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.’

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.’

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