There’s no gentle way to put this: the best thing Constance Fenimore Woolson could have done for her writing career was keep the hell away from Henry James….
As I mentioned a few posts back in my essay on Constance Fenimore Woolson, I had ordered a copy of Miss Grief and Other Stories through a favorite used book vendor. The edition I bought is not the edition currently being widely reviewed and discussed. It is an equally reliable edition of Woolson’s stories published in the late 1980’s as part of a series called “Women Artists, Women Exiles” from Rutgers University Press.
Having now read Miss Woolson’s stories (though I read “Miss Grief” twice, having found a pdf – they have this thing called the Internet – of the story which I read for my earlier essay on her career and sad end), I can say with assurance that the current furor over her “rediscovery” is justified. She is a fine writer, and her work shows depth of understanding both of the characters and themes that she explores as well as of her personal literary heritage and of literary history.
Tradition and the individual talent I think some guy called it.
The nine stories in this collection cover the three phases of Woolson’s career and are divided quite nicely into sets of three from each career phase. The first group are her sketches of life in the Great Lakes region. These early stories reflect a young writer dealing with her literary heritage and, indeed, “Castle Nowhere,” my favorite of this group, echoes her famous ancestor James Fenimore Cooper, specifically his first Natty Bumppo novel, The Deerslayer. Woolson writes quite a bit better than her great uncle, which is pleasant for the reader, but the plot, reflecting a favorite theme (used ironically throughout Woolson’s work, though less so in this story than elsewhere) concerns a man “rescuing” and/or “civilizing” a woman whom the reader will likely find already admirable without anyone needing to take pains to “make” her so. That irony, subtly and clearly conveyed, might be seen as Woolson attempting to exorcise the “anxiety of influence.”
My favorite quote from this group of stories, however, comes from another story, “St. Clair Flats,” a tale set in a still “uncivilized” (read ‘natural and good’) section of the Lakes region. Woolson puts this into the mouth of one of the protagonists as he chats with his friend about writers and writing:
My motto is Never read anything unless it is by a ‘somebody.’ For, don’t you see, that a nobody, if he is worth anything, will grow into a somebody, and if he isn’t worth anything, you’ll have saved your time!
One can only smile at the preposterousness of this way of thinking – and honor Woolson for her perspicacity in slyly noting her own dilemma as a “nobody” trying to become a “somebody.”
The second group of stories, those which represent the middle phase of Woolson’s career, are set in the post-Civil War South. Woolson has an affinity for the South and for Southerners (her own sad home life gives her, I suspect, insight into the Southerner’s tendency to be excessively elegiac, a character flaw that often makes the Southerner his/her own worst enemy), and her stories capture the essence of Southern experience and its pathos and bathos. “In the Cotton Country” allows a woman whose family and home have been ruined by the Civil War to tell her side of the story of the Southern home front. “Miss Elisabetha” is a cautionary tale about the Southerner’s overwhelming desire to preserve the status quo without considering what we now call the law of unintended consequences.
The most interesting story in this group, “Felipa,” explores a favorite theme of Woolson’s: the conflict between a Rousseauean “natural soul,” Felipa, and the group of Northern visitors (a triangle of two women and a man) who attempt to “civilize” her according to their various lights (one of the women is great beauty who struggles between her desire for romantic engagement and her desire to be free of the encumberments that attend romantic involvement; another woman, leading a self-described “gray existence,” wavers between her desire to pursue her art and her desire for companionship; the man, in love with the first woman, struggles between his Victorian “man as dictator” views and his willingness to forego those for the woman he loves). Felipa, a wild young female at the cusp of adolescence and beauty, challenges each of these characters in one way or another, testing the mothering ability of the self-absorbed beauty, the belief in art’s power to educate and enlighten of the would be artist, and the man’s ability to control the desires of his id. Their relationships with Felipa affect all three, and they learn that sometimes it is best to leave what one finds alone rather than trying to reshape it according to one’s own conceptions. The would be artist wryly observes:
…I, listening there in the dark, fragrant night with the dew heavy upon me, felt glad that the old, simple-hearted love was not entirely gone from our tired, metallic world.
The last group of stories, those written after Woolson had moved to Europe and met her idol Henry James, are the least satisfying, at least for me. I have always found James’s writing ponderous, overwrought, and boring. I remember struggling through “The Jolly Corner” and “The Beast in the Jungle” during undergraduate school and having my professor tell me that the pleasure lay not in reading James but in having read James. This I liken to a dentist reassuring the patient that the pleasure lies not in having the root canal but in having had the root canal.
“Miss Grief,” over which much has been made since it is the most explicit critique of Woolson’s relationship, both professional and personal, with James, is, in my estimation, the weakest of the stories. It gives too much sympathy to Miss Crief (the James character calls her by the “Grief” name in what one supposes is Woolson poking fun at James’s sense of humor) and makes the James character, who narrates the tale, its villain. It’s a put up job.
“At the Chateau of Corinne” owes a little something to James, a little something to Jane Austen (especially when Austen gets didactic as she does in Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park). The story of a young, wealthy widow and the “re-education” she must endure from the man she eventually agrees to marry reaches for some goal not clearly defined: perhaps Woolson wants to make clear that marriage really is a negotiated agreement between two parties in which there must be compromise. Unfortunately, the woman, Mrs. Winthrop, does all the compromising (capitulating might be the more accurate term) and her suitor, Mr. Ford, makes all the terms of their match. I want to think that what Woolson is subtly skewering is her relationship with James, a relationship in which, it seems, James saw himself as the master and Woolson as his – pupil or subject or chance at a heterosexual relationship on his terms. But my crap detector dings as I write this, so there’s that.
The most interesting of the stories is, I think, “The Street of the Hyacinth.” The main character, Miss Macks, is, once again, a would be artist looking for validation from a Mr. Noel, a dilettante writer whose art criticism Miss Macks admires. As with the narrator/villain of “Miss Grief,” Noel is urbane, but he is also self-absorbed, condescending, and slightly caddish. When he does not have the courage to tell Miss Macks that he thinks she lacks artistic talent, he fobs her off on an art teacher who is smitten with her looks and who attempts, without success, to help her. Eventually, that plan fails, and Miss Macks, realizing the deceptions foisted upon her, gives up art. She takes work as a governess to support herself and her mother, and her beauty attracts a member of the Italian nobility whose family have plans for him to marry strategically. When Miss Macks refuses him, the family in gratitude helps her start a successful school for the children of families of privilege. Mr. Noel re-enters her life, recognizes her high character (and her beauty), and falls in love with her. Finally, after resisting him for some time, she accepts him. At the end of the story it is implied that they are married and that as she once learned art criticism from him, he has learned how to be a decent fellow from her.
I realize in writing that last sentence that all three of the European stories are the same story told over in different settings with slight variations in ending. “In the Street of the Hyacinth” is a revenge fantasy of sorts with Miss Macks representing Woolson’s desire to remake James into the man she wished he were. “At the Chateau of Corinne” is Woolson giving us a fictional version of what she felt she experienced in her relationship with James. And “Miss Grief” is, sadly, a sort of elegy Woolson wrote for herself after she realized that her relationship with James had harmed her writing irreparably.
This rediscovery and rehabilitation of Woolson’s work and reputation will, I hope, make her a regularly read and taught American writer. While she is not quite at the level of Edith Wharton, she is an important figure who deserves a wider audience.
I’d suggest reading more Woolson and reading no Henry James. But that’s just me.