In what sense did she love him?

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • The Complete Letters of Constance Fenimore Woolson edited by Sharon Dean
    Florida, 609 pp, £71.95, July 2012, ISBN 978 0 8130 3989 3

Constance Fenimore Woolson’s fiction is little read these days, and she figures primarily as a character in someone else’s story. Ever since Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James, in which she appears as a lonely spinster with an ear trumpet and an unrequited passion for her fellow novelist, speculation over the closeness of her friendship with James and the motives for her suicide has dominated accounts of her. The publication of her surviving letters shifts the balance – and this despite the fact that she was, by her own account, a terrible letter writer. ‘I never could write a letter,’ she said to a friend in the summer of 1876. She ‘never could talk’ either. What she meant in both cases is that she could never master the forms by which most people manage to ease their way through the world. ‘Still, I get along tolerably well, and with sufficient content,’ she wrote, ‘unless some person undertakes to praise me for what I have not; that confuses me, and, after a while, frightens me to dumbness, because I know sarcasm is there.’ She may sometimes have been mistaken about the sarcasm, but only because she didn’t believe she deserved the praise, and there was pride, too, in the acknowledgment of her deficiencies: ‘Fortunately, there are other things one can do in the world besides letter-writing.’

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[*] James Wood reviewed Portrait of a Novel in the LRB of 11 October 2012.