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

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.’

Woolson was 36 and had been appearing for several years in American magazines. We know relatively little about what drove her to become a professional writer, but the evidence suggests that she was precipitated into authorship by the death of male relatives. Her father died in 1869, the year before she published her first sketches in Harper’s and Putnam’s. One of eight children, seven of them female, born to Charles Jarvis Woolson and Hannah Cooper Pomeroy Woolson (James Fenimore Cooper was her uncle) in the 1830s and 1840s, Constance arrived at adolescence with only a single sister, Clara, and a brother, Charles Jarvis Jr. Though Charly seems to have been her mother’s favourite, his ability to support himself, let alone the women of the family, was distinctly limited. Like Woolson herself, he often became depressed, and by 1877, if not earlier, he seems to have broken down completely. Constance continued to live with their mother, and it was her income that principally maintained the family.

Though she was born in New Hampshire, her parents moved to Ohio when she was still an infant, and a number of her early stories and sketches are set in the lake country where the family spent its summers. Five years after her father’s death, she and her mother headed south for Hannah’s health, and Woolson’s writing shifted too. She later told a correspondent that Mackinac Island in Lake Huron was ‘the only spot on earth’ for which she had ‘what is called “local attachment”’, but even as she continued to publish work set in the country of her childhood, her encounter with the South was having an imaginative impact. Since very few letters from her first three decades survive, the present volume effectively begins with the two women wandering from the mountains of North Carolina to the Florida coast at St Augustine.

Throughout her life Woolson was a walker and a rower, and her method of exploring new terrain was to take off by herself, as she apparently did, like a pacific version of her great-uncle’s deerslayer, soon after arriving in Florida:

I walk miles through the hummocks, where it looks as though no one had ever walked before, gathering wild flowers everywhere, or sitting down under the pine trees to rest in the shade … Then on other days I take a row boat and go prowling down the inlet into all sorts of creeks that go no one knows where; I wind through dense forests where the trees meet overhead, and the long grey moss brushes my solitary boat as I pass. I go far up the Sebastian River as utterly alone as Robinson Crusoe. I meet alligators, porpoises, pelicans, cranes, and even deer, but not a human soul.

Looking back more than a decade later, Woolson recalled ‘the absolute tranquillity and sleepiness’ St Augustine offered, particularly by contrast to the troubles that had followed her father’s death. ‘To come suddenly to a place where business did not exist, where no one spoke of it, – was to me just then like Paradise.’ Even at the time, however, paradise had its limits. A firm Union sympathiser whose memories of the Civil War were still vivid (‘we lived then’), Woolson struggled to do justice to the former enemy. One of her most successful tales of the period, ‘Rodman the Keeper’ (1877), concerns a Northern colonel posted to the Reconstruction South as the solitary ‘keeper’ of a Union graveyard and the grudging respect he gradually acquires for an impoverished Southern gentlewoman, whose unreconstructed loyalties prevent her from accepting his acts of kindness towards her dying brother, a Confederate soldier.

Despite her claim that her efforts to be fair were at an end and that she would ‘write no more about the South’, the region continued to provide the setting for many of the stories she would publish over the next several years, as well as three of her four novels – the last of which, the posthumously published Horace Chase (1894), begins: ‘In a mountain village of North Carolina, in the year 1873, the spring had opened with its accustomed beauty.’

By the time of her last novel, Woolson had long put America behind her. ‘I always liked the idea of going away from home for a time,’ she had said when still a schoolgirl, and the death of her mother in 1879 freed her to do as she liked. In November of that year she set sail for Europe, and never crossed the Atlantic again. She later claimed to be ‘the most domestic woman in the world, – the one most fond of a home, a fixed home, and all her own things about her’, though domesticity in her case was compatible with the exhilaration of travel. Hotels and boarding-houses had their obvious drawbacks; but from the pleasure at meals served in her own London parlour – ‘O! the comfort of it! If I am never to have a real “home”, then the next thing is certainly English “lodgings”’ – to the poignant discovery that she was ‘still capable of joy!’ as she negotiated the terms of her last apartment in Venice, Woolson was one of the most cosmopolitan of homebodies.

Arriving in Rome in 1881, she rented ‘a little “apartment” very high up under the sky’ where ‘the queerest little flight of stone steps’ led from a narrow balcony decorated with flowerpots, ‘so far above the street that it would make many people dizzy to look down’, to a rooftop loggia surrounded by windows on all sides. ‘Here among the roofs and campaniles, and under the deep blue sky of Rome, I can sit and write in perfect solitude.’ From Rome she headed to the Swiss Alps, where she envied the young men taking off for the high passes, and then back through Italy and Germany to Paris and London, before settling in for some months at the top of an old Venetian palace:

A rather dark & very winding stairway, with mysterious doors & unexpected landings, leads up to these rooms, &, when you get to them at last, you find them large, with low vaulted ceilings, & five windows on the Grand Canal. These windows are adorned with ancient little balconies, over which I propose to ‘lean’ (let us hope they are strong!), & look, & look, & look, at all the beauty far & near.

The road to the villa she rented outside Florence in 1886 was steep and long enough that only those who genuinely wanted to see her would venture out. ‘In such a spot only,’ she later wrote, ‘can I be happy.’ It was also here that she and James lived discreetly for several months in neighbouring apartments during the spring of 1887, while James described himself to Edmund Gosse as ‘making love to Italy’.

Despite the myth that Woolson went to Europe in pursuit of James, the move appears to have had little to do with him, at least initially. ‘I am outward bound; – for the old world, before very long, I hope,’ she had written as early as the summer of 1875, several months before she first declared her intention of sending for some works by James on her next visit to the city of Charleston. When next she alludes to James, it is to suspect the Atlantic’s editor, William Dean Howells, of playing favourites. Her first report on the fiction itself is no more promising. ‘I was very much disappointed with … Roderick Hudson,’ she wrote to a friend in the summer of 1876. A few months later she exclaims: ‘The idea of throwing the hero down a cliff just to get rid of him.’

An early letter reports that she always had ‘a stronger taste’ for ‘critical writings than for any other kind’ and that she used to read the notices in the Atlantic ‘before even the stories’. The letters repeatedly solicit criticism, and it wasn’t modesty that prompted her to tell Howells how his negative review of the fanciful ‘Castle Nowhere’ (1875) only confirmed her ‘original opinion’, which had been temporarily swayed by others’ urging her to abandon realism. When Howells later criticised the heroine of East Angels (1886), however, Woolson would tell another correspondent that she had ‘not cared for his opinions (literary) since he came out so strongly against what I consider a masterpiece – Le Père Goriot.’ By that time, she was also deep into the Russians – not just Turgenev, whom James also admired, but Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as well. ‘If you come across Dostoevsky’s “Crime et le Châtiment”, try that,’ she told her nephew not long after it was translated into French.

Woolson suffered from congenital deafness, which worsened as she grew older, but her dislike of ordinary socialising did not always come from hearing too little:

And I am so accustomed to the eternal ‘I’ of all my male friends that I forgot how to talk when I was with you those times. The usual ‘indeed!’ ‘Did you really say that!’ ‘How strange!’ ‘How very remarkable!’ ‘That is just like you!’ were not necessary in that case at all. And I did not know where I was exactly. You see I have played the part of ‘listener’ all my life. There is a sort of compensation in things after all; at this late hour I have gotten hold of the pen, and now people must listen to me, occasionally.

We don’t know whether James, too, managed to avoid ‘the eternal “I”’, but Woolson more than once described him to others as ‘unobtrusive’, as well as ‘kind’; and there is little question that he brought out feelings in her that none of her other friends, male or female, ever elicited. Only four letters to him survive – her niece later said that they had made a pact to destroy each other’s correspondence – but three of them constitute the longest documents in this book. (Edel condescendingly spoke of the ‘inordinate’ length at which she would ‘pour herself out to Henry’.) By the time that Woolson met James in Florence in the spring of 1880, her disappointment at Roderick Hudson had been mitigated by her admiration for ‘Daisy Miller’, and she was glad to be escorted around the city by such a knowledgeable and sympathetic guide:

But Florence! 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! Perhaps I ought to add Henry James. He has been perfectly charming to me for the last three weeks. But of him, later.

The same letter describes James’s urbane forbearance, even as it indirectly testifies to the intelligence and honesty that would have made her so attractive a pupil. Giotto, she acknowledges, ‘remains beyond’ her, though ‘H.J. says calmly, “Some day, you will see it”’; the interior of the Duomo feels ‘too vast and cold’, even while he tries to make her admire it. As for the Venus de Medici, Dancing Faun and the rest: ‘I confess frankly that it is going to take some time for me to appreciate “the nude”. I have no objections to it; I look at it calmly; but I am not sufficiently acquainted with torsos, flanks, and the lines of anatomy to know when they are “supremely beautiful” and when not.’ Michelangelo’s statue of Lorenzo di Piero in the Medici chapel is another matter: ‘Now “Lorenzo” is clothed; and therefore comes within my comprehension and O! Mary – he is superb. The whole expression of the figure is musing and sad, but it is the sadness of the strongest kind of a human mind, – almost the sadness of a God … Nothing in the way of marble has ever impressed me so much.’ But when James asks what she thinks of the statues that flank the Medici tombs, the pedagogical comedy resumes:

They are gigantic (nude of course), and seem very weary. The one called ‘Day’, which is only half finished, is striking; although I believe ‘Night’ (a woman) is most admired. In speaking of these statues, Henry James said – ‘Of course you admired those grand reclining figures?’ ‘No,’ I replied, ‘honestly, I did not. They looked so distracted.’ ‘Ah yes,’ he said, ‘distracted’. But then!’ Here words failed him, and he walked off to look at a fresco (we were in Michael-Angelo’s house) and (probably) to recover from my horrible ignorance.

‘The Street of the Hyacinth’, published two years later, makes darker comedy out of a related exchange, in which a Daisy Miller-like heroine who aspires to be a painter tours a Roman gallery with a successful writer and art critic, while dismissing in succession the merits of a Raphael double portrait, a Sebastian del Piombo, a Velázquez, two Claude Lorrains and a Memling. In that story, the writer finally proposes marriage to his pupil, but only after she has arrived at the bitter recognition that her talents as an artist are non-existent.

Nothing in Woolson’s surviving letters suggests such a devastating view of her own gifts, but a note of abjection does sometimes creep into the correspondence with James. ‘You do not want to know the little literary women,’ she tells him at one point: ‘Only the great ones – like George Eliot. I am not barring myself out here, because I do not come in as a literary woman at all, but as a sort of – of admiring aunt. I think that expresses it.’ (Woolson was only three years James’s senior.) A few paragraphs later, the tone grows sharper:

I don’t think you appreciated, over there among the chimney-pots, the laudation your books received in America, as they came out one by one. (We little fish did! We little fish became worn to skeletons owing to the constant admonitions we received to regard the beauty, the grace, the incomparable perfections of all sorts & kinds of the proud salmon of the pond; we ended by hating that proud salmon.)

Between the admiring aunt and the envious little fish, she seems to have struggled to find her place, as if she could only convince him to take her seriously by making it quite clear that she recognised her limits.

The most​ disturbing passage to have escaped their mutual bonfires was prompted by her mention in a previous letter of the fact that Harper’s had voluntarily increased its payments for her first novel, Anne (1880-82). It’s not clear what James said in reply, but it had evidently touched a nerve, and Woolson now went out of her way to emphasise that her ‘small success’ could not possibly be measured on the same scale as any achievement of his. ‘And, even if a story of mine should have a large “popular” sale (which I do not expect),’ she assured him, ‘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, & any little thing I may say about my own comes from entirely another stratum; & 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.

One can only hope that her correspondent was suitably ashamed of the remark that had occasioned this outburst. Nor is it much consolation to discover that Woolson had managed to summon up a bit of hypocrisy only a paragraph earlier: ‘I am very fond of “Roderick Hudson” – as you know.’

Yet for every gesture of self-abasement, the letters to James also testify repeatedly to her critical acuity and to her pride in her ability to read him so well. The longest of the letters in this volume contains a small informal essay on The Portrait of a Lady, and Woolson’s admiration for it doesn’t preclude some sharp comments on the novel’s evasiveness when it comes to representing the heroine’s feeling for her future husband. ‘She tells Mrs Touchett that she doesn’t love Lord Warburton; but she doesn’t tell her or anybody (if my memory serves me) that she does love Gilbert Osmond.’

In what sense Woolson loved James is not easy to reconstruct from this evidence. A year after they lived in neighbouring apartments on Bellosguardo they took a holiday together in Geneva, where they booked hotels a mile apart and met in the evening for dinner. ‘Henry is somewhere on the continent, flirting with Constance,’ Alice James wrote to their brother William, but Henry’s own letters from Bellosguardo rarely mention Woolson’s presence, and he appears to have told almost no one of the arrangement in Geneva. As Michael Gorra observes in his book about The Portrait of a Lady, ‘that secrecy shouldn’t be taken as an indication that he and Woolson had anything to hide – not by our standards, anyway.’* In one of the surviving letters, Woolson anticipates James eventually visiting her in Cooperstown with ‘that sweet young American wife I want you to have – whom you must have,’ but there is no evidence that she ever expected to marry him herself, unless ‘The Street of the Hyacinth’ is seen as imaginatively entertaining the possibility. She does insist on how deeply his work speaks to her. ‘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.’

Woolson laboured over her own writing, and one of the more amusing moments in the letters to James concerns his boast that he never ‘copied’ – i.e. revised – his work. Even in 1882, long before he undertook to revise his entire corpus for the New York Edition of 1907-9, the idea of a James who had ‘the gift of writing … at the first draft’ was pretty laughable. An extended account of her working habits in a late letter to her nephew makes it clear why James’s sprezzatura filled her with ‘despair’. First she would write out

the whole plot, in every detail … Often this takes as much time as to write the book. Then each character is written out, & the amount of paper it covers, for each, is as much nearly as the whole book. – Then come the scenes – at equal length. And finally pages & pages of conversation; incidental only; things that might be said. – All this takes nearly two years! Then comes the terrible putting together; the fitting in the parts.

She was struggling with the serial format of Horace Chase at the time, and had a ‘simply infernal’ headache, perhaps induced by an experiment with artificial eardrums to improve her hearing. The association of writing and pain was not new for her, and she had long suffered from ‘nerves’ in her hand that sometimes made it impossible for her to hold a pen. Her vulnerability to depression appears to have been still older: as early as 1876, she wrote that it ‘comes unexpectedly, and makes everything black’, and that both her father and her grandfather had struggled with it too. She had a nervous breakdown after her brother’s suicide, and from then until her own suicide 11 years later the undertone of melancholy in these letters intensifies. She repeatedly refers to herself as ‘lonely’, and though she also stresses the force of will that keeps her going, she begins to characterise that effort as futile. ‘Did you ever see a small insect, trying to climb a wall, and always, sooner or later, falling to the floor – only to begin again? That is I,’ she wrote to Henry Mills Alden in 1890. With the physician William Wilberforce Baldwin, who also suffered from depression, she was more explicit: ‘Life is not worth living at all, without courage,’ she told him in 1891. ‘I am quite determined never to outlive my own.’

‘Poor, isolated and fundamentally tragic being!’ James wrote to Baldwin when he first learned of Woolson’s death in January 1894:

She was intrinsically one of the saddest and least happy natures I have ever met; and when I ask myself what I feel about her death the only answer that comes to me is from what I felt about the melancholy, the limitations and the touching loneliness of her life. I was greatly attached to her and exceedingly valued her friendship. She had no dread of death and no aversion to it – rather a desire and even a passion for it; and infinite courage and a certain kind of fortitude. Eternal peace be her portion!

James imagined that she had succumbed to sudden illness; he was filled with horror when he discovered she had jumped off her balcony. Between the shock of realising he had failed to know her and the guilt at never having followed through on a promised visit to Venice that year, he recoiled defensively. Rather than a brave ‘passion’ for death, he now began to speak of ‘sudden dementia’ and to convince himself that she had never been ‘wholly sane’. He cancelled his plans to attend her funeral in Rome, and when at last he did join her relatives in Venice later in the year, he burned many of the papers she had left behind. ‘A beneficent providence seemed to have constructed her – pitilessly – for the express purpose of suffering,’ James wrote a week after her death.

Later, in a series of tales from ‘The Altar of the Dead’ (1895) to ‘The Beast in the Jungle’ (1903) and ‘The Jolly Corner’ (1908), he would rewrite her story more subtly, even as he implicitly indicted himself for his own failures. (The first of these was conceived in rooms that Woolson had once rented in Oxford.) If Colm Tóibín is right to suggest, in his novel The Master (2004), that there is something of her unrequited devotion in The Ambassadors’ Maria Gostrey as well, then James reversed their tutelary relation and made Woolson his guide to Europe. The macabre story of how he went with Woolson’s gondolier on a night-time excursion to bury her dresses at sea, only to watch aghast as they floated to the surface again, has served more than one commentator as a metaphor for the way she continued to haunt him.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences