CONSTANCE FENIMORE WOOLSON

 
Constance Fenimore Woolson.jpg
 

From AMAZINGWOMENINHISTORY.COM 

by Anne Boyd Rioux 

The author Constance Fenimore Woolson ( date of birth) , who wrote five novels for adults and dozens of stories, was widely considered during her lifetime one of the most important American fiction writers of the nineteenth century.

While Woolson may not be a household name today, she is a bit of a novelty for students of American literature because of her close friendship with Henry James, who enshrined his memories of her and their friendship in some of his most famous works, The Beast in the Jungle and The Wings of the Dove. However, Woolson was a prolific and successful writer herself, despite the fact that she continues to languish in the Master’s shadow.

Woolson’s work, often compared to that of James and George Eliot, was considered by many to be superior to that of any living American woman writer, and some believed she deserved the title of America’s “novelist laureate.” The leading magazine and book publisher Harper & Brothers sought and received an exclusive contract with her. 

At the height of her career, Woolson managed that difficult combination of critical and commercial success. She impressed the predominately male critics, who called her work “original,” “powerful,” “ artistic,” “true,” and “real,” distinguishing it from the writings of most her American female contemporaries and predecessors. Her first novel, Anne (1882), was her most successful, selling 57,000 copies, nearly ten times as many as Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, published at about the same time.

In fact, when the two writers first met in 1880, James took time out from working on his masterpiece to show Woolson around Florence for four weeks because she reminded him of the heroine he was trying to capture on the page. She had always been, like Isabel Archer, full of ideas of her own and eager to express them. Isabel was an exceptional creation because she seemed determined to choose her own path in life. As she first encounters Europe, her great charm is her openness to new sensations, her fondness for her own liberty, and her independent mind. She is unattached and free to make her own way in life. No wonder that when Woolson first read The Portrait of a Lady, she felt as if she were looking into a mirror.

Much of what we think we know of nineteenth-century women’s lives comes from men’s portraits of them—the fictional as well as the historical—with James’s Isabel Archer at or near the head of the list. Woolson, however, was much more than James could imagine on the page: a woman artist as committed to her writing as he was. What distinguishes Woolson as a nineteenth-century woman writer is her great ambition to succeed as a literary artist and the fact that she achieved her goal to a greater degree than any other American woman writer before Edith Wharton, her successor of the next generation.

When Woolson died in Venice in 1894, she was hailed by her editor, Henry Mills Alden, as “a true artist” whose writings possessed a “rare excellence, originality, and strength [that] were appreciated by the most fastidious critics.” In the New York Tribune, the influential poet and critic Edmund Clarence Stedman compared her to Jane Austen, calling her “one of the leading women in American literature of the century.” 

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