Constance Fenimore Woolson Criticism

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Henry James (essay date 1887)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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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...

(The entire section is 71,681 words.)