the narrator misreads as "Grief," is not good-looking or well dressed, because she is poor and suffering from hunger and cold. For these reasons, the narrator repeatedly refuses to see her, smugly telling himself that "Grief has not so far visited me here … and she shall not now" (574). He assumes she wants to sell him something, and when he learns she is a writer, exclaims, "An authoress! This is worse than old lace" (576).
When the narrator is finally shamed into reading her play, he recognizes that it is "inspired," full of earnestness, passion and "power" which "thrill" him as evidence that she has the "divine spark of genius" (578). But he finds her work deeply flawed "by some fault or lack which seemed wilful perversity, like the work of an evil sprite. It was like a case of jeweller's wares set before you, with each ring unfinished, each bracelet too large or too small for its purpose, each breastpin without its fastening, each necklace purposely broken" (581). This view of the work's fatal flaws is supported by male publishers to whom the narrator sends it. It is never clear whether this judgment is a fair one or whether the woman genius is writing in a way that the men cannot comprehend.
When the narrator overcomes Miss Grief's proud refusal to let him change so much as a "comma," and tries to correct these faults, he finds the flaws inseparable from the genius. It is like "taking out one especial figure in a carpet: that is impossible unless you unravel the whole" (583). As Leon Edel has observed, Henry James took Woolson's metaphor of the "figure in a carpet" for the title of his own tale about the elusive nature of genius. But James's male genius, Hugh Vereker, had fame and disciples. Miss Grief has neither, because in a woman genius is perceived as deforming. An imagination that is "unrestrained, large, vast, like the skies or the wind" (583) makes her too eccentric to communicate with the public she needs.
While the narrator sends out her work to publishers, Miss Grief lies dying. He discovers this through an accidental meeting with her aunt, for he has forgotten all about her. Recognizing her deathbed not only as a scene of desperate poverty but as a sacred shrine, he brings wine, flowers, and candles, and tells himself that lying to her about the fate of her drama is one of his "few good deeds" (584). Believing it is to be published, she says, "I have never known what it was … to be fully happy until now … Yes, I am happy," (584) she tells herself in amazement.
But it is the narrator's turn for grief, although he tells himself that the reason he has kept her rejected drama in a locked case, and reads it over "once in a while," is that it is a "memento of my own good fortune, for which I should continually give thanks. The want of one grain made all her work void, and that one grain was given to me. She, with the greater power, failed—I with the less, succeeded" (585). Thus he admits the truth of Miss Grief's dying words: "You had success—but I had the greater power" (585).
If successful mediocrity is better than unsuccessful greatness, then he is indeed fortunate. He has married a trivial, narrow-minded society woman, and written trivial, popular books. But secretly, he has made the greater writer "my … Miss Grief" (585), has taken into himself the grief of recognizing like Henry James's failed "master" what it means to have everything but "the great thing … the sense of having done the best" (James 135).
Woolson herself made no compromises with "the best" she could do. She put her work ahead of everything else, working long days and revising tirelessly. Her considerable success as a writer, however, did not prevent grief from being her regular companion. She struggled all her life with bouts of acute depression which she thought she inherited from her father. She wrote in her journal, "When she woke in the morning not haunted by care or trouble or grief or pain, it was a new sensation, it was a relief. Still it made her feel strange—old, strangely indifferent. 'I wonder if I am going to die soon?' she thought" (Benedict 147). Haunted by grief and probably guilt at having survived five of her sisters, securing less of Henry James's time and attention than she wanted, lonely and vulnerable to depressions during a second bout of influenza, she may have committed suicide. Delirious with fever, she either fell or leapt from her balcony in Venice in January of 1894.
But it would be a mistake to see her death as a mark of professional despair. Although her stories show that both genius and mediocrity, love and lovelessness, disabled women artists, she herself managed not to be disabled but to remain productive and successful by making art out of those dilemmas. And it would be equally wrong to dismiss her analysis of the excruciating dilemmas of women artists as merely a symptom of her own depressions. Several of her women contemporaries depicted those struggles as equally harrowing.
Both Rebecca Harding Davis and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps portray talented women artists who find they cannot combine art with love and the responsibilities of marriage. While Davis affirms the struggle of an impoverished male artist, Hugh Wolfe in Life in the Iron Mills (1861), to express his tragic vision, in "The Wife's Story" (1864) she rejects a woman's attempts to fulfill her artistic potential, even though—or perhaps because—she has a chance to succeed. The story concludes instead that "a woman has no better work in life than … to make herself a visible Providence to her husband and child" (19). While the story supports the prevailing domestic ideology that women who stray outside the domestic sphere bring misery to themselves and others, it also testifies eloquently to the agony of having to choose between art and love.9
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's The Story of Avis (1877) differs from "The Wife's Tale" in affirming its talented heroine's right to pursue a life of art, but concurs that women cannot combine art with family life. If they want to be artists, they should not marry. At the same time, Phelps insists that the often painful experiences of marriage and motherhood enlarge the sympathies that are the basis of great art—even while they consume a woman's time and energy and prevent her from producing that art. Evidently, this bind ensures that we cannot have the best work of which women are capable.
Unmarried women devoted to art appear in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's stories, but these women are distinguished by their devotion to art rather than by their talent. The women in "A Village Singer" and "A Poetess" (1891) find their reason for living in their passion for singing and writing. When their work is rejected, the process is not enough to sustain them, and despite their rugged independence, they die.
Although these authors are better known than Woolson, none of their fictions about women artists is more powerful or complex than hers. While she displays strong anxiety that solitary observers may become predators of the lives of others, lacking the self-knowledge that is an indispensible ingredient of great art, she also shows how women who would be artists are coerced by the male-established and male-maintained canon, and punished for the distance between their own vision and male-defined taste. Woolson's fiction shows that withdrawal into voluntary exile from such painful contradictions can become an involuntary separation from oneself, while insisting at the same time that the more pernicious isolation is from one's art, an exile in which all society conspires.
Nevertheless, Woolson believed that women were capable of distinctive greatness in art. She wrote a remarkable sonnet "To George Eliot" (1876) which insists that a woman genius combines the "colossal" power of a Michelangelo with the "finely traced" beauty created by "woman-hands":
O wondrous woman! shaping with thy pen
As Michael Angelo did shape from stone,
Colossal forms of clear-cut outline, when
We dwell upon thy pages, not alone
The beauty of thy rose we see, as finely traced
As roses drawn by other woman-hands
Who spend their lives in shaping them, but faced
We find ourselves with giant's work, that stands
Above us as a mountain lifts its brow,
Grand, unapproachable, yet clear in view
To lowliest eyes that upward look. O, how
Hast thou shed radiance as thy finger drew
Its shapes! A myriad women light have seen,
And courage taken, because thou hast been!10
This mixture of power and tenderness is what she hoped her own legacy would be. A month before her death, she thought again of the "giant's work" that a woman could do, and wrote, "I should like to turn into a peak when I die, to be a beautiful purple mountain, which would please the tired, sad eyes of thousands of human beings for ages" (Benedict xvi). Woolson's mountain is metaphorically further from Shelley's Mont Blanc, which embodies the male poet's verbal and sexual power, than her grave is from his in the beautiful Protestant Cemetery in Rome, where she rests a few feet lower than he on the bank that slopes down from the ancient wall. Woolson's purple mountain is instead like her conception of George Eliot's genius, both maternal and phallic. It suggests that at the end of her life she saw the tensions surrounding love and gender identity dramatized in her early fiction as possible sources of distinctive female artistry. Her courage and skill in exploring these and other conflicts faced by the first generation of American women artists should recommend her to modern readers who seek to understand the conditions under which nineteenth-century women wrote.
1 I am editing a volume of Woolson's short fiction for the American Women Writers series published by Rutgers University Press. It is scheduled to appear in 1988.
2 All biographical information is from Rayburn S. Moore, Clare Benedict, and Jay B. Hubbell's published work, as well as Doris Faber's unpublished biography.
3 Ann Douglas Wood finds a pattern among the women local colorists of "spying or even preying upon their subject matter" (29).
4 Woolson's "Castle Nowhere" is an elaborate reworking of Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter." Like Hawthorne, she also gives her preachers characteristics of artists; see "The Lady of Little Fishing" and "Peter the Parson," both in Rodman the Keeper.
5 A similar unacknowledged attraction exists between the women in Woolson's "A Florentine Experiment" (1880), Dorothy and Other Italian Stories.
6 Leon Edel gives extensive but negatively biased consideration to Woolson's relationship with Henry James in Volume III of his biography of James.
7 Two articles consider the influence of James and Woolson on each other's work: Rayburn S. Moore, "The Strange Irregular Rhythm of Life: James's Late Tales and Constance Woolson." South Atlantic Bulletin 41 (1976): 86-93; and Sharon Dean, "Constance Fenimore Woolson and Henry James: The Literary Relationship." Massachusetts Studies in English 71.3 (1980): 1-9.
8 Moore finds "little room to question the views expressed here concerning the literary amateur and the limitations of certain types of female writers" (74). He ignores the fact that Ford here rejects all types of female writers.
9 Although Davis's heroine is happiest when her husband calls her "Hetty," a name which signifies her contentment with domestic affection, her real name, Hester, points to Hawthorne's Hester Prynne, another woman with an artistic talent and temperament, blighted and warped by the harsh Puritanical attitudes that condemned her sexuality and forced her to use her artistic needlework as her only link to the society that rejected her. Davis saves her Hetty from the agonies—and the stature—of a Hester Prynne.
10 Woolson was clearly aware that this view of woman's genius was not going to suit traditional sensibilities. She published it not in Harper's, Appelton 's, Lippincott's, or the Atlantic, her usual outlets, but in The New Century for Woman.
Benedict, Clare, ed. Constance Fenimore Woolson. London: Ellis, 1929. Vol. II of Five Generations (1785-1923).
Davis, Rebecca Harding. "The Wife's Story." Atlantic Monthly (July 1864): 1-19.
Edel, Leon. Henry James. Vol. III. New York: J. P. Lippincott, 1962, 1964.
Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: Morrow, 1981.
Freeman, Mary E. Wilkins. A New England Nun and Other Stories. New York: Harper and Bros., 1891.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Preface. The Snow Image and Other Twice-Told Tales. Nathaniel Hawthorne: Selected Tales and Sketches. Ed. Hyatt Waggoner. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970.
Hubbell, Jay B. "Some New Letters of Constance Fenimore Woolson." New England Quarterly XIV (December 1941): 715-35.
James, Henry. "The Lesson of the Master." 1888. Henry James: Stories of Writers and Artists. Ed. F. O. Matthiessen. New York: New Directions, n.d.
Kelley, Mary. Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1984.
Moore, Rayburn S. Constance Fenimore Woolson. New York: Twayne, 1963.
Parker, Gail, ed. The Oven Birds: American Women on Womanhood 1820-1920. New York: Doubleday, 1972.
Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart. The Story of Avis. 1877. New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1985.
Welter, Barbara. "Anti-Intellectualism and the American Woman 1800-1860." Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1976.
Wood, Ann Douglas. "The Literature of Impoverishment: the Women Local Colorists in America 1865-1914." Women's Studies I (1972): 3-45.
Woolson, Constance Fenimore. Castle Nowhere: Lake-Country Sketches. Boston: J. R. Osgood & Co., 1875.
CCC. Dorothy and Other Italian Stories. New York: Harper and Bros., 1896, 1899.
Rev. of Esther Pennefather, by Constance Fenimore Woolson. The Atlantic (October 1878): 503.
CCC. The Front Yard and Other Italian Stories. New York: Harper and Bros., 1895.
CCC. "Miss Grief." Lippincott's Magazine (May 1880): 574-585.
CCC. Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1880; New York: Harper and Bros., 1886, 1899.
CCC. "To George Elíot." The New Century for Woman. 2 (May 20, 1876): 1.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7941
SOURCE: "Homeward Bound: The Novels of Constance Fenimore Woolson," Legacy: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers, Vol. 6, No. 2, Fall 1989, pp. 17-28.
[In the following essay, Dean explores the idea of independence which is developed in Woolson's later novels.]
When Henry James wrote his generally favorable review of Constance Woolson in the February 12, 1887, edition of Harper's Weekly, he criticized her for limiting women's choices by too often having them choose marriage: Miss Woolson, he says, "likes the unmarried … but she likes marriages even better" (182). For him, Woolson was not revolutionary in her portraits of women: rather than adding further complications to women's lives, she was content to explore the complications that already existed for women "fenced in by the old disabilities and prejudices" (179). Critics like Mary Kelley and Nina Baym who have studied a broad range of nineteenth-century works have helped us define these "disabilities and prejudices" which allowed women to write but limited them to domestic fiction that endorsed women's roles in holding together homes, whether those homes involved marriage or some other kind of extended family. Woolson herself struggled with these attitudes toward women writers and was especially pointed in her criticism of women's limited sphere for writing in her late story "In Sloane Street" (1892) where a character actually says that "Women can't write. And they ought not to try…. Children's stories—yes; they can write for children and for young girls, extremely well. And they can write little sketches and episodes if they will confine themselves rigidly to the things they thoroughly know, such as love stories, and so forth" (474).
James seems to have thought that Woolson and other women writers avoided notions of power in favor of notions of love or of domesticity. What he failed to see is that Woolson's ability to criticize the limitations placed on women allowed her to subvert the fences that surrounded women writers. The issue of home and homelessness constitutes a primary and powerful imaginative focus in Woolson's work. Joan Weimer has located in Woolson's short fiction a larger dimension than one that involves purely domestic or relational matters, a pattern of female artists who choose "homelessness and habitual solitude" (6) over human relationships, male or female, which often threaten betrayal. One of the aspects of "homelessness" that Weimer emphasizes is the lack of family ties, particularly ties of marriage11 However, while in the short fiction the female artists often choose a lonely independence and in the novels many interesting minor characters do the same, the major female characters in the novels almost always choose a home equated with marriage. Woolson is not here abandoning the broader sphere of the female artist that she developed in her short fiction; rather she is using the longer novel form to reconcile independence with the "'longing for home'"2 that she spoke about in her letters to her relatives, with whom she kept a close correspondence.
Because she was also quite aware that "nine-tenths of the great mass of readers care only for the love story" (Benedict 103) and because she had to please these readers to maintain her financial independence, she needed to reconcile her sense of the rewards of independence despite loneliness with the tastes of the audience of her day. As she wrestles in each of her novels with the expectations of her audience and her own conflicting needs for home and independence, Woolson breaks out the "old disabilities and prejudices" by stepping back to observe the implications of the choice for a home that is equated with marriage. Because she continued to long for a home outside of marriage, she also asks, particularly in her last novel, how a woman can possess a home that is not equated with marriage.
Like so much of the fiction written by males canonized in American literature, each of Woolson's longer pieces of fiction juxtaposes naive or shallow girl-women with women more aware of the ambiguities of life. The girl figures always choose marriage and through them, Woolson reveals her ability to understand why women did not often exercise other kinds of choices. Woolson's niece Clare Benedict describes her aunt's capacity for understanding all types of women as an "intense sympathy with and understanding of all … moral and intellectual aspirations, that [enabled her] to draw out of people the best that was in them, while giving them in return the most inspiring and comforting comprehension" (xiv). Such a capacity for comprehension is even more apparent in Woolson's portraits of complex women. While the girl-women in the novels are interesting but similar, each of the complex heroines provides a different focus on the issues involved when a woman desires or is expected by her society to desire a home. An examination of Woolson's character pairings shows her observing closely how women compromise as they seek homes and shows her struggling with issues involving kinship, sexuality, violence, and loneliness.
In her first novel, Anne (1882), Woolson explores a society where women exist for marriage or can find financial security only within marriage. Because the possibility of home is equated with marriage, Woolson reveals how ruthless women can be in their pursuit of a husband, but because she observes so well what leads to this ruthlessness she refuses to denounce it. The novel's shallow, though hardly naive, girl figure, Helen Lorrington, articulates the feelings that plague all of women's relationships: Helen befriends the title character Anne because "Anne admired her, and was at the same time neither envious nor jealous, and from her youth she [Helen] had been troubled by the sure development of these two feelings, sooner or later, in all her girl companions" (161). Several plot complications suggest how often women's jealousy or fear leads them to betray one another if they equate home with marriage. Anne's aunt subverts Anne's engagement because her fiancé is the son of the man her aunt once loved and had hoped to make a home with, and Anne's half-sister Angélique elopes with Anne's fiancé. An even worse betrayal comes from Helen, who tells Ward Heathcote, the man both she and Anne have fallen in love with, that the Angelique whose marriage notice has appeared in the newspaper is really Anne and thereby wins Heathcote for her own husband. Woolson might have ended this novel with Helen Lorrington's marriage to the man Anne loves, thus being consistent with her versions of exiles from home in the short fiction. Instead, she reunites Anne and Helen. Believing Heathcote dead, they become honest with each other and share the bond of suffering. Through their bond, Woolson suggests that although women often betray each other in their search for the security of home, that betrayal can also unite them in a closer relationship than they might otherwise have had.
Woolson completes the plot of Anne as if it were a nineteenth-century Agatha Christie mystery. Learning that Heathcote is alive, Helen goes to him, only to be murdered under circumstances that lead to Heathcote being accused of the murder. This is more than a convenient way to provide Anne with a happy ending by having the heroine marry the man she loves. While Woolson can satisfy her audience by concluding her novel with this marriage, she can also satisfy herself by examining one of the compensations for remaining unmarried; that is, the compensation of being independent. The task of proving Heathcote's innocence falls to Anne and a spinster friend, Miss Lois, whom she has known since girlhood. These two maiden ladies act out the kind of adventure Twain gives to Huck Finn three years later. They disguise their identity, track strangers through the town where the murder occurred, and row alone on a river in pursuit of a suspicious fisherman. They have to call in a priest to confront the murderer, but they have had the adventure of completing the detective work, an adventure they have pursued with intelligence and courage.
Adventure is the reward Woolson gives these two unmarried women, but the freedom for adventure carries the price of loneliness. Miss Lois has had a permanent but precarious home as a spinster, but in her own words the unmarried life has been one of "loneliness" and "misunderstoodness" that has contributed to her "general sense of a useless ocean within [her], its breaking waves dashed high on a stern and rock-bound coast" (135). Anne has felt even more keenly this metaphor of thwarted life, for she has been both unmarried and homeless. Still, the two join in a common cause they would have been denied had they been married: "No man being there to weigh [their plan] with a cooler masculine judgment, it seemed to them a richly promising one" (492). Through this adventure, Woolson emphasizes that the home marriage may provide can be an imprisoning one and that the loneliness of spinsterhood may be compensated for by its accompanying freedom. Imprisoned at first by her engagement, Anne gains the freedom of temporary spinsterhood and is able to free Heathcote from the prison of his marriage that has been represented metaphorically in his literal imprisonment. Woolson has spent so much time on Anne's and Miss Lois's detective work in order to provide options that allow women to break out of imprisoning roles.
Once Anne proves Heathcote's innocence, they join together in a marriage that is liberating rather than imprisoning. Although this marriage may not be a wise choice and one of Anne's former suitors, the stable Gregory Dexter, might have proved a better husband, Anne's choice of Heathcote is similar to her half-sister Angelique's elopment, a choice made despite what society defines as sensible. A significant difference in the choice, however, is that society would certainly define Anne's choice as morally acceptable. It is important that the marriage takes place on the little Michigan island that was Anne's girlhood home and that would have been a limiting home had she married her girlhood fiancé. Because Anne has been independent and intelligent, hers is not the limiting fate that fulfills women like Helen and Angélique; rather, it is one that combines freedom and responsibility at the same time that it satisfies a reader's desire for romantic adventure within or outside of marriage.
Although Woolson is radical in Anne in refusing to criticize Helen for betraying friendship and Angelique for betraying kinship, her overall conception of the novel endorses the heroine who follows the conventionally moral path no matter the cost to herself and rewards this heroine by providing her a mature, satisfactory, even romantic, home within marriage. In For the Major (1883), she continues to explore the kinds of choices women make to establish marital homes, but now with a heroine whose behavior might be considered less socially acceptable.3 Again, Woolson juxtaposes the girl figure with a woman whose life circumstances are more complex. Sara Carroll is one of Woolson's least complex girl figures, and her virtue is rewarded by marriage to the man she loves. She is of minor interest in the novella, far more conventional than Angelique or Helen, but providing her with a home via marriage enables Woolson to validate Sara's simplicity because it is accompanied by honesty. In her conventional morality, Sara is more like Anne than Helen or Angelique, but this morality is never really tempted. Sara's stepmother, Madame Carroll, might be compared to Helen and Angelique in the sense that she must compromise standards of behavior in order to gain a husband. However, because Woolson has focused on Madame Carroll, we see her not just following self-gratification but weighing the consequences of her actions within both a social and familial context. Unlike Helen and Angelique, Madame Carroll is honest with herself even though she is not truthful with those around her.
For the Major explores an interesting angle toward marriage and home because Madame Carroll articulates so explicitly the reasons why many women act the way they do. Through her, Woolson finds a voice that helps us to understand her own unwillingness to belittle any of the decisions her female characters make regarding marriage. In order to persuade Major Carroll to marry her and to provide her sickly daughter with a home, Madame Carroll pretends to be younger than she is. She also leads Major Carroll to believe she has had only one child who dies shortly after her marriage to the Major. In reality, she also has a son who finds her at Far Edgerley, Major Carroll's home. When the son dies and the Major's ill-health deteriorates into senility, Madame Carroll reveals the truth to Sara. In a final plot twist, we learn that Madame Carroll has either never married the Major or, more likely, married him not knowing her first husband was still alive. Woolson downplays the bigamy, revealing it only when Madame Carroll (re)-marries the senile Major at a bedside ceremony.
Madame Carroll's actions have hardly been what we want to admire: living a lie based on feminine appearance to satisfy a man. Yet the portrait is sympathetic because Woolson has shown us that although loving has required Madame Carroll to be false, it has not required hypocrisy. Explaining her position to Sara, Madame Carroll displays the kind of integrity Woolson wanted us to see in her:
[The Major] saw in me a little blue-eyed, goldenhaired girl-mother, unacquainted with the dark side of life, trusting, sweet. It was this very youth and child-like look which had attracted him, man of the world as he was himself, and no longer young. I feared to shatter his dream. In addition, that part did not seem to me of any especial consequence; I knew that I should be able to live up to his ideal, to maintain it not only fully, but longer, probably, than as though I had been in reality the person he supposed me to be. (341)
By having Madame Carroll become only superficially a child-wife, permanently youthful and beautiful but also fully aware of the implications of her pretense, Woolson has focused on her observations about the things that matter to the Major's kind of world. Is it really so awful, Woolson seems to be suggesting, to choose honest pretense and service as a more viable way of living than loneliness and poverty? Madame Carroll is not, at the core, false or child-like, for she knows that she is not a person who possesses a "lofty kind of vision which sees only the one path, and that the highest." Instead, she sees "all the shorter paths, lower down, that lead to the same place—the crosscuts." "The great things, the wide view," says Madame Carroll, "are beyond me." She is not fitted for "struggle" but can "work and plan and accomplish … only when sheltered—sheltered in a home, no matter how plain, protected from actual contact with the crowd" where there is always "brutality" (342-43). Although some of Woolson's more limited characters may take a superficial kind of high road, Madame Carroll outdistances them because she understands how much societal expectations have shaped her own decisions in securing a home.
In East Angels (1886), Woolson returns to a view of a girl-woman who defies society's mores to pursue the man she loves. Garda Thorne's defiance makes her, like Angelique and Helen in Woolson's first novel, more interesting than the simply virtuous Sara Carroll. Through both Garda and Margaret Harold, the more complex heroine of East Angels, Woolson hints at the sexual dimension implied in a marital home and at how that home may fulfill or stifle a woman's sexuality. One of the reasons Garda pursues marriage is that she is pursuing her sexuality, a trait most of Woolson's contemporaries denied their fictional girl figures. In fact, Nina Baym's research on reviews of post-Civil War novels finds hostility among reviewers to any treatment of sexuality (Novels 181–90). Woolson may be subverting nineteenth-century literary models and expectations by suggesting that sexuality fulfills these limited women precisely because they do not need wider avenues for fulfillment. Furthermore, Woolson suggests that beautiful women have greater choices in finding their ideal marriage/sex partners. The beginning of East Angels contains a passage that articulates this view:
For in their hearts women always know that of all the gifts bestowed upon their sex that of beauty has so immeasurably the greatest power that nothing else can for one moment be compared with it, that all other gifts of whatsoever nature and extent, sink into insignificance and powerlessness beside it. (19)4
The question East Angels poses at first is what will become of the beautiful, sheltered, natural, naive, restless Garda Thorne. Encouraged by her mother to become interested in a rich Northerner, 35-year-old Evert Winthrop, Garda complies. But enter Lucian Spencer who engages in a brief flirtation with Garda. Spenser soon leaves Florida, the setting for the novel, and is enticed into marriage by a woman who has told him she is dying, but gets well after their marriage. This relationship is not central to the novel; however, it again reflects Woolson's sense of the tricks women use to achieve marriage. When Garda can no longer pretend to love Winthrop, she breaks her engagement, taking what would seem a noble stance: "Everybody in the world seems to tell lies but me…. And everybody else seems to prefer it" (392). But nobility requires deeper feelings than Woolson develops in Garda. Because she does not have these deeper feelings, Woolson can reward her truthfulness simply by having Spenser's wife die and Garda marry him. In an unexpected plot twist, Spenser himself dies, but Garda finds a suitable second marriage to a handsome former admirer. Given the dashing manners and physical handsomeness of both Garda 's husbands, Woolson seems to be implying that being an honest and virtuous girl-wife is compatible with sexuality. If one must marry to find a home, the sexual dimension to marriage can be fulfilling rather than endured for the sake of that home.
Unlike Garda, Margaret Harold does not find a fulfilling sexuality within her marital home but, instead, discovers how sexuality threatens to destroy a home. Margaret's husband Lanse has had a long-standing affair in Europe. He eventually returns to America and Margaret but remains oblivious to Margaret's needs. He cannot understand that his presence may be painful to her, for he is willing to allow her to lead the life she is used to while he leads the life he wants. Thus, he believes, they can have a model marriage. Yet Lanse immediately contradicts this notion by insisting that Margaret conform to his notions of how she should dress, turning her into an ornament much as Henry James's Gilbert Osmond tried to turn Isabel Archer into an object for his collection. After all, Lanse has married Margaret for "her profile" (438) rather than for love. He dresses her according to his wishes and is pleased that she is such a "beautiful object" (440). While Madame Carroll in For the Major finds this kind of role a satisfying one, Margaret finds it stifling, especially because she has fallen in love with Evert Winthrop during Lanse's absence. A scene between Margaret and Winthrop exudes the kind of passion Margaret is capable of feeling and that Garda's more fulfilling marriages seem to contain. They are lost in a lush swamp that serves as a metaphor for sexuality. Woolson uses no heavy-handed symbolism—just an atmosphere of heat, fertility, danger, fear, passion. Eventually Margaret and Winthrop acknowledge their mutual passion, but this is never consummated because Margaret chooses to keep her home with Lanse who has left her a second time only to return as an invalid, his illness suggesting that the marriage will remain non-sexual.
Woolson uses Margaret's decision not to divorce Lanse, despite her unhappiness within the marriage, to illustrate how complex women's tendency to self-sacrifice can be. In an otherwise favorable review of East Angels, William Dean Howells criticizes Woolson's portrayal of Margaret as a sacrificial woman: "Neither Margaret nor Winthrop her lover appeals to our sympathy, perhaps because we cannot believe in them; they form for us the one false note of the book" (Petry 88). Woolson objects in a letter to John Hay that she "could not expect Mr. Howells to like 'Margaret,' for he does not believe in 'Margarets,'—he has never perceived they exist" (Petry 87). Nor, it seems, does Rayburn Moore believe they exist. He admits his own impatience with Margaret even as he recognizes the problem of dismissing her and thus denying the "generous impulses of feminine nature" (97). Aside from the sexism underlying such a statement, to accept Howells's or Moore's view is to dismiss Woolson's subtle portrayal of self-sacrifice, especially when the stakes of finding a satisfactory home are so high for women. Although Henry James believes Woolson spends too much time in East Angels on feminine matters of love, he also sees that if we "repudiate" Margaret, we deny "that a woman may look at life from a high point of view," deny "that there are distinguished natures" (190).
By recognizing that there is a temptation to repudiate Margaret's choice to remain in her marital home, James suggests that Woolson is ambivalent about the value of women's sacrificial nature. A narrative passage from East Angels about Margaret's sacrifice and her friend Dr. Kirby's response to it illustrates one side of the issue:
There are women who are capable of sacrificing themselves, with the noblest unselfishness in great causes, who yet, as regards the small matters of every-day life, are rather uncomfortable to live with; so much so, indeed, that those who are under the same roof with them are driven to reflect now and then upon the merits of the ancient hermitages and caves to which in former ages such characters were accustomed to retire….
The Doctor had had these saints as his patients more than once, he knew them perfectly. But here was a woman who had sacrificed her whole life to duty, who felt constantly the dreary ache of deprivation; but who yet did not think in the least, apparently, that these things freed her from the kindly efforts, the patience, the small sweet friendly attempts which made home comfortable. (565–66, emphasis mine)
Although Woolson seems here to be stressing the value of sacrifice for the sake of home, she also knows the doctor's view is only one part of the issue. Garda takes an opposite view, believing that sacrifice is silly, that "two whole lives [have been] wasted—and all for the sake of an idea" (579). Winthrop takes yet another angle: "Women are better than men; in some things they are stronger. But that's because they are sustained … by their terrible love of self-sacrifice; I absolutely believe there are women who like to be tortured" (588).
Had Woolson simply admired sacrifice and seen it played out in martyrdom, she might have chosen to end her novel with either reward or doom. Instead, the ambiguous last lines of East Angels show Margaret still married to Lanse, never again meeting Winthrop, engaged in this cutting dialogue:
"Do you know that you've grown old, Madge, before your time?"
"Yes, I know it."
"Well—you're a good woman," said Lanse. (591)
Margaret has sacrificed and lost love, has been tempted into the "terrible love of self-sacrifice" that is the mark of the "good" martyr. But something stronger than martyrdom also works in Margaret much as it works in James's Isabel Archer whose apparent choice to return to her marriage Woolson echoes. Like Isabel, Margaret had married naively believing in fidelity only to discover opposing values in her husband and, again like Isabel, when she chooses with full knowledge to remain married, she upholds the value she believes reflected in the marriage vow, no matter her husband's cynicism about such vows. She wishes she could be like Garda who "puts the rest of us (women, I mean) to shame—the rest of us with our complicated motives, and involved consciences" (244). But Margaret knows society too well to be like Garda and can analyze what lies beneath society's codes. She understands that part of the necessity to remain married comes from the stigma that would have been attached to her divorcing a man who, in her words, has not been physically abusive, who has not been an alcoholic, and who has not exerted a negative influence on any children (531).5
An interesting commentary on society's attitudes occurs in East Angels when Winthrop overhears an older woman speaking to a younger one on a train: "We [women] do not exhibit our charms—which should be sacred to the privacy of the boudoir [i.e., the home]—in the glare of lecturerooms; we prefer to be, and to remain, the low-voiced retiring mothers of a race of giant sons whom the Muse of History will immortalize in the character of soldier, statesman, and divine" (536). Given this attitude, Margaret must struggle to find a place for herself in a society that allows her neither divorce nor a public sphere. While Woolson clearly does not endorse this attitude, she may be suggesting that change can come only from a younger generation of women. Through Margaret's "complicated motives, and involved conscience" and Garda's naiveté, she may also be suggesting that as the younger generation carves a public sphere for women it consider the implications of this on the private sphere. To widen society's acceptance of divorce for reasons of incompatibility would be to undermine the value of home in maintaining the private sphere even as a more public sphere is opened for women.
In East Angels, Woolson shows the price Margaret pays for upholding the sanctity of marriage her readers expected her to uphold. But she does not do this by making Margaret only a "good" woman who submits to her husband with no gain for herself, and thus she subverts the most negative implications of her society's mores. Although Margaret's continued marriage to Lanse and, along with this, her relationship to his hostile aunt are clearly painful, she also has gained something for herself. Three months before Lanse's return to the marriage, Margaret decides not to return to the isolated New England home of the deceased grandmother who raised her and has instead purchased East Angels in her own name. Knowing that a sense of place may help her replace her lack of a satisfying home, she tells Winthrop, "I shall do very well here if I have the place to think about … I shall have the land cultivated; perhaps I shall start a new orange grove" (524). At the same time, she also accuses Winthrop of wanting "no woman to lead a really independent life" (524). Lanse's return undercuts Margaret's independence, but, given the fact that he is now an invalid, she can still maintain control over her property. In fact, Woolson mentions a new orange grove just before Margaret tells Winthrop that she will remain married to Lanse (538). As much as Margaret sacrifices, her choice has had its compensations. We know that she has learned to live with the pain of Winthrop's loss because she counsels Garda that she, too, will learn to live with the loss of her first husband. She is even willing to have Winthrop marry Garda, and Winthrop reads this as a reflection of how much "you women think … of a home" (587). By the end of East Angels, Margaret has gained a richer home than she had in the past because both Lanse and his aunt have learned to treat her more kindly and because Garda, whom she cares about, is also likely to return to Florida and add the rootedness of place to the home she has in her new marriage. Most important, Margaret has gained the integrity of the self-knowledge that if she is old before her time, she has become so for reasons that go beyond her personal happiness.
If addressing, however subtly, the sexual dimension to marriage was risky for Woolson, equating home with violence, as she does in Jupiter Lights (1889) was even more daring. This novel's girl figure, Cicely Bruce Morrison, is faced with a choice not between sexuality and home or sexuality or home, but between sexuality/violence/home and loneliness. The book is Woolson's most problematic, for it seems to endorse stereotypical attitudes about women as martyrs. And yet its subject matter—wife and child abuse—is her most provocative, and beneath its surface we see her struggling against the conventional attitudes her characters too often display. The widowed Cicely has remarried, and her second husband, Ferdinand Morrison, when drunk, abuses both Cicely and Jack, the child of her first marriage. Although everyone who knows him loves and defends Ferdie, he misuses other people's money, misuses alcohol, misuses women, misuses children, misuses himself. The qualities Cicely and the others love in Ferdie—his vitality, his handsome devil-may-care passion—are the very qualities that lead him to violence. Woolson seems to accept the misconception that to break the violence may well be to break the man, but despite this misrepresentation of male violence, she shows a clear understanding of the effects of abusiveness on women. Ferdie's half-brother, for example, says that "Drunkards are death to the women—to the wives and mothers and sisters; but some of 'em are more lovable than lots of the moral skinflints that go nagging about, saving a penny, and grinding everybody but themselves. The trouble with Ferdie was that he was born without any conscience, just as some people have no ear for music; it was a case of heredity …" (339).6 Heredity or not, lovable or not, Woolson sees the danger of adopting Cicely's attitude of pretending that violence within the home does not exist by never speaking of the violence.
Centering on the issues of home as kindred and home as violence, Woolson deepens the question of how women pursue homes in her portrait of Cicely's more complex counterpart, Eve Bruce, her sister-in-law by her first marriage. Eve comes to meet Cicely for the first time after her brother's death, already disliking her for having married her brother and causing her, she believes, to lose the only family and connection to the feeling of home she has had. In fact, Eve's motive is to take her nephew Jack from his mother and build a home for herself with the child. Instead, she shoots Ferdie and rescues Cicely and Jack from one of Ferdie's rampages. Soon Eve herself falls in love with Ferdie's half-brother, Paul Tennant, a device Woolson uses to put Eve into a situation similar to Cicely's. Early on, Eve thinks of Cicely's wish that she drop her cold demeanor and learn the power of love: "To wish her [Eve] a love like her [Cicely's] own, this seemed almost a curse, a malediction; … to love any man so submissively was weakness, but to love as Cicely loved, that was degradation" (90). Eve's anger here at Cicely is a revolt "against the injustice of all the ages, past, present, and to come, towards women" (90). But Eve's love for Paul is just as powerful as Cicely's for Ferdie. Although he does not have Ferdie's outward abusiveness, he does have faults that Eve knows about, condemns, and loves him in spite of. He trifles with other women and he trifles with her. Once he admits he loves her, he treats her like a child and like a person who will, of course, bend to his will.
Only by having Eve love Paul can Woolson provide a way for her to understand how Cicely can continue to desire a home with Ferdie. But because she is not naive, Eve refuses to be bound to Paul in contrast to Cicely's bondage in love. She fears she will become a woman whose love will destroy her integrity and make her yet another victim of love, another woman who will accept a marital home, whatever the cost to her personal safety and integrity. "Once your wife," she says to Paul, "I know that I should stay on, even if it were only to fold your clothes,—to touch them; to pick up the burnt match-ends you had dropped, and your newspapers; to arrange the chairs as you like to have them. I should be weak, weak—I should follow you about" (324).
Woolson makes Eve's decision to leave Paul, because she believes she has killed his half-brother, strong enough that we have no question about its seriousness. Eve cannot marry Paul until Woolson provides a deus ex machina revealing that Eve did not murder Ferdie. The question we must ask is why provide this. On a simple level, the answer may be that Woolson knew her readers would expect it. But as concerned as she was with the question of home, it is consistent that Woolson find a way to provide Eve a home that will not be one of bondage. She cannot give her Jack, for she needs Jack to provide Cicely with a home and for Eve to make her own home with them would be to enter into a different kind of bondage with a woman who hates her. Nor does Woolson want Eve to marry Paul's friend, a man who loves her but whom she does not love in return. The only home Eve can have consistent with her character is with Paul, but on her terms, not his.
Woolson reunites Paul and Eve at the end of Jupiter Lights in a scene that allows her to speak out against violence, suggesting that women like Cicely who have been tempted to tolerate violence for the sake of love and home have traded too much. Paul knocks down a priest at a charitable institution to get to Eve to tell her the truth about the real cause of Ferdie's death. The woman in charge of the institution stops Paul just as he is about to force open the door that is blocking him from Eve: "Your violence has been unnecessary—the violence of a boor!" (347). Paul "laugh[s] in her face," opens the door, and takes "Eve in his arms" (347). Like the woman who blocks the door, we want to say, yes, his violence is, like Ferdie's, "the violence of a boor." But we also must surmise that despite, or maybe even because of, this display of violence, Paul wins Eve in a way that Woolson's readers might find satisfyingly dramatic. Woolson does not naively dismiss Paul's violence but, instead, shows the extent to which women commit themselves to relationships and the extent to which readers romanticize this kind of violence as evidence of love. But because Woolson has linked violence to Ferdie in a more instructive way, she forces us to remember that to be bound to home can constitute the kind of bondage that love has been for Cicely. Because she has earlier made Eve strong enough to resist the bondage of love, we also hope that she will marry Paul in a union that will allow him to see that violence should not be equated with loving passion.
In her portrait of the girl-woman in Horace Chase (1894), Woolson does not expand on issues she has previously addressed, but she does again link sexuality with naiveté. Ruth Franklin is spoiled, indulged, entirely natural; she is unconcerned about the implications of sexuality and acts however she wants without thinking about social forms. Like an indulged child, she has her way in marrying Horace Chase, who is much her senior, not in any search for home, but because she finds him fun to be with. Woolson does not deepen Ruth's character even when she has her discover her sexual attraction to Horace's partner, Walter Willoughby, a man who flirts with her but ultimately marries the woman he really loves. Ruth's awakening to her sexuality, late and outside her "happy" marriage, anticipates by five years Kate Chopin's theme in The Awakening. But Ruth, because she remains a child character, never gains Edna Pontellier's awareness of the implications of sexuality outside of marriage. Horace, the father-figure, is really the right man for this non-speculative woman whose limited view of happiness is so different from Chopin's and from Woolson's own. Still, Woolson refuses to condescend: given her upbringing and personality, Ruth is suited only for play love. If Ruth is not cut out for a higher view of life or for enduring and growing through suffering, she at least has the integrity of her feelings and whims. Honest and fresh, she can attain the kind of happiness denied the person who possesses the deeper intelligence Woolson may have felt cursed by herself.
Woolson's own character is apparent in all her complex heroines, but the personal connection seems the strongest in her portrait of Ruth's sister, Dolly Franklin. She is the only major character in the novels who remains unmarried and through her Woolson looks again at how the idea of home includes the importance of kindred and the importance of place. She had touched on both these issues before—in Jupiter Lights, for example, through Eve's longing for her dead brother in the guise of his child and in East Angels in Margaret's purchase of a house—but never without involving as well the idea of a marital home. Dolly stands out even more oddly as an unmarried woman because this novel contains a number of other women who associate home with marriage. Dolly's sister-in-law, Genevieve, gains the kind of home she wants in marriage, but she forces her husband, Jared Franklin, into a life style he is unsuited for and thinks so little of his well-being that she is indirectly responsible for his death. And yet, in her limited way, Genevive loves Jared and even as Woolson blames her, she sees both her and Jared as victims of society's expectations. Society has taught them to value men according to how successfully they provide for a family, whether or not this material dimension provides a satisfying marital relationship, a sense of kinship, or even a permanent place to live. Jared's mother has valued the male within the home so much that she dotes on her son as the only male left in the family and even dies when he dies, as if to say that without a male there can be no home. It is not without significance that the name of her home is L'Hommedieu, for home equates with the men she thinks necessary to support it.
Dolly stands in contrast not only to the other female members of her family but also to three female aquaintances who represent some of Woolson's best comic portraits of women. Woolson often seems to use the comic portrait to control her bitterness over society's lessons that women should define themselves in terms of men. Mrs. Kip has learned society's lesson well: she has been married twice and is about to marry a third time because marriage is what she thrives on. Similarly, the spinster Miss Billy, significantly given a male's name because she has never caught a male, spends her life pining for a man. Balancing these portraits of marriage-hungry women is the most comic portrait in all of Woolson's novels, that of feminist Maud Murial who defies patriarchy by modelling male behavior. She is a sculptor who tries to learn to smoke cigars and sculpts only the ugly because that is what she sees around her. In the portraits of Mrs. Kip, Miss Billy, and Maud Murial, Woolson has shown what she saw in too many of her contemporaries: women made silly because no one has shown them how not to be silly; women whose choice is to dote on men or become men because they have not yet found a better way. These are the kinds of women she complained of in a letter to her niece by marriage Flora [Mrs. Samuel] Mather as lacking "broad, reasonable, solid views," but they are also women she sympathizes with because, as she continues to Flora, their failure is not from inferior minds but from lack of appropriate education (Benedict 49).
As the only unmarried woman in her novels not treated comically, Dolly Franklin may be Woolson's answer for how to reconcile home and independence, a reconciliation closest to the one Woolson sought for herself. She represents the same kind of strong woman that Woolson provides in her other novels in the portraits of Anne, Madame Carroll, Margaret Harold, and Eve Bruce. However, Dolly hasn't the sexual passion of any of these women. Speculation about Henry James to the contrary, at this point in her life Woolson seems less interested in seeing what passion calls forth in a woman than what steadfast intelligence calls forth. Dolly's intelligence is especially nurtured because her arthritis-like condition, perhaps a metaphor for Woolson's tendency to depression and her habit of loneliness, has limited her options even more than society has limited them. Woolson surely intended Dolly's name to be ironic, for she is no pale, doll-like invalid, but with her acute and lively observations sounds much like Alice James. Even though Horace Chase dismisses her as a meddling spinster, she has superior insight about others and sees why Ruth and many like her need to marry men who will indulge them. At the end of the novel, Dolly reveals not just intelligence but also physical and moral strength when during a storm she saves Ruth, who has tried to run to Walter Willoughby. Dolly returns her to Horace, cautioning her not to tell him the truth because she underestimates his integrity and believes he, like most of society, will reject Ruth. Instead, Horace forgives Ruth and continues to love and value her as his wife. Because Ruth and Horace will now leave L'Hommedieu for Europe, Dolly has saved Ruth's marital home at the price of her own last ties to kindred.
Early in Horace Chase, Dolly articulates her understanding of how women tend to find homes and, therefore, of why Ruth's marital home is so important. In her comments, she locates the theme that permeates all of Woolson's novels: "Have you ever noticed … that the women who sacrifice their lives so nobly to help humanity seldom sacrifice one small thing, and that is a happy home? Either they do not possess such an article, or else they have spoiled it by quarrelling with every individual member of their families" (19). Through all her novels, Woolson presents a consistent vision of women who are homeward bound in the sense that they fight to find or to keep a home. When they sacrifice at all, as in the cases of Anne for Helen's marriage and Eve Bruce for her own integrity, they do so before they have found a home or, as with Madame Carroll's sacrifice of conventional honesty and Margaret Harold's sacrifice of love, they do so for a home. A passage from a letter Woolson wrote to John Hay in 1883 captures the importance of this theme: "I should say I was a trifle homesick—only how can one be homesick who has'nt a 'home[']? Be thankful that you have one; & keep kindly thoughts for the less fortunate" (Petry 48).
Read in the light of Dolly's need to reconcile home and independence, the last paragraph of Horace Chase seems more that just melodrama: "Horace Chase put Dolly aside—put her aside forever. He lifted his wife in his arms, and silently bent his head over hers as it lay on his breast" (419). The image of a cast-aside woman is a fitting one in a society where women have been so bound to the need for home that many feared that to remain unmarried was to bind them to homelessness and loneliness. Marriage represented to most of Woolson's contemporaries less the danger of limitedness and compromise than the promise of legitimized sexuality, social status, or security. But Woolson's portrait of Dolly Franklin, the woman who by the death of her parents and her brother and the marriage of her younger sister becomes the owner of L'Hommedieu, represents a different way to find a home, one that Woolson had touched on most explicitly in East Angels. In that novel, not only does Margaret Harold become rooted to East Angels, but Garda Thorne returns to it, and, before her death, Garda's widowed mother found satisfaction in performing household maintenance normally associated with men. That Dolly is cast aside by Horace, that she has no husband and now will lose her tie to kindred, just as Woolson had lost so many of her own ties to kindred, does not mean that she must be homeless. Woolson did not live to write a novel where she examined closely the struggles a woman like Dolly Franklin might confront as she becomes bound to a home defined as the rootedness of place. But she clearly looked forward to this kind of home for herself, hoping to buy her own little cottage in Florida. Had illness, and possibly suicide brought on by her sense of homelessness, not cut short her life, she may have found herself bound to a home that did not limit her as it limited so many of her characters.
1 Weimer believes this is an understandable theme for Woolson, given the deaths of five sisters and both parents by the time she was 39. One of Woolson's infant sisters also died and, when Woolson was in her early 40s, her brother Charley died, probably a suicide.
2 The phrase comes from a letter Woolson wrote to Hamilton Hayne in 1876 in which she calls herself an '"exile longing for home'" (Hubbell 731).
3 I follow Moore's precedent here in considering For the Major with the novels because of its full development. Its treatment of home is also of a piece with that in the longer novels.
4 The implications of physical beauty seem to have plagued Woolson who, according to Clare Benedict, had a "curiously low opinion of her own personal appearance" (xv).
5 See Woolson's notebook entry for a story about society's rejection of a divorced woman (Benedict 134). Nina Baym also notes the negative responses to divorce given by book reviewers in the nineteenth century (Novels 184).
6 Woolson believed in the hereditary nature of certain psychological traits and thought her own bouts of depression to be hereditary (Moore 36). In an 1876 letter to Hamilton Hayne, she links "'Depression,' that evil spirit that haunts all creative minds" with the need for "the close appreciative warm belief & praise of … family" (Hubbell 728-29).
Baym, Nina. Novels, Readers, and Reviewers: Responses to Fiction in Antebellum America. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1984.
CCC. Woman 's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978.
Benedict, Clare. Constance Fenimore Woolson. London: Ellis, 1929. Vol. 2 of Five Generations (1785-1923). 1929-30.
Edel, Leon. The Middle Years (1882-1895). New York: Lippincott, 1962. Vol. 3 of Henry James. 1962-64.
Hubbell, Jay B. "Some New Letters of Constance Fenimore Woolson." New England Quarterly 14 (1941): 715-35.
James, Henry. Partial Portraits. 1887. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1970.
Kelley, Mary. Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford UP, 1984.
Kern, John Dwight. Constance Fenimore Woolson: Literary Pioneer. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1934.
Moore, Rayburn S. Constance F. Woolson. New York: Twayne, 1963.
Petry, Alice Hall. '"Always Your Attached Friend': The Unpublished Letters of Constance Fenimore Woolson to John and Clara Hay." Books at Brown 29-30 (1982-83): 11-107.
Weimer, Joan Myers. "Women Artists as Exiles in the Fiction of Constance Fenimore Woolson." Legacy 3.1 (1986): 3-15.
Woolson, Constance Fenimore. Anne. 1882. Intro. Elizabeth Hardwick. New York: Arno, 1977.
CCC. East Angels. New York: Harper, 1886.
CCC. For the Major. 1883. Rpt. in For the Major and Selected Short Stories. Ed. Rayburn S. Moore. New Haven: College and University P, 1967.
CCC. Horace Chase. 1894. Upper Saddle River: Literature House, 1970.
CCC. "In Sloane Street." Harper's Bazar 11 June 1892: 473-78.
CCC. Jupiter Lights. 1889. New York: AMS, 1971.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6373
SOURCE: 'Anne: Woolson's Portrait of a Lady," in Constance Fenimore Woolson: The Grief of Artistry, University of Georgia Press, 1989, pp. 34-49.
[In the essay that follows, Torsney compares Woolson 's first novel Anne with Henry James 's Portrait of a Lady, and contends that Woolson "adapted her literary inheritance from the domestics of earlier in the century to suit her original purposes."]
Woolson's transitional position—on the one hand a member of the "scribbling" sorority, on the other an exile who isolated herself from society in order to devote herself to art—is best demonstrated, perhaps, by example. Woolson's earliest stories are reminiscent of the earlier fashions in women's writing discussed so thoroughly by Mary Kelly and Nina Baym, among others.1 For example, the early piece "Duets" (1874) features two friends, Olive and Helena, who get what the other wants in a husband.2 And although "Weighed in the Balance" (1872) takes up women's suffrage as a topic during a lake voyage—one gentleman believes that only when men recognize their "soul-companions … will woman reach her apotheosis" and "human intellect, embodied in the clear crystals of woman's mind, rise to its true place," while another maintains "that love is her power, and we love her, not for her mind, but rather for her heart"— a quiet girl, in the manner of a domestic romance, saves the day when a sudden storm threatens the outing.3 In "The Lady of Little Fishing" (1874), the opening story of Woolson's first collection of short fiction, Castle Nowhere: Lake Country Sketches, a beautiful spiritlike woman civilizes a rough logging camp, and in "Old Gardiston" (1876) a vanquished Confederate belle finds herself in love with a Yankee officer, happily capitulating to him in the end.4
To demonstrate further Woolson's debt to the women fiction writers who preceded her and to highlight her own internalization of women's culture, it is instructive to consider her first long work and most popular piece of fiction, Anne.5 By reading the novel in terms of another novel of the period, Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady, we will see even more clearly how Woolson used the earlier women's fiction tradition in order to find a voice and how she later adapted it to make statements about the possibility for women's artistry in her world, about the powerless position of female artists in a patriarchal culture.6
My purpose here, however, is not to create more anxiety by arguing influence. I see neither Woolson nor James as derivative: both are part of the same textual fabric. Rather, I think it more valuable to examine how, as a result of their shared cultural milieu, they focus on similar themes yet produce gender-inflected results. Whether or not, like Alfred Habegger, we see James as an effeminate "sissy," he is still a man writing from his own gender perspective.7 Likewise, Woolson is a woman writing from hers.
Both Henry James's and Constance Fenimore Woolson's first important novels were published serially, his in the Atlantic (from November 1880 to December 1881) and hers in Harper's New Monthly Magazine (from December 1880 to May 1882). Both are novels of love and marriage, a theme as old as the genre itself. Both The Portrait of a Lady and Anne present female protagonists akin to the prototypical women's heroine whose characteristics, "intelligence, will, resourcefulness, and courage," have been outlined by Nina Baym.8 Isabel Archer and Anne Douglas are provincial orphans who are adopted by eccentric aunts after the deaths of parents with whom the aunts had argued. Both young women make a successful entry into society after being taken in by their relations, and both marry men of questionable virtue. In each character's case another man, Ralph Touchett and Gregory Dexter, respectively, at some point provides for the heroine's material well-being. Although the novels share structural similarities and a relation to the Ur-plot of trial and triumph as elucidated by Baym, they are based on different gender assumptions, traditions, and development.
Carren Kaston has defended James against the charges of some hostile feminist criticism by noting that "James wrote regularly with a profound sensitivity to what it was and very often still is like to be a woman."9 Although, as Alfred Habegger asserts, James was "in sympathy with the best feminine values," he was nonetheless male, still on the outside.10 Still, his effort to understand is genuine, his understanding as certain as possible. From his own hegemonic position, he presents a woman of imagination who, because of the constraints of the male world in which she lives, cannot realize the triumph of that imagination. As Kaston puts it, "Such independence to which Isabel at first aspires is unattainable not only because of the existence of others, who constitute society and exert pressure on her, but because of conditions within Isabel herself."11 It is Isabel's tragedy that she cannot really act independently. She can only be managed. As James writes, "Madame Merle had married her" (430). Even grammatically Isabel is an object, not a subject. She is passive, not active, as a male culture expected a woman in her place to be.
Keys to Isabel's failure lie in her own habits of mind, habits born of reading two classes of literature: romances by and about women and texts from the transcendentalist tradition. These two sources of Isabel's ideas suggest what Kaston calls her "conflicting attitudes toward power: her desire for self-origination on the one hand and, on the other, her attraction to dependency."'12 Isabel (as well as James, of course) is not at fault; rather, as Kaston puts it, "given the powerlessness women frequently feel, the challenge of self-origination could not easily be met by any woman, even one as generously conceived as Isabel is by James."13
From the beginning Isabel understands her world in textual terms. On her arrival at Gardencourt, she is thrilled to meet Lord Warburton: "Oh, I hoped there would be a lord; it's just like a novel!" she gushes (27). Indeed, in the following flashback to Lydia Touchett's visit to Albany to fetch her niece, Isabel is ensconced in the library, where she reads indiscriminately, "guided in the selection chiefly by the frontispiece" (33). Her reading includes "the London Spectator" and "the latest publications" (41-42), both of which would have treated women's issues. Other evidence demonstrates, however, that Isabel has been reading romantic women's novels as well. These unnamed novels help to set up her expectations only to have reality decimate the tenderly held images.
Mr. Touchett, sensing Isabel's impending disaster, raises the issue of the discrepancy between fantasy and reality in women's fiction, but Isabel either does not hear or does not heed the warning. Their discussion begins with Isabel's wondering whether English character confirms what she has read in books. Her uncle replies that he is unfamiliar with what appears in novels, that he believes only what he has learned from firsthand experience. But Isabel continues to push the question of novelistic representations of reality by asking how she will be treated in society. "I don't believe they're [the English] very nice to girls; they're not nice to them in novels" (58). Daniel Touchett's response might have served to warn Isabel, but finding herself in a situation usually reserved for novels, her ears are deaf to her uncle's warnings.
"I don't know about the novels," said Mr. Touchett. "I believe the novels have a great deal of ability, but I don't suppose they're very accurate. We once had a lady who wrote novels staying here; she was a friend of Ralph's and he asked her down. She was very positive, quite up to everything; but she was not the sort of person you could depend on for evidence. Too free a fancy—I suppose that was it. She afterwards published a work of fiction in which she was understood to have given a representation … of my unworthy self…. Well, it was not at all accurate; she couldn't have listened very attentively…. I don't talk like the old gentleman in that lady's novel…. I just mention that fact to show you that they're not always accurate." (58-59)
Isabel might have taken to heart James's ironic joke about people who think that novels faithfully record experience, but she does not. Throughout the early sections of the novel, she reads real-life situations according to women's writing conventions: she sees Warburton "as a hero of romance" rather than as a troubled man caught in a changing political order and his home "as a castle in a legend"; she has read that the English "are at bottom the most romantic of races"; she identifies herself as a young woman being made love to by a nobleman in a "deeply romantic" situation (66, 75, 77, 96). When Henrietta Stackpole tries to penetrate Isabel's novelistically clouded vision by asking her "Don't you know where you're drifting?" Isabel replies: "No, I haven't the least idea, and I find it very pleasant not to know. A swift carriage, of a dark night, rattling with four horses over roads that one can't see—that's my idea of happiness." Henrietta responds that her language sounds like that of "the heroine of an immoral novel" (146).
That Isabel uses such language should come as no surprise since she understands her world in part through the filter of the romance tradition of women's novels. As William Veeder observes, Isabel talks a conventional line, using the extravagant language of women's fiction. Like women's heroines, she relies "upon the pretty set-speeches conventional with pretty heroines."14 Her own naive reading deceives her and tricks her into marriage with a man whose name, Gilbert, suggests the heroes of romances written by both Sir Walter Scott and Susan Dudley Warner.15 At the end, still following the literary convention of her romance novels, Isabel is left with only one way out, self-sacrifice. Ironically, it has been another convention of women's fiction, the sickly, feminized Ralph Touchett, himself a writer (and reader) of the genre, who prepared Isabel for her downfall when he convinced his father to provide for the requirements of his cousin's imagination, thus authoring the pre-text of her disaster.
But the romance tradition is not the only literary tradition that fails Isabel. When Mrs. Touchett first meets Isabel in the family library in Albany, the girl has been "trudging over the sandy plains of a history of German Thought" (34). She takes to heart the superiority of the male virtues of logic, reason, and mind over the female ones of emotion, sensitivity, and heart. Had she been conscious enough to note that her reading was indicting her own character, she might have become a resisting reader, recognizing that the texts she was reading made her own gender into the enemy.16 Isabel's transcendentalist reading tricks her into believing in the possibilities for her own independence, possibilities reserved, according to the American tradition of idealism, for men. Emerson, one of Isabel's heroes, for instance, as Joyce Warren notes, was "unable to see women as individuals like himself." "It is clear that his philosophy [of self-reliance and insistence on high goals] was not intended to apply to women."17 In the beginning of the novel Isabel is the embodiment of the Emersonian idealist: she believes in the world "as a place of brightness, of free expansion, of irresistible action" (54); she believes in "the continuity between the movements of her own soul and the agitations of the world" (41). But Isabel is a woman, as James well knows—as Kaston remarks, "Isabel Archer is more than incidentally female."18 Her reading of a male intellectual philosophy does not serve her. As she laments: "She had desired a large acquaintance with human life, and in spite of her having flattered herself that she cultivated it with some success this elementary privilege had been denied her" (431). The "privilege" is denied her because of her sex and her goodness, and both the reader and James mourn her lost opportunity.
Thus, Isabel's naïveté fails her on two levels. First, she thinks the world of the romance novel real, allowing it to dictate experience to her, revealing her dependency; second, she thinks male transcendentalism and idealism written for her, thus revealing her paradoxical desire to write her own text of self. James does not condemn the romance vision itself; however, he thinks that the tradition of German-Concord transcendentalism was responsible for Isabel's naive perception of reality and for her failure to allow her imagination free rein. But finally, Isabel, as a woman in a man's world, a woman written by a man (sympathetic though he be), can only respond as she does: as a mostly passive participant whose glorious imagination will never experience free rein though it may triumph over some of the obstacles it confronts.
Nearly three-quarters of a very long letter from Woolson to James, dated 12 February 1882, is taken up with her criticism of Portrait. By far the most telling of Woolson's responses to the novel is the whole of her last paragraph:
How did you ever dare write a portrait of a lady? Fancy any woman's attempting a portrait of a gentleman! Would'nt there be a storm of ridicule! … For my own part, in my small writings, I never dare put down what men are thinking, but confine myself simply to what they do and say. For, long experience has taught me that whatever I suppose them to be thinking at any especial time, that is sure to be exactly what they are not thinking. What they are thinking, however, nobody but a ghost could know.19
Woolson, of course, is making a mild joke, and, in fact, she does attempt several portraits of gentlemen, both in her last novel, Horace Chase, and in "'Miss Grief,'" a narrative told from a male first-person perspective. Yet, just as James's Portrait, though about a woman, presents a heroine from a male tradition where women, even admirable, imaginative ones, are in a sense forcedly passive, Woolson's narratives featuring male characters evolve from the women's writing tradition we see described, for example, by Nina Baym in Woman 's Fiction and by Mary Kelley in Private Woman, Public Stage.20 In this tradition the female character is active, not passive; the protagonist is the writer's alter ego rather than a female character for whom the male author has a large degree of sympathy. In a letter dated 30 August 1882, Woolson compares her work to James's:
All the money that I have received, and shall receive, from my long novel, does not equal probably the half of the sum you received for your first, or shortest. It is quite right that it should be so. And, even if a story of mine should have a large "popular" sale (which I do not expect), that could not alter the fact that the utmost best of my work cannot touch the hem of your first or poorest. My work is coarse beside yours. Of entirely another grade. The two should not be mentioned on the same day. Do pray believe how acutely I know this. If I feel anything in the world with earnestness it is the beauty of your writings, and any little thing I may say about my own comes from entirely another stratum; and is said because I live so alone, as regards to my writing, that sometimes when writing to you, or speaking to you—out it comes before I know it. You see,—I like so few people! Though I pass for a constantly smiling, ever-pleased person! My smile is the basest hypocrisy.21
That her writing cannot compare to James's is undeniable: hers is the writing of a woman, as the passage abundantly demonstrates. It is cautious, modest, self-effacing, yet the turn at the end, the suggestion of wearing a mask, even in comparing her work with his, is reminiscent of a familiar strategy used in American women's writing since the time of Woolson's sister New Englander Anne Bradstreet. Like her letter to James, Woolson's writing employs women's writing traditions, such as the writer's identification with her heroine and the widespread use of feminine archetypal patterns and images; and like the domestic writings from the earlier part of the century, Woolson's works empower women in many ways rather than lament their powerlessness in the outer world while compensating them with an imaginative inner life.22
Anne, the novel about which Woolson wrote to James, is the first of her strong women narratives. It was printed in several editions during her life, again after her death, and just recently with a new introduction.23 Although past critics have praised Anne primarily for its localcolor descriptions of Mackinac Island, Michigan, many agree that because the novel is replete with issues of self-identity, it deserves renewed attention. The issue of identity is the same one James treats in Portrait, yet since male and female definitions of identity and power differ, the thread is spun out with differing tension by male and female writers.
One of the ways that male and female texts differ is in the identification of the writer with the protagonist. Isabel is not James, nor was she meant to be, and Woolson teases James about his attempt to paint the portrait of a woman. Anne, however, is in many ways Woolson herself, substantiating Judith Kegan Gardiner's hypothesis that a woman writer "uses her text, particularly one centering on a female hero, as part of a continuing process involving her own self-definition and her empathie identification with her character. Thus, the text and its female hero begin as narcissistic extensions of the author."24
Anne Douglas and Constance Fenimore Woolson share interests and background, not the least of which is the name Anne, which Woolson adopted as a pseudonym for her first publication, The Old Stone House (1872). Both Anne and Woolson were New Hampshire natives and as children spent periods on the upper peninsula of Michigan, where a memorial to Woolson with the name Anne at the head of the tablet was erected in 1916. Both young women, though accomplished in the liberal and fine arts, protest that they are ugly. Woolson's portraits and her descriptions of Anne, however, belie such evaluation. Perhaps as a reaction against her sense that she falls short of the American ideal of beauty, Woolson develops a love of letter writing, the art of communicating without being seen. Anne shares that love. Just as Woolson tells James that she writes to him for her own amusement, Anne, in writing to her fiancé, Rast Pronando, finds that through the use of language she may assert a control over her life. (It is, on the other hand, the workings of language in literature that represent Isabel's inability to control her life.)
Both Woolson and her textual daughter also assert power and identity in physical activity and exertion. Throughout her life Woolson rowed to release energy as well as to pass a pleasant Saturday afternoon. Near the end of Anne, the heroine uses rowing as a release and as a means of coming to terms with her identity. In addition to rowing, Woolson loved any sort of physical activity, especially walking, and her letters are filled with references to hour-long morning jaunts and afternoon treks of six to eight miles. The place of physical exercise in Anne's and Woolson's lives is reflected in Ellen Moers's reading of walking as a recurring pattern in women's writing, signaling feminist independence and drive.25
Woolson's use of archetypal patterns and images in women's writing further identifies her (and Anne) with the women's writing tradition, gaining for Woolson depth and power. Among the archetypes Woolson's novel uses in some fashion are those of the green world epiphany (the coming to self in nature) and the green world lover (the coming to passion in nature), both elements of the archetypal feminine Bildungsroman as discussed by Annis Pratt. As Pratt explains, in nature, the stage for growth, activity, and confirmation of self-identity, women find "solace, companionship, and independence."26 An important distinction is to be made here: for the transcendentalists (and for Isabel) nature is intellectualized, as evidenced by the analytic presentation of the subject in Emerson's famous "Nature" essay. Nature is a representative force rather than a fundamentally real part of our lives. In women's writing, however, nature is a personified friend. In the female Bildungsroman the girl takes possession of herself in taking possession of nature. Anne loves the trees so much she talks to them. Like her heroine, Woolson feels most independent and powerful—most herself— out in nature.27
The green world is the most important setting in Woolson's novel. In a culminating scene, Anne recognizes her friend's killer and is thus empowered to exonerate her lover through knowledge gained while rowing on a lake. In another of her green world epiphanies "among the arbor vitae, where there was an opening, like a green window overlooking the harbor," Anne agrees to marry young Rast Pronando, after his near drowning (132). But Rast is not Anne's green world lover. That figure, associated with the mythic dying god, appears in the person of Ward Heathcote, whose surname is Woolson's adaptation of another famous woman's green world lover. She retailors a rather wild, uncivilized Heathcliff into a more civilized, well-bred Heathcote. A Union captain in the Civil War, he is wounded in West Virginia, and, nearly dead, is restored to life by Anne.
In the archetype, the restorer is a goddess: Aphrodite, Ishtar, or Isis. Anne, in fact, is endowed with similar mythic resonance tying her to the power of the archetypes. From the second page of the narrative, Anne is described as "a young Diana," an allusion that reverberates throughout the novel. Both James and Woolson play on the allusion with their respective heroines; however, James's use is disguised in Isabel's last name, whereas Woolson's use is overt, appealing directly to the women's literary tradition of using goddess archetypes. James uses it from a male perspective to suggest Isabel Archer's female virtue, an abstract idea; Woolson uses it to suggest Anne's physical "vigor" and "elasticity," a concrete description. Their use of the references to Diana echoes their differing versions of transcendental nature: for James and Isabel it is intellectual; for Woolson and Anne it is sensate.
Anne, posed braiding her hair, is also called Ariadne, a figure as familiar as Diana in the women's literary tradition. Indeed, she is both: in her guise as Diana, she is the huntress who dwells alone in the woods and mountains; as Ariadne, she is abandoned by Rast Pronando. But Anne (Woolson) is also Ariadne, a weaver, a domestic maker of fictions, who grows in that capacity over the course of the novel. Early in her recognition that she enjoys writing, we are told that "she never put down any of her own thoughts, opinions, or feelings: Her letters were curious examples of purely impersonal objective writing." Woolson continues:
Egotism, the under-current of most long letters as of most long conversations also, the telling of how this or that was due to us, affected us, was regarded by us, was prophesied, was commended, was objected to, was feared, was thoroughly understood, was held in restraint, was despised or scorned by us, and all our opinions on the subject, which, however important in itself, we present always surrounded by a large indefinite aureola of our own personalityCthis was entirely wanting in Anne Douglas's letters and conversation. (98)
Throughout the course of Anne the heroine's narrative talents grow until, at the climax of the novel, Anne demonstrates her new mastery of narrative form by weaving on the witness stand the fabric of truth, designed to acquit her lover. When the jury cannot arrive at a verdict, Anne rereads the text of the murder herself, discovering the killer. Finally, in the last pages of the novel, the passive voice of her early reflection on writing is rewritten in the active, identifying herself as the star of the show: "I, Anne, take thee, Ward, to be my wedded husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward" (539). Unlike Isabel, Anne can assert her identity in the real world, as suggested by her new command of language. To the end, Isabel, given her circumstances, cannot vigorously and independently pursue her dream. She remains, in the last words she utters in the novel, an object, as she implores Caspar Goodwood, "As you love me, as you pity me, leave me alone!" (489).
Writing her own text of self and arriving at her own identity have not been easy for Anne. At every turn in the novel someone is attempting to appropriate her by stripping her of her linguistic being. Rast calls her Diana; Mrs. Vanhorn calls her Phyllis; Helen calls her Crystal (a particularly suggestive nickname since it implies a reflective relationship between Anne and Helen, one with a singularly complex inner composition and transparency); Miss Lois calls her Ruth Young. Her egotistical assertion at the end, "I, Anne," both defines her powerful new statement of identity and marks an assertion of Woolson's fictional power. Tied into archetypal patterns, that power strengthens the weave.
Before we leave Anne and the way it works with the women's literary tradition, we need to consider the function of Anne's half sister Tita. Much intrigued by the French-American half-breed with more than a trace of Indian blood, Henry James thought highly of Tita as a literary creation, as he writes in his Partial Portraits sketch of Woolson. That Tita "vanishes into the vague" after the reader has "built great hopes" on her is problematic, however.28 What James does not understand is that Tita is a nineteenth-century women's literary archetype: the madwoman in the attic, or, in the case of Anne, the wild child on the island. She cannot be permitted any more narrative space than she has or she would take over. After fulfilling her purpose, she can be dispensed with.
Tita is the madwoman from the other side of the mirror Woolson holds up to herself in her projection of Anne. In The Madwoman in the Attic Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar describe the dynamics of such a mirroring:
Even the most apparently conservative and decorous women writers obsessively create fiercely independent characters who seek to destroy all the patriarchal structures which both their authors and their authors' submissive heroines seem to accept as inevitable. Of course, by projecting their rebellious impulses not into their heroines but into mad or monstrous women … female authors dramatize their own self-division, their desire both to accept the strictures of patriarchal society and to reject them. What this means, however, is that the madwoman in literature by women is not merely, as she might be in male literature, an antagonist or foil to the heroine. Rather, she is usually in some sense the author's double, an image of her own anxiety and rage.29
Tita is truly Anne's mad double. Born of the same father (the same patriarchal structure) but of different mothers, Tita and Anne are both intimately related and decidedly divergent. Whereas Anne was born an Episcopalian in civilized New Hampshire, Tita is the Catholic daughter of his second wife, a French woman with Indian blood, whom he married in the uncivilized territory of the Western Reserve. Her religion, region, and language make Tita a dark unknown, a marginal Gothic figure from the very beginning.
Her personality reinforces her "otherness" vis-à-vis her older sister. While we first see Anne actively hanging Christmas wreaths at the church, Tita is "basking in the glow" of the fireplace, looking up listlessly (9). Anne's eyes are "wide open, and frank" (2), and the "adjective generally applied to her was 'big'" (3). Her heavy hair is demurely braided and pinned up in the fashion Woolson herself adopted. Tita, on the other hand, is "small—a strange little creature, with braids of black hair hanging down behind almost to her ankles, half-closed black eyes, little hands and feet, a low soft voice, and the grace of a young panther" (9). Anne has the blush of a peach, but Tita's complexion is pallid. Anne maternally cares for her half brothers; Tita threatens violence: "If you come any nearer," she tells one, " … I shall lay open the side of your head" (9-10). Tita rules the boys like a king, exhorting them with foul language and avenging herself against them for invading the privacy of her fur-carpeted lair near the fire:
When they had been unbearably troublesome she stole into their room at night in her little white nightgown, with all her long thick black hair loose, combed all over her face, and hanging down round her nearly to her feet…. she left a lamp in the hall outside, so that they could dimly see her, and then she stood and swayed toward them slowly, backward and forward, without a sound, all the time coming nearer and nearer, until they shrieked aloud in terror, and Anne, hurrying to the rescue, found only three frightened little fellows cowering together in their broad bed, and the hairy ghost gone. (10)
Elsewhere, too, Tita is depicted as a ghost. On the same Christmas Eve that Anne hangs the wreath, Tita steals into the sitting room to examine the contents of her stocking. When she does not find the hair ribbons she wants, she writes a letter to Santa asking for them and puts it in her father's way. Her mission complete, she goes back to her own room "like a small white ghost" (23). Anne, innocent of Tita's machinations, provides the ribbons for her sister's pleasure after consulting with her father. Tita's ghostly image is a correlative for the "uneasy sense of trouble" that surfaces "like a veiled, formless shape" (20) whenever William Douglas thinks of Tita. "The sins of the fathers," he reflects.
Compared to both a cat and an embalmed monkey of the Nile, Tita at thirteen years old, neither child nor woman, is a preternatural, mythic, dangerous, mysterious force. She dresses entirely inappropriately for a Christmas dance in "a fantastic short skirt of black cloth barred with scarlet, and a little scarlet bodice" (33). When Tita is said to look like a circus rider in such a thin costume—the colors of blood and passion, we note—Anne confesses that she knew nothing of her sister's plan to dress in such an outfit.
But Anne should know, if not consciously, then unconsciously; for if Anne is her father's favorite and Rast Pronando's sweetheart, Tita is her rival. The small, ghostly half-breed sister is the locus for the virginal Diana's displaced feelings not only of violence, manipulation, and jealousy, but also of selfhood and passion. Père Michaux, Tita's confessor, is the first to identify Tita's "strong selfism" in her understanding of religious ideas: "Whatever was said to her in the way of correction she turned and adjusted to suit herself; her mental ingenuity was extraordinary" (74). Obedient Anne just "listened to the child with wonder" (74) as her sister revolts against the patriarchy of the Catholic Church.
But it is Rast, Anne's fiancé, who evokes the passion primary in Tita's nature and hidden in Anne's in a particularly telling scene, which occurs as Rast prepares to leave the island for college. As he bids farewell to Anne, she appears calm rather than sad, a reaction that annoys him. Tita, on the other hand, drops out of a tree into his arms. After giving her a kiss and stroking her hair, Rast is forced to pry her arms from him. Although Woolson is probably conscious only of how the scene prepares the way for Rast and Tita's marriage at the end, her language illuminates Tita's role as Anne's (and Woolson's) mad double crazed by passion:
Tita, left alone, looked at her arms, reddened by the force with which she had resisted his efforts to unclasp them. They had been pressed so closely against the rough woollen cloth of his coat that the brown flesh showed the mark of the diagonal pattern.
"It is a hurt," she said, passionately—"it is a hurt." Her eyes flashed, and she shook her small fist at the retreating figure. (120)
As Anne grows into selfhood, recognizing and acting on her own passions for Heathcote, Tita marries the colorless Rast, companion of her sister's youth, and then disappears from the scene. We learn of the marriage through a traditional women's writing strategy of concentric narratives.30 Chapter 22 of Anne reproduces four different letters notifying the heroine of the events leading up to the marriage, which ironically frees her to act on her own passion.
Tita, whose real name is Angélique (like her mother's), is Anne's dark angel as well as nemesis. Diminutive Tita, full of strength of identity, is indeed, as William Douglas had noted, a product of some patriarchal sin. We read that sin as the father's denial of personhood for his daughters. Because of that sin, exemplified by his refusal to allow Anne to learn Greek, Tita rises to assert her own identity violently and passionately.
Despite their other differences, constituted in part by their differing gender viewpoints, Woolson and James are each concerned with the silencing of female figures. Tita, whose passionate nature presents a distinct threat to domesticity as constituted by the patriarchy, is silenced, and though Anne becomes an active asserter of selfhood at the end of the novel, in marrying she will be subjugating her own identity to her husband's.
Woolson's power, in Anne as well as in other fictions, derives from traditions of women's writing as well as from her own unique talent. The tradition is the most important element differentiating her from Henry James, a man who generally chose (the notable exception being George Eliot, a curious case given her choice of pseudonym) male writers as his models. We realize that Emerson spoke to him, not to women, like Woolson, when he wrote: "The Poet is representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man." One of Isabel Archer's mistakes is in thinking that Emerson wrote to her. Women, as Ellen Moers suggests by her recasting of Emerson in her headnote to Chapter I of Literary Women, are themselves forced to rewrite Emerson because they belong to a variant tradition.31 Constance Fenimore Woolson found her representative poets in that tradition, in the works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Sand, George Eliot, and the Brontës. Her individual talent is remarkable, too, not simply for her vivid local-color descriptions of Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, Florida, and Europe (those landscapes which form the boundaries of her career) but also for her energetic struggle with issues of identity, language, and art.
Anne clearly exemplifies how Woolson adapted her literary inheritance from the domestics of earlier in the century to suit her original purposes. And indeed, her later novels take up that same women's tradition to tell stories of strong girls who triumph over obstacles to make their ways in the world. In her short fiction, however, Woolson treats issues other than marrying well. In fact, in several of her best fictions, marriage becomes the lesser of two evils, the other being destitution. Her artist-heroines are forced, in choosing it—and survival—to sacrifice self and art.
1 Mary Kelley, Private Woman, Public Stage (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984) and Nina Baym, Woman's Fiction: Novels by and About Women in America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978).
2 Constance Fenimore Woolson, "Duets," Harper's New Monthly Magazine 49 (September 1874): 579-585.
3 Constance Fenimore Woolson, "Weighed in the Balance," Appleton's Journal 7 (1 June 1872): 590.
4 Constance Fenimore Woolson, Castle Nowhere: Lake Country Sketches (Boston: J. R. Osgood and Company, 1875).
5 Constance Fenimore Woolson, Anne (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1882). Page numbers are cited parenthetically within the text.
6 Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady, ed. Robert D. Bamberg (New York: W. W. Norton, 1975). I have chosen to use the Norton Critical Edition since it offers a list of textual variants from the first edition of 1881 in addition to the text of the later New York edition. Because the 1908 edition differs from the original, written while Woolson was at work on Anne, the reader should consult the 1881 first edition variants, as I have done. Page numbers are cited parenthetically within the text.
7 Alfred Habegger refers to Henry James and William Dean Howells as sissies in chapter 7 of Gender, Fantasy, and Realism in American Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), pp. 56-65.
8 Baym, Woman's Fiction, p. 22.
9 Carren Kaston, Imagination and Desire in the Novels of Henry James (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1984), p. 40.
10 Habegger, Gender, Fantasy, p. 56.
11 Kaston, Imagination and Desire, p. 41.
12 Ibid., p. 41.
13 Ibid., p. 41.
14 William Veeder, Henry James—The Lessons of the Master: Popular Fiction and Personal Style in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), p. 71.
15 Veeder, Henry James, p. 120.
16 For the idea of the resisting reader, I am indebted to Judith Fetterley, The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978).
17 Joyce Warren, The American Narcissus: Individualism and Women in Nineteenth-Century Fiction (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1984), pp. 43, 49.
18 Kaston, Imagination and Desire, p. 40.
19 Henry James, Henry James Letters, vol. 3 (1883-1895), ed. Leon Edel (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1980), p. 535.
20 See Baym, Woman's Fiction, and Kelley, Private Woman.
21Henry James Letters, 3:544-545.
22 For extensive discussions of how women's writing empowers its female readers, see for example, Baym, Woman's Fiction, and Kelley, Private Woman.
23Anne was published by Harper and Brothers in 1882, 1903, and 1910, and by Sampson and Low (London) in 1883. The Arno Press has reprinted the Harper's text with a new introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick.
24 Judith Kegan Gardiner, "On Female Identity and Writing by Women," in Writing and Sexual Difference, ed. Elizabeth Abel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 187.
25 Ellen Moers, Literary Women: The Great Writers (1976: rpt., New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 130.
26 Annis Pratt, Archetypal Patterns in Women's Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981), p. 21.
27 I located a list of wildflowers Woolson had seen, written in the back cover of a wildflower text in the holdings of the Olin Library at Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida, where I also found two unpublished Woolson poems, "Ferns" and "Fern Fragments," tucked in the back of a book.
28 James, "Miss Woolson," Literary Criticism: Essays on Literature, American, English Writers (New York: Library of America, 1984), p. 642.
29 Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), pp. 77-78.
30 Ibid., p. 249.
31 Moers, Literary Women, p. 1.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7136
SOURCE: "Island Fortresses: The Landscape of the Imagination in the Great Lakes Fiction of Constance Fenimore Woolson," American Literary Realism: 1870-1910, Vol. 22, No. 3, Spring 1990, pp. 51-66.
[In the following essay, Brehm contests the idea that Woolson is either "a failed realist or a failed sentimentalist" and argues that Woolson's writing reflects her own conflicts and renunciations as a female author.]
Henry James noted only two "defects" in Constance Fenimore Woolson's 1889 novel Jupiter Lights: "One is that the group on which she has bent her lens strikes us as too detached, too isolated, too much a desert island…. The other fault is that the famous 'tender sentiment' usurps among them a place even greater perhaps than that which it holds in real life…. "1 Although James rightly spotted two unresolved problems in Woolson's work, he did not understand that there was a connection between them, nor could he have perceived how they were an attempt to resolve a personal conflict. Jupiter Lights was only the most recent manifestation of a theme Woolson had repeated obsessively in more than twenty Great Lakes stories, where she tried to solve the problem of being a single, self-supporting woman as well as a serious artist in the two decades after the Civil War. Her solution, perhaps unconscious, was to encode her painful struggle in stories with conventional romantic patterns, using idiosyncratic motifs of character and landscape to undercut the promised marriage her readers expected.
Unfortunately, Woolson left little record of this early struggle except her stories. Her career spanned several decades—she was the first woman to write maritime fiction about the Great Lakes, the first writer to chronicle the Reconstruction South, and one of the first to describe American expatriate life in Europe—before she died suddenly at age 54, perhaps a suicide, in Venice in 1894. Because she did not live to write an autobiography and always requested that her correspondents destroy her letters, we seldom know how close she was to the themes in her work. The biography compiled by her niece is a potpourri of fragments of Woolson's work and undated excerpts from surviving letters, thus compounding the difficulties of scholarly investigation of this reticent, retiring woman.2 Nevertheless, there is enough evidence to suggest that she contended all her life with the dilemma of wanting to be part of her nineteenth-century world and yet needing to remain aloof from it. If she fulfilled the expectations of her society to marry and have children, her freedom, both personal and professional, would be severely restricted. To ignore those social expectations was to condemn herself to loneliness, to become, as she wrote late in her life, a "very quiet person whose circle constantly narrows around her."3 Yet she had early revealed a reluctance toward the conventional feminine role; in her twenties she wrote to a friend who had recently married, "Although I am willing to settle down after thirty years are told, I do not care to be forced into quiescence yet awhile."4 As her many travel articles attest, she never stayed anywhere long, even in places she loved. She gave up her prized apartment in the Villa Brichieri in Florence, where she had settled after seventeen years of wandering Europe and the Middle East, to take lodgings in England because
I have come here to do a long job of literary work. I could do almost nothing in Florence; there were such endless numbers of people to receive & to go and see…. I hated to give up the beautiful Bellosguardo View; it tore me to pieces to do it. But after a struggle to write & attend to social duties at the same time through three long years, I at last recognized that it was impossible. At least impossible for me.5
At this time (1890), Woolson was artistically and financially successful, yet the societal world still seemed threatening. And when she first began to write, she could not have had the bulwark of success. Her struggle shows in her first stories, where she approached her problem by creating characters who did what she was trying to do, who served as the examples she lacked in life. She projected her conflict into her characters and onto the landscape of her imagination, creating singular, isolated individuals who find an island refuge. In her fiction she found the freedom to envision another life, one that anticipated what her own would become. Her personal conflict of longing for complete independence, but fearing its price, was compounded by her public relations. She despised the predictable, romantic fiction that appealed to what she witheringly referred to as "the public," once relating how she had flung a popular novel across the room.6 Elsewhere she wrote, "I have such a horror of 'pretty,' 'sweet' writing that I should almost prefer a style that was ugly and bitter, provided it was also strong."7 But many of her early stories are constructed with a conventional romantic plot that ends in marriage, and her first novel, Anne (1882), was a best-selling model in the genre, reminiscent of the domestic novels already popular for three decades. This paradox can be explained only partly by the demands of the marketplace. When she did risk "going back to nature and exact reality"8 in stories like "Castle Nowhere" (1875) and "Peter the Parson" (1874) her readers complained:
At least twenty awful letters have I received because I made Old Fog ("Castle Nowhere") say he did not believe in eternal punishment. Is it possible that I am to be held personally responsible for the morality of my characters? I want you to think of me not as your old friend, when you read my writings, but as a "writer," like anyone else…. The truth is … whatever one does must be done with one's might and I would rather be strong than beautiful, or even good, provided the "good" must be dull.
And, under the abuse which has been showered upon me for my "brutal killing of Peter the Parson," I have steadily maintained to myself that both in an artistic and truthful-to-life point of view, my ending of the story was better than the conversion of the miners, "the plenty to eat and the happy marriage" proposed by my critics.9
The second comment suggests that Woolson's first readers disliked not only her refusal to write saccharin stories, but her use of isolato figures as a contrast to the romance, characters who chose not to conform and often felt no need to justify themselves. Set down amidst the trappings of romance, their examples flash like buoys marking the hidden rocks in a placid channel, warning readers that below the surface prettiness of wedding plans lies another, more disturbing, reality.
Despite her questioning of fictional conventions, Woolson has been shunned by many recent feminist critics in favor of other nineteenth-century women writers whose work falls into the patterns of "women's fiction" currently in fashion. If they judge her at all, it is as a "serious" writer whose use of a love plot undercuts her intentions.10 Thus to them she is either a failed realist or a failed sentimentalist, and her ability to use both conventions equally well is considered a fault rather than a virtue. Other critics have categorized her as a local colorist,11 or as straddling "the border between local color and realism."12 These conclusions are based on the inference that since she wrote about the Great Lakes and then the South and then Europe and described each setting with fidelity of detail, realistic evocation of place was her major talent. But the many differences in her work and her life that distinguish her from women local colorists should by now have made such categorization fallacious.13 Some critics have noted that she always wrote about characters who sacrifice what they love so that others can be happy.14 Few have considered how her use of this familiar renunciation theme differs from the ordinary, and none how inseparable it is from her use of landscape. She did write one story over and over, and it was about the cost and gains to women who refused to go along with the obligatory domestic femininity of their time. Few American women had written it before.
The landscapes of the Great Lakes stories are remote, as those who class Woolson with the local colorists commonly point out, settings more common to that mode than to the "inner spaces" of the domestic fiction of the 1840s and 1850s. But remoteness of place or the use of curious characters does not necessarily make a local color story. Woolson uses dialects sparingly; she shows little or no nostalgia for a vanished way of life. Unlike the work of Rose Terry Cooke, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Sarah Orne Jewett, or Mary Murfree, Woolson's stories are as likely to be narrated by men as by women and to have both male and female protagonists. Moreover, Woolson's stories of women seldom depict them retreating to their native villages, a common theme in feminine local color writing; rather, especially in the early stories, they trace the fates of those who do not follow husbands into the wilderness but go alone, a different pattern from what Annette Kolodny describes15 or from what Margaret Fuller had noticed when she was traveling in Great Lakes country in 1843.16
Raised in Cleveland, Woolson never wrote about her native city because, she said, "there was no 'background' there but the lights from the blast-furnaces at Newburgh on a dark night."17 Woolson's territory, her imaginative landscape, is the Michigan wilderness, what might more properly be called the Old Northwest Territory. To her it seemed not a sparsely settled frontier but often a true wilderness, a place "where man himself is a visitor and does not remain."18 What Woolson does not admit is that this wilderness had not existed since she was a child, and hardly then. Even before the Civil War Michigan was being lumbered, mined, settled, and rapidly transformed into a tourist mecca. Caroline Kirkland's A New Home—Who'll Follow?19 had described the Michigan frontier a year before Woolson was born in 1840. When Woolson began to write, Kirkland's frontier was comfortably settled and Michigan had been a state for over thirty years. A recent historian half-humorously describes the Great Lakes shortly after Woolson's birth this way:
In 1845 … approximately 200,000 passengers crossed the upper Lakes bound for Chicago, Milwaukee, and other western ports. Tourist excursions by steamboat to Green Bay and other points of interest in the near North had become fashionable: wealthy New Yorkers engaged in Great Circle tours—up the Mississippi by steamboat, a short rail or stage transfer to the Lakes at Chicago, down the Lakes by luxury liner to Buffalo, and thence by train or Erie Canal packet boat to the Hudson and home. It had been just twenty-five years since the Cass expedition had found most of the Lakes a howling wilderness. Now they were seeing women in evening gowns and men in tails on promenade decks lined with plush cushions. Henry Schoolcraft, now the Indian Agent at Mackinac, quit his post and went home in disgust to write his memoirs. Civilization, he thought, had taken over far too completely.20
Woolson wrote several travel pieces about the Lakes, one a humorous debunking of just such luxury excursions. Yet with few exceptions, the majority of her fictional settings are not only wild, but beyond history. Her descriptions of nature may be beautiful, evocative of a rapidly disappearing paradise that Champlain had called la Mer douce, the sweet sea. But her land is a land of imagination, not experience. From her childhood memories of the Lakes, she created a landscape to serve as the stage for her actions, a wilderness that is frequently an island where social expectations need not be honored, where those who have fled society make their refuges.
"Ballast Island" (1873), an early piece, begins, like many of these stories, with a storm on the Lakes and a lover's quarrel. Elizabeth, fleeing from her betrothed, Frederick, is caught in a storm on Lake Erie and her boat is blown ashore on Ballast Island. Frederick pursues her and they are both taken care of by Miss Jonah, the solitary middle-aged woman who has kept the light there for many years. The lovers' quarrel resolved and the wedding date set, Miss Jonah's tale is then revealed at the center of the story. After a long engagement she had discovered that her betrothed loved her younger sister, so Miss Jonah faked her own drowning and stole away, leaving her farm to the lovers, and wandered until she came to the island. Determined not to be found and brought back into the family circle where she would either marry a man she knew did not love her or be forced to watch him marry someone else, she changed her name, taking that of a mountain near her home, "Yonah." But the people of Lake Erie mispronounced it and she became "Miss Jonah," a mistake she never corrected. Although Elizabeth and Frederick plead with her to come with them to the city, she refuses: "Here I'm going to stay. I like it. It's lonely, but I'm best alone…. I have a fancy I shall not live long, and I want to be buried here on Ballast. There mustn't be any stone or even a mound, for I want to be clean forgotten; and this is what I ask you two to do for me."21
Superficially, this story appears to resemble the Shell Heap Island episodes in Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs, but there are significant differences. "Poor Joanna" is rejected by her lover, whereas Miss Jonah sacrifices herself for his happiness. Joanna isolates herself on an island, but Shell Heap is within sight and sound of her former home and people frequently sail their boats near or stop and leave packages for her. She remains emotionally, if not physically, within her former society. But Woolson's Miss Jonah changes her name and flees north. When she dies only three people bury her, not the whole town. More important, while Jewett constantly refers to Joanna as "poor Joanna," Woolson does not pity Miss Jonah any more than Miss Jonah pities herself. She is described as strong and competent as a man, capable of handling any emergency, but also still feminine, a good cook and a lover of flowers. She chides Elizabeth's dainty femininity with "What's the good of your hands?" and her one culinary accomplishment, cream pies, with "Cream pies! … Will they save the nation?"
At first glance "Ballast Island" may seem only a love story with a spinster figure for contrast, a common type before the Civil War. But Miss Jonah is much more than simply a Wise Aunt. Woolson is careful to make her life an alternative to marriage, an example of how a woman can thrive without love. In earlier women's fiction, the so-called "handbooks of feminine revolt"22 and stories of the "philosophy of the fortunate fall,"23 the heroine often renounced love, only to have it restored to her when the plot threads were neatly tied. But Woolson is concerned with what happens to women who renounce and then discover there is no restoration. The woman local colorists explored this theme repeatedly, but their women wither away in dark, decaying houses or, like Poor Joanna, immolate themselves in sight of the community.24 Miss Jonah does neither. Like so many of Woolson's heroines who sacrifice themselves for another's happiness, she leaves without good-byes and begins life over in another place, becoming stronger for her struggle.
She does not, however, necessarily become happier in a conventional sense. True to her Biblical namesake, Miss Jonah has sacrificed her own joy for a greater good, but her renunciation was not without pain and she still weeps when she considers all that she lost. At the same time, her hard-won strength and wisdom overshadow Elizabeth's naive romantic posturings with an example of how fragile romantic happiness truly is, how quickly a young woman can be forced to create another life for herself. Yet Miss Jonah has not become bitter, nor does she begrudge the young lovers their happiness. As they leave, she "climbed upon a rock and stood gazing after the sloop, her tall form outlined against the gloomy sky," becoming like the mountain whose name she had chosen, rather than the grim prophet whose name society had given her.
The metaphor of Miss Jonah as mountain is interesting because it prefigures the last entry in Woolson's journal before she died in 1894:
Upon seeing the sharp peaks of the Dolomites and the great snow masses of the Alps from the point of the Lido on Christmas Eve, 1893, the thought came to me that they are riding along through immeasurable space, they are the outer edge of our star, they cut the air as they fly. They are the rim of the world. I should like to turn into a peak when I die: to be a beautiful purple mountain, which would please the tired, sad eyes of thousands of human beings for the ages.25
Woolson wrote that passage twenty years after "Ballast Island," but the metaphors in question had not changed. By 1893 she too had become isolated, and while that isolation often made her weary, as it did Miss Jonah, she had made for herself an artist's life, distinct from conventional married lives.26
In The Experience of Landscape, Jay Appleton suggests that like most animals we prefer landscapes where we feel secure. Landscapes which offer protection—high hills, the edges of forests, or islands—which allow us to detect strangers long before they arrive, are more attractive than other landforms. He suggests that this atavistic instinct for "prospect and refuge" explains many configurations in landscape paintings we find pleasing, and that this instinct operates even more powerfully in the symbolic language of literature. The act of reading forces the reader to produce a landscape from the cues of the writer's imagination and thus to participate in the experience of place more intimately than he may when presented with the accomplished facts of pictorial representations.27 If Appleton is right, it seems reasonable to believe that a writer who creates fictional landscapes also completes such an inferential process. And so Woolson's late journal entry seems a residual form of such operations she had conducted when writing her fiction, where an isolato on an island, often an island with a high escarpment, appears in almost every Great Lakes story after "Ballast Island." Through her landscapes she gains symbolic power and control outdoors and far away, rather than in what Henry Nash Smith has called "the middle landscape" of small towns and gentle spaces.28 Woolson's response is more like that of her grand-uncle James Fenimore Cooper, what Richard Slotkin has described as "the characteristic American gesture in the face of adversity … immersion in the native element, the wilderness, as the solution to all problems, the balm to all wounds of the soul, the restorative for failing fortunes."29 For a woman writer who felt the conventional feminine role as a restriction on her freedom—"I do not care to be forced into quiescence"—the usual female, domestic, fictional setting with its garden was an anathema.
Edith Cobb claims that resort to a landscape known earlier is common among persons of genius, where it takes the form of an imaginative return to a "middle age of childhood, approximately from five or six to eleven to twelve … when the natural world is experienced in some highly evocative way, producing in the child a sense of some profound continuity with natural processes … when what a child wanted to do most of all was to make a world in which to find a place to discover a self." The recreation of this landscape in later life is an attempt to renew at its source the impulse and power to create.30 For Woolson, this meant a return to the Great Lakes islands she had visited as a child, particularly the Wine Islands of Lake Erie (of which Ballast Island is one) and Mackinac Island at the Straights. During the next five years before she wrote her first novel, Anne (partly set on Mackinac Island), Woolson would write nine more stories set on Great Lakes islands, moving the settings generally north and west farther into the wilderness until she reached the Apostle Islands in western Lake Superior. With "Ballast Island" the group is:
|"Ballast Island"||1873 Wine Islands||Lake Erie|
|"St. Clair Flats"||1873 Lake St. Clair||Lake Huron|
|"A Flower of the Snow"||1874 Mackinac||Lake Huron|
|"Jeannette"||1874 Mackinac||Lake Huron|
|"The Old Agency"||1874 Mackinac||Lake Huron|
|"Misery Landing"||1874 Apostles||Lake Superior|
|"The Lady of Little Fishing"||1874 Apostles||Lake Superior|
|"Mission Endeavor"||1874 Apostles||Lake Superior|
|"Castle Nowhere"||1876 Hog Island?||Lake Michigan|
|"Raspberry Island"||1877 Bois Blanche?||Lake Huron|
Many of these islands rise like cliffs from the water, particularly Mackinac, which was a military garrison chosen for the impregnability of its ramparts when Indians had attacked Fort Michilimackinac on the mainland across the Straits, and the Apostles in Lake Superior. The protagonist of "Misery Landing" (1874), John Jay, builds an eyrie on one of the Apostles, "fortified by a high stockade across the land side; the other three sides were cliffs rising from the deep water,"31 a setting more convenient for eagles than for a man.
Those islands not described as cliff-like are fortresses hidden in labyrinths. Waiting Samuel, a crazed religious prophet, and his long-suffering wife Roxanna of "St. Clair Flats" (1873) live in the great marsh on Lake St. Clair, surrounded by channels so confusing that only by trailing string behind can outsiders find their way back to the island house.32 Old Fog of "Castle Nowhere" (1875) has so cleverly camouflaged his inland house with floating sedge that one can approach it only by knowing just which piece of sedge to move.33 All these island isolatos have been unhappy, sometimes persecuted wanderers in the world, until they find their islands where they are free and safe. Even the members of the garrison at Mackinac, secure in a military society, mourn when they must leave for other posts; in "Jeannette" (1874) a mixed-race island girl gives up a chance to marry the garrison doctor who will educate her and take her traveling with him to stay at Mackinac and marry a local boy who is as wild and free as she.34
In contrast, those characters in stories not set on islands but in wilderness clearings, isolated by the lake on one side and impenetrable timber on the other, are quite different. The setting of Pine City in "Hepzibah's Story," an early, unpublished manuscript, is typical:
[It was] a small settlement gathered around the sawmills; back on the ridge there was a row of white houses, a long dock ran out into the lake, and on all sides stood the woods, the great trees so close together that I could not see between them, stretching down to the water's edge and closing around the clearing like a well.35
Significantly, the characters in these "clearing" stories do not fare so well as Miss Jonah or Old Fog. Hepzibah returns to New England when she finds her betrothed loves another, the only one of Woolson's heroines to retreat. Peter, the ascetic Episcopal priest of "Peter the Parson" (1874), is mocked by the rough miners of his congregation, even as he gives his life to save a thief who once maimed him. Peter's sacrifice is neither appreciated nor avenged, and the young girl who loved him promptly marries his replacement. Unlike Miss Jonah, he reaps no satisfaction from his sacrifice: "I have failed in my work, I have failed in myself, I am of all men the most miserable!"36
Even Woolson's infrequent pastoral landscape of small towns and settled fields is not a good place, particularly for women. Her two stories of the Zoar Community of Ohio, "Solomon" (1873) and "Wilhelmina" (1875), are set in the archetypal middle landscape, yet both describe the lives of doomed and suffering characters. Solomon, a talented but untutored artist, paints the same picture repeatedly, trying to create what he sees only in his imagination. Once given a lesson, he realizes his vision on canvas, only to die the next day in a mining accident. His wife, who understood neither his genius nor his desire, pities only herself.37 Wilhelmina waits steadfastly for her lover to return from the Civil War so they may marry, but when he marches home, he abandons her. Forced to marry a man she doesn't love, she dies soon after.38 For Woolson, society, and often love or marriage, equalled loss of power and loss of self. There is no "prospect" or "refuge" where one who falls outside the social norm can feel confident; the forest or the fields suffocate, "closing around [like] a well."39
Like Miss Jonah, however, none of Woolson's island isolatos, man or woman, is happy in a conventional sense. At best they are aware that their lives, cut off from society, can make truce with loneliness only by strength and resignation. Even though their social isolation is not always pleasant, however, it does give them independence, and this is the key to Woolson's obsession with her theme. To define herself as an artist took courage in a time when most women defined themselves as daughters, wives, and mothers, particularly when, as in Woolson's case, there was no nurturing group of other writers around her. James and Howells, who faced the same difficulty in becoming serious artists during a period awash in conventional fiction, lived in urban centers. Woolson had no such support. That she missed it is evident from letters even late in her life: "I am terribly alone in my literary work. There seems to be no one for me to turn to. It is true that there are only two or three to whom I wd. turn!"40
And so Woolson respectfully projects her strong, singular, independent men and women, particularly women, who are proud, willing to settle for less than their due and yet able to take the consequences. Whereas John Jay gives up his Misery Landing to return to the city and marry a woman he loves but whom he knows wants only his money, Woolson's women seldom capitulate, even if it means permanent isolation or death. When Miriam, the heroine of "Mission Endeavor" (1876), abandons a man she has saved from execution by agreeing to marry him, she leaves him to a lesser woman in an explanatory letter. Like many other Woolson heroines, Miriam has sailed off into a lake without saying good-bye, but she gives a parting shot:
I hate hypocrisy. Therefore I wish to say that it was not religious enthusiasm or self-sacrifice that made me try to save you when Ruth failed. (For she did fail; you can never alter that.) I was religious—once. I had deep religious enthusiasms—once. I was capable of making just such a sacrifice for a doomed criminal—once. But that was long ago—before I loved you!
Yes, Richard Herndon, I loved you, I love you now. But through all the complications and temptations of my fate I am coming out right; I am leaving you forever.
Go back to Ruth if you like; I do not care, nor shall I know. For I can not marry you if I would, being a wife, at least in name already; and I would not if I could, being very proud. For you did not love me first, Richard; therefore you shall not love me last.41
Richard's reaction to this unexpected feminine independence is that he has had a "happy escape; she would have been very inconvenient." To which Woolson as narrator adds her last line, like an ironic smile, "And so she would I fear."
It is intriguing to compare "Mission Endeavor" with an earlier tale considered among Woolson's best, "The Lady of Little Fishing" (1874). This story, which she patterned after Bret Harte's "The Luck of Roaring Camp," was far more appealing to nineteenth-century readers than "Mission Endeavor," for obvious reasons. Yet Woolson seems to have felt compelled to reconsider the Bret Harte materials in the later story, to restructure the sentimental plot in a less romantic manner more aligned with her own philosophy. Nowhere else in her work does she create two stories with characters and situations so similar but with such different endings. The Lady of Little Fishing, a missionary to a camp of trappers, falls in love with the only man who does not love her. When he rejects her, she weakens and dies, murmuring that although she had "held herself above her kind," God had shown her that she was "the weakest of them all."42 In both stories the group of men who rule are initially afraid of the woman missionary because of her strength and saintly demeanor. But both the Lady and Miriam "fall," experiencing unrequited love and showing that they are human after all. The significant difference in "Mission Endeavor" is that Miriam does not die from loss of love; she sails off into the lake, presumably to become an isolato, and leaves her erstwhile lover to walk along the beach for twelve hours to reach a settlement. Woolson's message is again that love is capricious and that the best way for a woman to cope, particularly if her love is unreturned, is to gather strength and make another life. To refuse to do that, to continue expecting that somehow fate will restore happiness, is death.
As Ann Douglas has pointed out, in the post-Civil War years many women faced just such a possibility, for there were relatively few available men. She suggests that local colorists recognized a statistical probability in cataloguing lonely women left at home with no alternatives except death or a mouldering, witchlike insanity.43 But Woolson creates an alternative: sane women, secure in what they know they must do to survive, realistic about their chances for happiness. In so doing she also shows that by freeing herself from the constraints of self-destructive love, a woman can avail herself of men's personal freedom to travel, to explore, to become competent at taking care of herself. Woolson's strong women may be uppity and unpredictable, like Miriam; they may have their moments of deep regret, like Miss Jonah; but they endure in a hostile world. Margaret Morris survives after a shipwreck on Lake Michigan through sheer anger at a fellow survivor's condescension: "The pride and high temper of Margaret Morris, lashed into vigor by the sharp questions of the stranger, saved the life of her exhausted body, and the two were still talking when the cold dawn rose slowly into sight, revealing the gray surface of the stormy lake and the blue line of distant shore."44 Contrary to convention, moreover, Margaret does pot marry her raftmate, but soon boards another steamer and continues to Chicago. Flower Moran, of "A Flower of the Snow" (1874), is another strong woman willing to be alone. Believing the man she loves does not love her, she sets off into a blizzard. Her guide gives up, the dog train is close to exhaustion, but Flower trudges on. "I am not a coward," she replies to a seductive voice in her head, which urges her to lie down in the snow and sleep into certain death. "'What have you to live for?' pursued the voice. 'To conquer myself…. Do I not know that I am unloved and unlovable? Am I not trying to do right? Have I not left all that is dear to me in life to follow my wretched, lonely way through the world?'" After continuing to walk, despite the pain of cold and exhaustion, Flower suddenly remembers a Bible verse, "As if written in letters of fire in the air…. He that overcometh shall inherit all things."45 Much has been written about the covert feminism of the women's literature of the 1840s and 1850s, but recent critics have suggested that after the Civil War, when feminism moved out of books and into the streets, literature became regressive.46 Woolson's stories prove this is not completely accurate. Moreover, Woolson's feminism is of a different character than that of the Sentimentalists, who were intent on giving women power within the home.
But Woolson's pattern of story—a character who begins in a love, loses the love, creates another self in nature in response to loss, but then is alone—can become an imaginative dead-end. Woolson's "Natalie Bumppos" have only a single story, and its repetitions can pall. As Kolodny writes of Leatherstocking, the price for returning to the womb of the wilderness is "adult sexuality and much of what we know of civilized norms. Natty can never experience adult human relations within the social community."47 Woolson's growing recognition of the limitations in her early theme becomes apparent in one of her last Great Lakes isolato portraits, the title story to her collection of Lake Country sketches, Castle Nowhere.48 Old Fog has left civilization for the fog-shrouded northern reaches of Lake Michigan, where for many years he secretly wrecks ships to obtain food and clothing for his beloved foundling child, Silver. When a wealthy stranger from the city happens on Fog's "castle," Silver is grown, but she is still a joyful child who knows nothing of death or evil because of Fog's protection. As Silver comes to know and love the stranger, her naiveté vanishes. "Frightened, shy, bewildered, she fled away from all her dearest joys, and stayed by herself in the flower-room with the bar across the door, only emerging timidly at meal-times and stealing into the long room like a little wraith; a rosy wraith now, for at last she had learned to blush." When they marry and prepare to leave the island, Fog dies, and on her wedding day Silver learns her first lesson of death. Although her husband dutifully teaches her the Christian doctrine of the resurrection, the reader is left wondering if marriage and religion, however laudatory, compensate for Silver's losses. She has learned of evil, and in Woolson's island paradise, evil comes from civilization to take away childlike joy and replace it with a controlling husband who suggests to Fog that, "Of course it is a great thing for you to have the child off your hands and placed in a home so high above your expectations."
At the same time, Woolson clearly portrays the danger Fog courted by remaining isolated in his castle, for if no stranger had ever come for Silver, when Fog died of old age she would have starved to death. In this paradox of strength and naiveté inevitably forced to face death or return to society, Woolson admits that to remain an isolato on an island is to refuse to acknowledge reality. Painful as that reality may be, the person, or the artist, who shuns it will forever remain a child, trapped in a dream of landscape that will one day destroy by psychic starvation.
By the time Woolson came to write Anne she had been living in the South for nearly ten years and setting fiction there for five. Thus it was logical that she should try to use both island and Southern settings as she did later in Jupiter Lights. The combination is not satisfactory, however, as nearly every critic notes.49 The first section of Anne, set on Mackinac, is universally praised, but once the heroine leaves the Strait, the novel becomes episodic, unfocused, and traditionally sentimental. The large middle section of Jupiter Lights, set on Lake Superior, lies incongruously between the southern beginning and close. In both books Woolson seems caught in transition between two different metaphors of landscape, a North of escape and retreat, and a South of closeness and familial tradition.
The North remains, in both novels, a place of safety and power. Anne, like Silver before her, is forced by circumstances from her island paradise at Mackinac, and the rest of the novel traces her attempt to make her way in the world alone. When finally she succeeds, she returns to the island to be married, high within the ramparts of the fort that crowns the escarpment overlooking the water. The whole cast of Jupiter Lights flees north to escape danger; most of the resolution of the plot takes place near the Lake, and the return to the South at the end is only a return to a stable family situation. But in neither novel does Woolson achieve the dramatic power of Great Lakes landscape and character as she had in her stories. There is no isolato on an island at the center, no conflict between remaining within a social world and rejecting it. These novels are apprentice-pieces for Woolson's later work as a novelist of manners and they reveal her growing recognition that the metaphorical structure she had imposed on her childhood country was no longer sufficient for her imagination. The magic that had come from a seamless blending of character and place was gone; she had grown beyond it.
Rather than boredom with her local color materials, as most critics have suggested, this is the major reason why Woolson stopped writing about the Great Lakes country. In the post-Reconstruction South she could explore the isolato's position within an established society; like Henry James, she would create a complex investigation of the outsider in a social setting. In her Southern stories, and her later European stories as well, this outsider is often a northerner or a Yankee set down in a foreign culture. Although she still wrote of isolated houses by the water, they were filled with family life. She still described mountains, but they provided comfort and shelter for the towns set down among them; they had no escarpments to keep away the world. Throughout her life, she created characters who sacrifice themselves for another's happiness, but in her later stories, they do not run away after having done so; they remain in their society, tied by bonds of kinship and affection.
Woolson had created her singular Great Lakes island wilderness as a projection of and solution for her dilemma as woman and artist, using landscape to help her escape the mores and tropes of sentimental fiction while she drew inspiration from her childhood memories of place. Once she had explored the implications of the isolato on an island, she could leave her island fortresses behind; she had internalized their strength. Like Miss Jonah, Woolson had become a mountain and she could reside in the world on her own terms: a woman who had chosen to become an artist and succeeded in publishing frequently and well. She was then ready to learn to create characters who could defy convention without denying social relationships. When she wrote the closing line of "Castle Nowhere," she anticipated her farewell to the Great Lakes landscape she would soon abandon: "The fogs still steal across the lake, and wave their gray draperies up into the northern curve; but the sedge-gate is gone, and the castle is indeed nowhere."
1 Henry James, "Miss Woolson," in Partial Portraits (London: Macmillan & Co., 1988), pp. 177-192.
2 Claire Benedict, Constance Fenimore Woolson (London: Ellis, 1929-1930). The most recent, and by far the best, critical biography of Woolson is Constance Fenimore Woolson: the Grief of Artistry by Cheryl B. Torsney (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1989).
3 Alice Hall Petry, "Always, Your Attached Friend': The Unpublished Letters of Constance Fenimore Woolson to John and Clara Hay," Books at Brown, 29-30 (1982-1983), 74.
4 Benedict, p. 19.
5 Petry, p. 104. Woolson's italics.
6 Rayburn S. Moore, Constance Fenimore Woolson (New York: Twayne, 1963), p. 130.
7 Benedict, pp. 21-22. Woolson's italics.
8 Benedict, p. 21.
9 Benedict, p. 23.
10 Elizabeth Hardwick, "Introduction," Anne (New York: Arno Press, 1977), pp. i-ii.
11 There are three significant studies of Woolson as a local colorist: Fred Lewis Pattee, The Development of the American Short Story (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1923); John Kern, Constance Fenimore Woolson: Literary Pioneer, dissertation, Univ. of Pennsylvania, 1934; Ann Douglas [Wood], "The Literature of Impoverishment: The Women Local Colorists in America 1865-1914," Women's Studies, 1 (1972), 2-40.
12 Alfred Habegger, Gender, Fantasy and Realism in American Literature (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1982), p. 105.
13 Ann Douglas (see note 10) groups Woolson with the local colorists, often women, who retreated to remote parts of the country, often failed to make a financial success of their writing, and lacked any sustained productivity, none of which applies to Woolson. Douglas also notes the "conspicuous absence of male romantic leads" in the local colorists' settings of backward towns and villages, again a point that fits Woolson's work haphazardly.
14 Moore, p. 127.
15 Annette Kolodny, The Land Before Her (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1984), Chapters 6 and 7.
16 S. M. Fuller [Margaret Fuller], Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 (New York: Charles S. Francis and Co., 1844).
17 Petry, p. 51.
18 Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1967), p. 5.
19 [Caroline Kirkland], A New Home —Who'll Follow? Or, Glimpses of Western Life. By Mrs. Mary Clavers. An Actual Settler (1839; rpt. New York: Garrett Press, 1969).
20 William Ashworth, The Late Great Lakes: An Environmental History (New York: Knopf, 1986), p. 97.
21Appleton's Journal, 9 (28 June 1873), 833-839.
22 Helen Waite Papishvily, All the Happy Endings (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1952), Chapter 1.
23 Nina Baym, Women 's Fiction (New York: Cornell Univ. Press, 1978), p. 20.
24 Douglas, pp. 18-19.
25 Benedict, p. 411.
26 Woolson's history of depression and her probable suicide suggest that, as she grew older, her personal metaphors of strength became less efficacious. Other American writers have relied on paradigms of character they created while young, only to find themselves without materials for fiction as they aged. Woolson won her struggle for independence, but undoubtedly discovered that strength seldom suffices past youth.
27 Jay Appleton, The Experience of Landscape (London: Wiley & Sons, 1975), Chapters 4 and 7.
28 Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Univ. Press, 1950), Chapters 11 and 12.
29 Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier 1600-1860 (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1973), p. 267.
30 Edith Cobb, "The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood," Daedalus 88 (1959), 537-548. For another dis cussion of this concept see Judith Fryer, Felicitous Space: The Imaginative Structures of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather (Chapel Hill and London: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1986), Chapter 1.
31Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 48 (May 1874), 864-870.
32Appleton's Journal, 10 (4 October 1873), 419-426.
33Castle Nowhere (Boston: J. R. Osgood & Company, 1875), pp. 7-98.
34Scribner's Monthly, 9 (December 1874), 232-243.
35 Robert Gingras, "Hepzibah's Story': An Unpublished Work by Constance Fenimore Woolson," Resources for American Literary Study, 10 (1980), 33-46.
36Scribner's Monthly, 8 (September 1874), 293-305.
37Atlantic Monthly, 32 (October 1873), 413-424.
38Castle Nowhere, pp. 270-303.
39 Gingras, p. 35.
40 Petry, p. 65.
41Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 53 (November 1876), 886-893.
42Atlantic Monthly, 34 (September 1874), 293-305.
43 Douglas, pp. 28-30.
44Appleton's Journal, 7 (13 April 1872), 394-399.
45Galaxy, 17 (January 1874), 76-85.
46 For example, see Douglas, p. 13.
47 Annette Kolodny, The Lay of the Land (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1975), p. 114.
48Castle Nowhere, p. 98.
49 For example, see the Henry James review cited above.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8300
SOURCE: "Exile, Depatriation and Constance Fenimore Woolson's Traveling Regionalism," in Women, America, and Movement: Narratives of Relocation, edited by Susan L. Roberson, University of Missouri Press, 1998, pp. 19-37.
[In the following essay, Caccavari examines Woolson 's attempt at being a "writer in exile" and her simultaneous yearning for homecoming.]
In a letter she wrote as a young girl to a friend who was about to be married and then live in Europe, Constance Fenimore Woolson touched on issues that would preoccupy her writing life throughout her adult-hood: exile, travel, place, freedom, art, patriarchy, and depatriation:
To Miss Flora Payne, afterwards, Mrs. William C. Whitney.
"Seems to me if I had a friend in exile across the ocean"—In exile! I wish I could be in "exile" too, if I could visit the most beautiful and famous places the world can show! You are the most fortunate young lady I know, and ought to be the happiest. I envy you to that extent that the tenth commandment makes me shudder, for although I am willing to settle down after thirty years are told, I do not care to be forced into quiescence yet awhile.1
For the young Woolson, exile appears not to be a lonely state but one that offers freedom through mobility. For her, exile represents a desire for place— not a single, fixed, familiar place but many, sequential, unfamiliar places. She wants not to "settle down" for thirty years, and yet the enviable state she is describing is made possible by her friend's marriage, her settling down. It is clearly not her friend's marriage that is the object of longing for Woolson; it is the apparent freedom and reconfiguration of attachment to place(s) that the marriage allows. Indeed, Woolson's letter demonstrates an early attempt at envisioning a depatriation of both place and subjectivity. She thinks that through expatriation she will gain a fresh look at the world, giving her a different perspective on her own land when she returns to it in quiescence. The young Woolson also thinks that even in marriage exile will escape the boundaries of patriarchy. Yet Woolson would come to see that such an exile could be possible without marriage, that the gendered obligations of husband and family actually prevent such exile from coming to fruition, and that even when achieved, exile involves conditions that are anything but enviable.
Even today Woolson as a writer is in exile, little known despite success in her own day. A self-enforced exile from home and nation both within the United States and abroad, she sought as well to distance herself from cultural and gendered constraints upon her writing and life. Known, when she is thought of at all, as a regionalist, Woolson wrote about a variety of places where she had lived or visited, including the Great Lakes (Castle Nowhere, 1875), the South (Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches, 1880), and Italy (The Front Yard and Other Italian Stories, 1895, and Dorothy and Other Italian Stories, 1896). However, while regionalism is usually predicated on belonging to one particular place in some self-contained and highly demarcated construction of "authenticity," Woolson achieved something quite different: she created a permeable regionalism that brings into question the very ideas of regional and national, national and international, local and global, inside and outside, private and public, participant and observer. Rather than writing a regionalism about becoming-in-place, she developed a kind of regionalism based on becoming-through-placings. Like Frantz Fanon, who wrote, "In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself,"2 Woolson used travel to both create herself over and over again and to depict characters made anew by place, placement, and replacement. The self-creations reflected in Woolson's "traveling regionalism" are, however, conflicted with the tension between the potential for unprecedented freedom (political, social, economic, and geographic) for women in the late nineteenth century and the constraints of domestic ideology that, while in the process of being critiqued and dismantled, still held powerful sway over women.
Indeed, it is the cultural conflation of woman and home that makes Woolson's brand of regionalism so radical and so conservative, so expansive and so located. As Jane Marcus points out, "A woman exile is, in addition, an uncanny figure, in Freud's formulation, for her very body means home and hearth, the womb/home of humankind. If she is homeless, lost, wandering, where are we, her daughters and sons?"3 Woolson was a contradiction of woman's role in domestic ideology because of her professional status as writer, her "homelessness" in travel, and her unmarried and childless state. She attempted to exchange her womb/home identity as woman for a mind/movement identity that sought to re-create woman through intellectual depatriation, forsaking fatherlands and exploring borderlands. Even so, Woolson could not eradicate the pull of domestic ideology and fashion herself as a subject of unrestrained freedom. Her life and her fiction became contested domains where home and world, rootedness and transience, vied for dominance. Although Woolson wanted to deconstruct the binary oppositions of home/exile, wife/writer, and womb/mind, she was ultimately unable to get beyond these oppositions, and so found herself and her art between them.
A logical extension of the relationship between woman and home is the relationship between exile and nation. Looking at the Modernist women who would be the successors of Woolson and her generation, Shari Benstock recognizes that women often experience an internal exile:
For women, the definition of patriarchy already assumes the reality of expatriate in patria; for women, this expatriation is internalized, experienced as an exclusion imposed from the outside and lived from the inside in such a way that the separation of outside from inside, patriarchal dicta from female decorum, cannot be easily distinguished.
Woolson did not have to wait until she traveled to Europe to experience exile; this was the stuff of her everyday life in the United States. As Benstock goes on to say of woman, as did Marcus about the womb and home, "Her very body is the 'native land' on which patriarchy stakes its claims."4
Similarly, Cheryl Torsney locates Woolson in a state of betweenness historically and psychologically. Torsney conjectures that part of the explanation for Woolson's literary neglect since her death is that "she comes of age as a writer just after the heyday of domestic fiction … and dies in 1894 just before the maturation of the New Woman. Thus, her professional career is interposed between two periods when women wrote from positions of secure identity and power." It was this period "between the weakening of the bonds of womanhood and the freedom of the New Woman" when "local color writing comes to the fore." Like the period, Woolson herself was caught between bonds and freedom, in the complicated interplay of bonds both constrictive and expansive, of freedoms both liberating and debilitating. As Torsney observes, Woolson's characters "often take on Woolson's own fragmented identity, rehearsing both her transitional generational position and her individual history of family disaster and exile. Woolson's artistheroines can neither entirely align themselves with the Cult of True Womanhood nor fully reject their upbringing … and become New Women."5 It is thus between bonds and freedom, between home and exile, that Woolson and her characters create a traveling regionalism that is neither here nor there, yet also both here and there. Woolson portrays regions as places where cultures and ideologies meet and blend in ways that make identity—both regional and individual—ambivalent and unsettled. Part of this blending and ambivalence comes from a confusion of outside and inside, of internal exile; but part also comes from Woolson's taking stock of her situation, of assuming agency, and reconstructing a place, or rather, a series of places, from which she can speak in exile. She would find a way to transform expatriation through depatnation. And yet, even this achievement would be incomplete, caught between two worlds as she was.
Woolson's traveling regionalism initially developed out of the transition from her stories set in the Great Lakes region to those set in the South during Reconstruction and the migration of Northerners to the South following the Civil War. Often known collectively by Southerners as "carpetbaggers" (a term deriving from the belief that a person can be identified by place), these transplants began an unprecedented mobility to settled parts of the United States, breaking down regional coherence and creating a decentered sense of place. Woolson's writing of this period, itself a kind of literary carpetbagging, reflected this mobility and confluence.
In her story, "Old Gardiston," in Rodman the Keeper, the narrator refers to "double-faced, conscienceless whites" who "were sometimes emigrant Northerners, sometimes renegade Southerners, but always rascals" (116). The narrator intends "double-faced" to mean duplicity with its usual pejorative implications, but it is also an apt description for the Janus-like literary carpetbagging that Woolson engages in, embodying multiple identities, resulting in a variety of complications and contradictions. In a letter to Paul Hamilton Hayne, she speaks of her Southern stories: "I have tried to 'put myself in their place', and at least to be fair." Whereas the typical regionalist is supposedly already "there," Woolson must "put" herself in that place. And yet, she does not thereby become of that place in a nativist sense. Instead, she engages in a cultural alibi that positions her both here and elsewhere, constructing multiple levels of place and identity that replace the carpetbagger's image of deceit with ambiguity and decenteredness.6
Reconstruction taught Woolson much about a changing sense of place. Judith Kinsolving, a Southern woman who is the focus of Woolson's story, "In the Cotton Country," has lost everything in the Civil War and tells the story's northern-born narrator: "I do not know anything certainly any more, for my world has been torn asunder, and I am uprooted and lost. No, you can not help me, no one can help me. I can not adjust myself to the new order of things; I can not fit myself in new soil; the fibers are broken."7 While much regional fiction exhibited a rooted sense of place and mourned, like Kinsolving, its disintegration in a modern mobile culture, Woolson took the rootlessness to be a part of her contemporary condition. She saw it as an opportunity for self-reconstruction.
Many of the stories in Rodman the Keeper, like "Old Gardiston" and "In the Cotton Country," deal with dislocation caused by war and internal (that is, domestic) exile caused by a civil war. The images of dislocation and dividedness (and reconciliation) exemplify Woolson's sense of regionalism and gender as she attempts to create new spaces and new selves by crossing distances and chasms, trying to bring exiles to a new home. Kinsolving experiences a profound sense of loss—of home, region, nation, and identity—as someone who has been depatriated from the United States through secession, depatriated from the Confederate States of America through surrender, and repatriated to the United States. In her concluding dialogue Kinsolving says, "I will abide in my own country" (148), and we are left wondering which country she is talking about, thinking perhaps that ultimately she is referring to the new country of her reconstructed self.
Writing about her Southern fiction, Fred Lewis Pattee called Woolson "an unlocalized soul," who, unlike other American regionalists, was "bounded each by a single horizon," but, "like Henry James, was rooted nowhere." As a refinement of Pattee's idea, I would suggest that Woolson is a polylocalized soul—someone who is in some sense "native" to a number of places, not by birth or even duration of habitation, but by observation and imagination. In part, she sought the reconstruction of place through and in writing. She wrote Henry James in 1883: "Well—that is my feeling with regard to your writings; they are my true country, my real home. And nothing else ever is fully—try as I may to think so."8
It was not only James's writings, however, in which Woolson found a home; her own provided one too. The title of her story, "Castle Nowhere," is a telling image of both her own rootlessness and her dwelling in/on her fiction. In that story, a man who has committed murder goes off with his older sister to a remote part of the head of Lake Michigan. With them they have brought a foundling child whom the man raises as his own. In that place the man comes to be known as Fog, his sister as Shadow, and the girl as Silver. To feed and clothe them, he periodically sets a beacon for ships lost in storms to follow into reefs so that the vessels are destroyed, the crews killed, and their supplies washed up on shore for the family's use. After a time Shadow dies. Into this wilderness wanders an explorer, Jarvis Waring, who uncovers Fog's past, and eventually marries Silver. Fog dies, and Waring and Silver leave Castle Nowhere, which goes to ruins and falls into the lake.
Joan Myers Weimer identifies this story as a justification of regionalism and its particularization of locale and culture
Woolson also entertained and rejected the possibility of being "nowhere" rather than one particular "somewhere"—a possibility that challenges the basis of regionalist writing. "Nowhere" is outside geography, history, religion, society, and culture. There, sinful father and innocent daughter can live happily together until "somebody"—a potential suitor for the daughter—invades, bringing with him a variety of cultural "somewheres" that eventually destroy "nowhere."
Woolson's project in "Castle Nowhere" is similar to that in "In the Cotton Country"; both affirm the portrayal of locale within the regionalist tradition while at the same time engaging in a reconstruction of place in a modern sense. "Castle Nowhere" opens narratively in the present remarking about the past: "Not many years ago the shore bordering the head of Lake Michigan … was a wilderness unexplored. It is a wilderness still…. "9 Although it may be a wilderness still, it is not as remote as it once was, and we are to understand that it is part of a vanishing frontier. Not only does the castle become "nowhere," but the wilderness itself is becoming "nowhere" as well. Indeed, regionalism is not beyond the reach of the outside, which inevitably breaks into its pristine landscape.
Moreover, the gender issues that Woolson's story raises demonstrate the hold of patriarchy even in remote places. Silver is handed off from Fog to Waring and is portrayed as utterly malleable in the hands of both men. Starting life as a homeless foundling, then taken to a place that is no place, she will finally be taken away by Waring, it is presumed, to what is supposed to be her rightful place, as the angel of a house somewhere rather than a castle nowhere. Silver is supposed to be an exile who is in some ways being returned home by Waring, and yet, we cannot help but see her as returning to the same exile, simply in a different location. She is repatriated in terms of returning to "civilization," but she has never been away from patriarchs. This would be the last time Woolson did not interrogate the cultural assumptions and contradictions implicit in marriage plots and domesticity. In her later fiction marriage would appear, to take an image from "Castle Nowhere," as the deceptive beacon, as "a false light" (44) where women's vessels are dashed on the reefs and men collect for their own benefit the remains that drift ashore.
The home that does arise, however, out of "Castle Nowhere" is the home that writing provides Woolson. Her admiration for James's work was a writer's admiration, her appreciation for James's fiction a validation of her own seriousness as a writer. Yet her questioning of identity and relation to place made her question, as well, James's understanding of these issues. In a letter to James, she tells him: "But if you had never left the banks of the Maumee, you would still have been, dumbly, an 'alienated American' (I suppose you have no idea where the Maumee is!)." Moreover, as a literary carpetbagger, Woolson found her regional doubleness as a Northerner in the South already compounded into a plurality by her identity with New England and the Great Lakes. By the time Woolson went to live in Europe, especially Italy, she had developed a plurality of identities rooted in region and gender in her writing. Weimer observes of this aspect of Woolson's life and writing: "Her psychological doubleness—anguished and amused, homerooted and restless—was underlined by her complicated dual national identities—a Northerner in the South, an American in Europe. She transforms these facts of her life into the insights of her fiction."10 I agree with Weimer but would push the "complicated" nature of Woolson's national identities further, saying that her identity, even as a Northerner, is at least dual—born in New Hampshire and having lived in Ohio—and that from that point on there is compounding of identities rather than merely dualities. Indeed, Woolson's polylocalism and ambivalence emerge out of a sense of multiple identity rather than an organic unity lost or idealized, making her traveling regionalism permeable and fluid.
In "The 'Mechanics' of Fluids" Luce Irigaray observes that metonymy is "closely allied to fluids" and helps to characterize women's sexuality. This characterization, according to Irigaray, applies to women's discourse as well. "Woman never speaks the same way. What she emits is flowing, fluctuating. Blurring." Boundaries are not fixed but permeable: "Fluid—like that other, inside/outside of philosophical discourse— is, by nature, unstable." Similarly, Woolson destabilizes regions and cultures, blurring sectional and community boundaries, undermining insider/outsider distinctions, creating a metonymie regionalism that emphasizes connection and intersection. Irigaray's framework relates to Benstock's ideas about exile and expatriation. Women's sexuality and discourse may blur boundaries between inside and outside, but so does the internalization of patriarchal assumptions about women and home. The multiplicity of women's identities that Irigaray has spent much time examining— "this sex which is not one"—is, for Benstock, the basis for understanding Modernism, women, and exile: "The standard definitions of the terms expatriate and exile suggest the cultural assumptions of coextensive self-identity, of coherent subjectivity, of the singular 'I' that Modernism so ruthlessly questions."11 Just as Benstock rewrites the definitions of expatriate and exile to reflect women Modernists' experience, Woolson did her own rewriting of expatriate and exile earlier, in part by rewriting the singular I and the regionalism that accompanied it into a serial I and a regionalism that reflected the cycles of dislocation and relocation that increasingly were becoming the norm of life in the United States.
James Clifford's concept of "traveling cultures" can shed some light on Woolson's traveling regionalism. He writes that "I'm trying to sketch a comparative cultural studies approach to specific histories, tactics, everyday practices of dwelling and traveling: traveling-in-dwelling, dwelling-in-traveling." Woolson's work and life exemplify Clifford's notion of "dwelling-intraveling." Like the fluidity that Irigaray says destabilizes the inside/outside of philosophical discourse, or like the disintegration of inside/outside boundaries of internal and internalized exile under patriarchy that Benstock observes, Clifford seeks to blur the participant/observer distinctions of ethnography. "In the history of twentieth-century anthropology, 'informants' first appear as natives; they emerge as travelers. In fact, … they are specific mixtures of the two roles."12 The relation of Woolson's fiction to ethnography would make a valuable study all its own. While Woolson is not self-consciously acting as an ethnographer, her work addresses such ethnographic issues as the constructions of native, informant, and authenticity.
The regionalist is typically seen as the "native," the one born to a place and culture and fluent in the local knowledge. But writing about a region also makes the native an informant and threatens the authenticity of the report. The regionalist as chronicler of a region becomes, then, something of a hybrid, both a native and an informant, one whose reliability is and is not in question. Woolson alludes to the complexity of regionalist writing in her story "In Venice" from The Front Yard and Other Italian Stories. An American, Claudia Marcy, observes that "these Venetians of to-day … do not appreciate in the least their wonderful water-city—scarcely know what it is." According to Miss Marcy, an outsider can best observe what is actually there, what to the insider is invisible. Another American, Elizabeth Lenox, replies: "They don't study 'Venice' because they are Venice—isn't that it?" (241). For Mrs. Lenox, the Venetians' immediacy and immersion in place makes them the more authentic precisely because they do not observe. Woolson negotiates between both these stances, and, like Clifford, dwells on the specific mixtures of the two roles, making the informant one who lives between and among different cultures.
Not only does the role of informant reveal aspects of Woolson's regionalism, it also shows the part that gender plays in that regionalism. While the subject position of the native is the privileged position of the regionalist, the woman traveler is an uncanny figure who has abandoned her "sphere," who has transgressed by crossing the threshold of home into a world that is supposedly not her own. Traditionally men have been allowed to move freely between the public and the private without the permeability of these spheres threatening their identities. But when a woman engages in physical and cultural mobility, she becomes an informant, someone who ceases to be the pristine native, the angel in the house, without, however, quite becoming a traveler, a "man" of the world. Either way, if she stays at home or goes out into the world, she is an exile, banished culturally if not geographically. And just as homelessness makes a woman an uncanny figure, so narrative, the work of the mind and not of the womb, exiles her from traditional female identifications. Thus, woman is like the Venetian who is most Venetian in silence. Woolson, however, wanted to legitimize women's use of narrative without quite relinquishing home and the feminine. As informant, she sought to create a na(rra)tive that moves frequently (if not freely) across boundaries and borders, even if she could not fully free herself from the ideology she critiqued.
Woolson addresses the issue of the exiled woman writer in "At the Château of Corinne" from Dorothy and Other Italian Stories. In this story, Katharine Winthrop, an American widow living on Lake Leman (Lake Geneva) in Switzerland, visits Coppet, the house in which lived the exiled Madame de Staël, who wrote Corinne, or Italy (1807). Visiting Coppet with her is another American, John Ford, who has some very definite ideas about women and narrative. When Katharine calls Madame de Staël "a woman of genius," John replies:
"A woman of genius! And what is the very term but a stigma! No woman is so proclaimed by the great brazen tongue of the Public unless she has thrown away her birthright of womanly seclusion for the miserable mess of pottage called 'fame'."
"The seclusion of a convent? or a prison?"
"Neither. Of a home." (263)
Katharine is a poet and so has much at stake in this discussion under Madame de Stël's roof. She says to John, "You dislike literary women very much," to which he responds, "I pity them" (264). When Katharine asks John to comment on her book of poetry, he notes that "the distinguishing feature of the volume" is "a certain sort of daring. This is its essential, unpardonable sin." Such a woman who dares in this way is a "poor mistaken sibyl"—literally an uncanny figure (268). The act of narration itself, for John, makes a woman an exile from her proper sphere of domesticity. She becomes a witchlike figure, with all the ostracism and power that such a figure embodies, someone both repugnant and fearsome. The sibyl is a sage, but as a woman she must be seen as lonely and deformed. John's patriarchal gaze can only frame women in dualities: home or exile, womb or mind.13
The talk about home in the exile's house resonates on a number of levels. John tells Katharine and the others of their party that "Madame de Staël detested the country; to the last, Coppet remained to her a dreary exile" (262). It was a house but not a home; Madame de Staël was a woman but not feminine. In John's view, narrative itself, which unfeminized Madame de Staël, threatens to do the same to Katharine. As informants, Madame de Staël and Katharine dwell in two worlds, and between two worlds, the private and public worlds. In John's eyes, narrative in the hands of women exchanges a home for a prison-house of language. For Katharine, however, home is a prison, a place with impermeable borders, where a person is one thing and not any other. The château of Coppet makes a stark contrast to another castle, the Castle Nowhere, showing how far Woolson had come in delineating the complexities and contradiction of home and exile, captivity and freedom.
At the turning point in the story when Katharine and John are once again at Coppet, this time professing a love for each other that hinges on Katharine's economic dependence—she has lost her fortune—and her renunciation of narrative. Speaking again of her book of poetry, Katharine asks John: "But you do not forgive the book?" He responds: "I will forget it instead. You will write no more" (285). Katharine concedes, and the story ends with their return to John's home in the United States as man and wife.
The images in the final few paragraphs are dense: "In the library of Mr. John Ford, near New York, there hangs in the place of honor a water-color sketch of an old yellow château. Beneath it, ranged by themselves, are all the works of that eloquent authoress and noble woman, Madame de Staël" (287). The château of exile is contrasted to the American home. The public character of Madame de Staël is contrasted to the private setting of the library. It is clear that although the narrator calls Madame de Staël a "noble woman," we are to understand that as a technical term, referring to her aristocratic origins. From John's perspective, Katharine is the truly noble woman for she has renounced narrative and public life. As Cheryl Torsney points out, it is in this house "that both Katharine, metaphorically, and Mme de Staël, literally, are brought into line."14 The narratives of Madame de Staël have been contained, her works "ranged by themselves," as Katharine has been contained in this home-turned-prison. In fact, Katharine loses all power of narration, for in this scene she is not heard from at all; she is silenced, and the library, with its knowledge and narrative, is identified with John, who is the legitimate guardian of narrative. The "home" is to be Katharine's, although the "house" is John's; Katharine resumes her traditional place and role, and will be only an observer of Madame de Staël's narrative achievements (if she ever opens those books again), not a participant in narrative herself. Katharine's repatriation has re-placed an exile of words with a homecoming of silence.
Even though her heroine returns to a traditional and confining home, one of Woolson's goals was to reconstruct home and narrative as compatible for the woman writer. In the letter to Henry James where Woolson says that his writings are "my true country, my real home," she explicitly conflates home and narrative. However, this narrative home is James's writing, not her own. Again, the man is the guardian of narrative: the "home" is Woolson's, but the narrative "house" is James's. Although Katharine is not Woolson, Katharine is a warning of the allure that home has for women, including Woolson, and its potential to silence them. Despite Katharine's repatriation—both physical and patriarchal—and Woolson's gendered displacement in this letter to James, in her own works Woolson asserts the right of claiming narrative for women, making her own words both her home and house.
In another letter to James, this one written in 1882 in Dresden, Woolson noted that she had been thirteen years "without a home," and talked about being an American abroad:
But I suppose there never was a woman so ill fitted to do without a home as I am…. Like a poor old bird shut up in a cage, who tries to make a nest out of two wisps of straw. Or the beaver I saw in the Zoological Gardens here, who had constructed a most pathetic little dam out of a few poor fragments of old boughs. I stood and looked at that beaver a long time. He is an American—as I am?15
This passage invokes several of Woolson's frequent themes—homes, boundaries, and the nature of being American. We can see Woolson's anxiety of exile, fearing the loss of national identity and home. She wonders whether she is any longer an American and considers her homes abroad akin to the beaver's "most pathetic little dam." She seems to feel much like John's portrayal of Madame de Staël at Coppet, viewing her own expatriation as "a dreary exile." Rather than the home being a prison, as Katharine initially feared, this letter imagines exile to be a prison, a cage. Her greatest freedom seemed at times to be her greatest confinement, indicating her own ambivalence about her position as a woman exile. She feels an anxiety of depatriation, not in a gendered sense, but in a nationalistic one, wondering aloud if she is still an American.
Indeed, when she wrote James, "But I suppose there never was a woman so ill fitted to do without a home as I am," she indicated that women are especially in need of homes. She had written to him earlier that year about the death of a parent: "A daughter feels it more than a son, of course, because her life is so limited, bounded by home-love…."16 The Victorian image of the home-bound woman is evident here. Yet Woolson is able to both imagine and resist that image by expanding the private sphere of the home in both her writing and her life by moving home from place to place, thus lessening its confinement and pushing back its boundaries. It is no coincidence that the death of her father opened the way to her move from Cleveland to Florida and that the death of her mother allowed her the chance to live in Europe. The death of her parents, while making her emotional reactions painful because of "home-love," made her less bound, less limited by home. Moreover, Woolson did not exchange her parent's home for a husband's home, remaining single all her life. By dwelling-in-traveling, Woolson was able to create greater freedom for herself than she would have had in a more conventional Victorian life as a woman. In the childhood letter Woolson wrote to her friend Flora, who was about to be married, she did not see Flora's marriage as an impediment to the exile Woolson so longed for; as an adult who at last came to experience that exile, she realized that marriage and home were not compatible with the freedom that exile represented for her. No doubt she feared becoming like Katharine, a woman writer silenced by home-love. Yet she regretted not having a home. While the price Katharine paid for a home was too high for Woolson, its appeal never seemed to fade. In her life, she felt the elegiac loss of place depicted in regional fiction, even as she was forging a more modern sense of transition and mobility.
Woolson used images of boundaries to explore her ambivalence about home. As the narrator of "In the Cotton Country" comes upon Judith Kinsolving's house, the former comments that there is no fence around the house: "Take away the fence from a house, and you take away its respectability; it becomes at once an outlaw" (136). In "The Front Yard," Prudence Wilkin, a New Hampshire woman transplanted to Assisi, Italy, when she marries an Italian, Antonio Guadagni, is quickly widowed and spends the next sixteen years taking care of his large and largely ungrateful family. Despite her poverty and exhaustion, what she wants most in the world is a proper front yard. She scrimps and saves so that she can remove the pig shed in front of her house and replace it with
a nice straight path going down to the front gate, set in a new paling fence; along the sides currant bushes; and in the open spaces to the right and left a big flowerin' shrub—snowballs, or Missouri currant; near the house a clump of matrimony, perhaps; and in the flower beds on each side of the path bachelor's-buttons, Chiny-asters, lady's slippers, and pinks; the edges bordered with box. (16)
In the two stories, fences define both a sense of home as a place within and a sense of the alien without. In keeping with the traditional and gendered separation of the private and public spheres, these fences seek to maintain a purity of place. In "In the Cotton Country," this endeavor is unsuccessful; the fence has been destroyed, the South defeated, and the Northerners have come. In "The Front Yard," Prudence finally gets her front yard, which, thanks to three American women, is successful in creating a pure place for her. Not only does she physically re-create a corner of New England in her Italian home, but she maintains her cultural identity as well. She considers the Italian language to be "simply lunatic English, English spoiled" (8). Of her stepson, whom she calls "Jo Vanny" rather than Giovanni, she says: "'He's sort of American, anyhow.' It was the highest praise she could give" (18). Despite her sixteen years in Italy, Prudence is resolutely American, a cultural purity maintained, like her Missouri currants within the yard fence. In this way, Prudence is also like the beaver in the Dresden zoo, fenced in, building a "home" in that boundary that is reminiscent of its indigenous place, but surrounded by foreign environs.
And yet, Prudence is not meant to be a paragon of cultural virtue. Her distaste for everything Italian and refusal to assimilate in any manner, paralleled by the Italians' dislike of her American qualities and habits, shows two cultures in a stand-off. Home is both sanctuary and prison, both a remembrance of things past and, like the beaver's in the Dresden zoo, "a most pathetic little dam" constructed from "a few poor fragments of old boughs." Whereas Torsney argues that Prudence's sacrifice "is not that of self to a generalized and all-consuming love of family,"17 attempting to show that Prudence is not a traditional domestic womanas-martyr, it strikes me that her sacrifice is indeed that of self-renunciation, but, as with Prudence's xenophobia, it is not a trait Woolson wants emulated. Woolson is criticizing Prudence's attempt at repatriation in exile, with its fierce, immobile regionalism and its acceptance of patriarchal values (indicated by her caring for her husband's family and the "matrimony" flowers she plants in her front yard).
In "A Pink Villa," also from The Front Yard and Other Italian Stories, young Eva Churchill, who was born in the United States but has lived in Italy for fifteen of her nearly eighteen years, falls in love with David Rod, an American from Florida. Although she has lived most of her life in Italy, she has been protected by her mother "like a hot-house flower" (124). The pink villa, Italian in design but housing Americans and keeping American culture intact abroad, is the hothouse. As with Prudence's front yard or the beaver at the Dresden zoo, we have another image of a boundary keeping its inhabitants from contact with the outside and creating an artificial atmosphere for them within.
With Eva's marriage to David, it seems that Woolson will break down boundaries, will free her heroine from the house that keeps her from the outside world and from herself. Indeed, David, derided for being a "backwoodsman" (117) without refinement and called "Signor Ra" (125) after the Egyptian god of the sun, seems to be the catalyst for Eva's journey to the naturalness of the Florida wilderness. Eva, the hot-house flower, is being recalled to the unmediated sun. Thus, her going with David, while still within the context of marriage and its restraints, offers the hope of greater freedom with a broader horizon. And yet, any notion of "nativeness" or even "nature" is immediately called into question. Eva may be returning to her "native" country, but Florida is by no means her native land. David may be the outdoors type, but he is cultivating the land, not letting it remain in any kind of natural state. Eva and David will make a home, not find one. Eva appears to be following in the footsteps of Katharine; hers would seem to be an act of repatriation, a returning to the United States after having been married. But here the home becomes as big as the wilderness, appearing to be physically without boundaries, while still maintaining the cultural boundaries that home has come to represent.
"A Transplanted Boy" from Dorothy and Other Italian Stories is perhaps Woolson's most explicit and most complex examination of home, exile, and depatriation. In that story, an American mother, Violet Roscoe, and her son, Maso, live in Pisa. Her actual name is Violet Coe (Mrs. Thomas Ross Coe) but people changed it in conversation to "Roscoe," and Maso's name has been Italianized from Thomas. On their own, with little money since her husband's death six months after Maso's birth, Violet and Maso live in Pisa and "had often followed a nomadic life for a while when funds were low …" (87). A devoted mother, Violet is also fiercely independent, and rather than return to New Hampshire where her husband's family lives and from which her meager finances come, she prefers to do as she pleases. She forsakes the New England sense of duty that Prudence Guadagni feels and lives her life on her own terms. Her exile is not dreary: "I have a better time abroad than I do at home …" (74). Their lives have been one of dwellmg-in-traveling, making a home not so much in a place as among themselves in a private but distinctly undomestic sphere (both in terms of household and nationality). Like Eva Churchill, Violet makes a home rather than finds one. Unlike Eva, and much like Woolson herself, she does so on her own.
But Violet becomes ill, and for her health she must go north, leaving Maso with a tutor. When the tutor abruptly leaves, Maso does not send his mother the tutor's letter about his departure. Rather than disrupt his mother's recuperation, Maso tries to live on his own until he becomes increasingly destitute and ill. At last, Violet returns and finds Maso. The story ends with their return to New Hampshire, home of her brother-in-law, Reuben Coe:
A month later Mr. Reuben J. Coe, of Coesville, New Hampshire, said to his brother David: "That foolish wife of Tom's is coming home at last. In spite of every effort on my part, she has made ducks and drakes of almost all her money."
"Is that why she is coming back?"
"No; thinks it will be better for the boy. But I'm afraid it's too late for that." (121)
Reuben Coe finds Violet to be a "foolish wife" who has denied both her nation and her womanly responsibilities, but it seems that he is uneasy that the boy has lived abroad in an untraditional domestic arrangement. Concern for Maso's health may inform Coe's comment, but it seems that Coe and Woolson are also concerned with issues of identity.
Indeed, when the destitute boy turned to the U.S. consul in Leghorn for help, Woolson brings these issues of identity to the fore. The consul, a Michigan man named Maclean, does not immediately recognize Maso as an American: "And of what nation are you?" he asks (102). Moreover, because Maso has had no formal education, he does not even recognize that the day of his encounter with the consul, the Fourth of July, is a celebration of American independence and national identity. Learning of Maso's nomadic history, the consul says: "I see—one of the expatriated class" (105). Perhaps this is why it may be "too late" for Maso, not that he was so desperately ill but that he has become too thoroughly Italianized. It is just this ambiguity on which the meaning of the story hinges. Entitled "A Transplanted Boy," it very obviously suggests that Maso is an American "transplanted" in Italy. That is certainly Reuben Coe's understanding. However, the title could also suggest that Maso is transplanted when he returns to the United States. He is a hybrid, a new creation, who is as American as he is Italian. Woolson's line about the beaver in the Dresden zoo—"He is an American—as I am?"—is as applicable to Maso as to herself, for while he continually thinks of himself as an American, much of his situation points to his being polylocalized in a way that defies neat categorization.
In an article disparaging Woolson, Robert White raises two important issues relevant to Woolson's Italian stories. First, White asserts that Woolson "was never an expatriate, in the twentieth-century sense of the term, but she seems to have enjoyed keenly her succession of outre-mer years." White does not go on to explain why Woolson is not an expatriate in the Modernist sense, but Benstock clarifies this point. According to Benstock, "Female Modernists were expatriated (if this term is even applicable) differently than their male counterparts," and she places this difference at the site of gender. She goes on to assert that even "[t]he definitions of exile and expatriate were different for men and women…."18 White is correct that Woolson was not an expatriate in the male twentieth-century sense of the term; she was much closer to the female one. As the traveling in her life increased, the obligations to home decreased, and her depiction of these locales reflected a new relationship between dweller and place. It is precisely the "succession" that White notes that made Woolson's expatriation an extension of her regional writing set in the United States, the kind of metonymy and fluidity that Irigaray saw as characteristic of women's ways of knowing and narrating.
In her expatriation, Woolson explored the idea of repatriation as a gendered event. In "At the Château of Corinne," Katharine is returned to the United States as John's wife. No longer an expatriate, she is also no longer a writer, and Katharine returns to her homeland replacing exile with home, narrative with silence. Eva of "A Pink Villa" likewise returns to the United States as a wife, and although their home seems to be an expression of a belonging that is constructed by the two of them rather than received from society and imposed on the woman, we are left with doubt as to whether Eva will find as much freedom as her physically boundless home would seem to promise. Finding her fullest self-expression in exile and a succession of homes, Violet of "A Transplanted Boy" remakes the idea of home into a family without a husband, a home without permanence. Unlike Woolson, Violet expresses no regrets for having chosen an unconventional lifestyle, even if her return for Maso's sake may arise from such a regret. Violet's forced return to the United States and a brother-in-law (the law of the husband) makes her defeat as devastating as Katharine's, with the significant exception that Violet is aware of her confinement, of being homeward bound.
Woolson was concerned with the idea of self-consciousness as an aspect of the expatriate experience. In her notebooks Woolson had written an idea for a story: "An American who has lived so long abroad that he is almost de-nationalized, and conscious of it fully; which makes him an original figure."19 In a sense this expatriate would become a depatriate, decentering national identity and bringing to its logical conclusion in the form of dwelling-in-traveling abroad the traveling regionalism begun in the United States. Woolson compounds this depatriation, moreover, with gender as she attempts in her writings and in her life to free herself of the patriarchal country of letters and culture. Despite her declaration to James that she found her "true country, [her] real home" in his writings, she was aware of the dangers of women finding their homes in men's houses and fictions, of the dangers of patriation and repatriation, and so she tried to become a depatriate, with mixed results and feelings.
The second point in White's article which has important implications for the study of Woolson's Italian stories derives from his title, "Cultural Ambivalence in Constance Fenimore Woolson's Italian Tales." White argues that, despite her stated love for Italy as a country, Woolson actually had conflicted attitudes about the people and culture. White erroneously reads Woolson's characters as espousing Woolson's own views. Moreover, White misplaces the location of this cultural ambivalence, characterizing it as xenophobia. Rather, Woolson's cultural ambivalence lies in her position as a woman within American culture in the last half of the nineteenth century, caught between the Cult of the True Woman and the New Woman. Her portrayals of home and exile, marriage and independence, reflect this ambivalence. In addition, she delineated in her fiction the ambivalence of culture itself, how it is not unitary or fragmented but, like Irigaray's representation of women's psychology and discourse, plural. Even representing certain historical/social periods as being defined by ideas called the "Cult of the True Woman" and the "New Woman" is a falsely homogenizing schematic that Woolson would have recognized as erasing the multiplicity of voices that formed those periods; for her, regionalism embodied pluralities that defied easy categorization.
While dwelling-in-traveling proved beneficial for Woolson's writing, it was a strain on her life. She wrote, "I should like to turn into a peak when I die, to be a beautiful purple mountain, which would please the tired, sad eyes of thousands of human beings for ages." Her image of death is one of place, not movement. James recognized this desire for home, for placement, and when she died he wrote to John Hay in 1894: "The only image I can evoke that interposes at all is that of the blest Roman cemetery that she positively desired—I mean in her extreme love of it—and of her intensely consenting and more than reconciled rest under the Roman sky. Requiescat."20 The quiescence that Woolson so wished to put off as a girl writing to her friend Flora had come at last. Whether it was forced or embraced may never be known, and the ambiguity of her end is a fitting emblem of the conflicting forces of home and exile that characterized her life.
1 Clare Benedict, ed., Constance Fenimore Woolson (London: Ellis, ), 16-17.
2 Constance Fenimore Woolson, Dorothy and Other Italian Stories (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1896); The Front Yard and Other Italian Stories (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1895); Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches (1880; reprint, New York: Garrett Press, 1969). Subsequent citations will appear parenthetically in the text. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 229.
3 Jane Marcus, "Alibis and Legends: The Ethics of Elsewhereness, Gender, and Estrangement," in Women 's Writing in Exile, ed. Mary Lynn Broe and Angela Ingram (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 272–73.
4 Shari Benstock, "Expatriate Modernism: Writing on the Cultural Rim," in Women 's Writing in Exile, ed. Mary Lynn Broe and Angela Ingram (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 20, 26.
5 Cheryl B. Torsney, Constance Fenimore Woolson: The Grief of Artistry (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989), 7, 8, 33.
6 Jay B. Hubbell, "Some New Letters of Constance Fenimore Woolson," New England Quarterly 14 (1941): 731; Jane Marcus discusses alibi in the context of exile in a very different way than I do here, but it is worth noting that she wants to keep the deceitful and criminal connotations of alibi in literary criticism as a reminder of when scholars usurp the voice of others disingenuously and act in bad faith, both outside and inside feminist scholarship.
7 Constance Fenimore Woolson, "In the Cotton Country," in Women Artists, Women Exiles: "Miss Grief" and Other Stories, ed. Joan Myers Weimer (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988), 147. Subsequent citations will appear parenthetically in the text.
8 Fred Lewis Pattee, "Constance Fenimore Woolson and the South," South Atlantic Quarterly 38 (1939): 131; Leon Edel, ed., Henry James: Letters, vol. 3, 1883–1895 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1980), 551.
9 Joan Myers Weimer, ed., Women Artists, Women Exiles: "Miss Grief" and Other Stories (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988), xxviii; Constance Fenimore Woolson, "Castle Nowhere," in Women Artists, ed. Weimer, 25. Subsequent citations will appear parenthetically in the text.
10 Edel, James, 527; Weimer, Women Artists, xxiii.
11 Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 110, 112; Benstock, "Expatriate Modernism," 23.
12 James Clifford, "Traveling Cultures," in Cultural Studies, ed. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula A. Treichler (New York: Routledge, 1992), 108, 97.
13 Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh (1857) has a scene between Romney and Aurora in book 2 that is very similar to the scene between John and Katharine in terms of women's relationship to art in general, and the woman artist as witch in particular. For a discussion of "At the Château of Corinne" and Aurora Leigh, see Torsney, Constance Fenimore Woolson, 97, 104, 106–7. For a discussion of Aurora Leigh, especially the scene between Romney and Aurora, in the context of Italy, Corinne, and gender, see Sandra M. Gilbert, "From Patria to Matria: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Risorgimento," PMLA 99 (1984): 196–98, 201–2.
14 Torsney, Constance Fenimore Woolson, 95.
15 Edel, James, 539, 540.
16 Ibid., 536.
17 Torsney, Constance Fenimore Woolson, 149.
18 Robert L. White, "Cultural Ambivalence in Constance Fenimore Woolson's Italian Tales," reprint in Critical Essays on Constance Fenimore Woolson, ed. Cheryl Torsney (New York: G. K. Hall, 1992), 133; Benstock, "Expatriate Modernism," 23.
19 Benedict, Woolson, 138. Emphasis is in the original text.
20 Ibid., xvi; Edel, James, 460.