Sunday, December 15, 2019

“Miss Grief”

Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840–1894)
From Constance Fenimore Woolson: Collected Stories

Detail from Woman Reading / La Liseuse (1895), oil on board, by French artist Henri Matisse (1869–1954). Click on image to see full painting. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Constance Fenimore Woolson was a popular American writer of the late nineteenth century, whose friendship with Henry James has, among James scholars, long qualified hers as a distinctly lesser life,” writes Vivian Gornick in a review of Anne Boyd Rioux’s groundbreaking biography. “In all the James biographies, Woolson appears as a shadowy presence whose morbid anxieties simply echo those of the Master himself.” Until recently Woolson was perhaps best known for her close relationship with James, including the lurid details of her death (a probable suicide) in Venice and the devastating effect the news had on him. For more than a century, her own writings, widely respected and read at the time, have been largely overlooked. Yet a reading of her stories, Gornick concludes, shows that “Woolson emerges as a figure of some dimension in her own right.”

During the recent revival of interest in Woolson’s writing, particularly her short fiction, the story “Miss Grief” has perhaps commanded the most attention. A tale of a self-important, established male writer who tries to advise and mentor a reluctant yet willful young woman, it has often been read as a fictionalization of the relationship between James and Woolson—even though the two authors had not yet met when she wrote the story. Woolson knew James only through her extensive reading of his works (she had recently published two admiring appraisals of James’s latest novel, The Europeans) and through what she’d heard from mutual acquaintances, including his close friend, John Hay—former secretary to Lincoln and future secretary of state under Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1879 Woolson was grieving from the death of her mother, suffering from depression and illness, and learning to live with deafness—a degenerative condition she inherited from her father. Her sister suggested a trip to Europe and, accompanied by her eleven-year-old niece, they arrived in London in late November at the start of one of the coldest English winters in memory. While in the city, Woolson knocked on the door of Henry James’s flat, hoping to introduce herself, but discovered he was in Paris. They spent only ten days in London before traveling to the continent in search of warmer weather. At some point during the course of their winter travels, she wrote “‘Miss Grief.’”

At the time, James—the younger writer by three years—was preparing his seventh novel, Washington Square, for serial publication. Although she had published numerous short stories during the previous decade, Woolson was still waiting for Harper & Brothers to publish her debut novel, Anne. So when, uninvited and unannounced, she knocked on his door in London, in her position of the relatively “new” author, it seems probable that Woolson was inspired to imagine how such a meeting might have played out. In any case, the narrator of “‘Miss Grief’” is certainly someone much like James; as Amy Gentry notes in The Chicago Tribune, “Woolson satirizes James's self-regard lightly and with perfect control, stopping just short of mean-spiritedness. Of all the send-ups of James by his contemporaries—and the list is long—Woolson’s story is the only one that works as more than pure comedy.”

Woolson finally caught up with James in Florence, around the time her story appeared in the May issue of Lippincott’s Magazine. For the next month he guided her around the city’s churches and museums in the mornings. James hadn’t read any of her work and he wrote home that she was “old-maidish, deaf & ‘intense’; but a good little woman & a perfect lady.” She thought him “a delightful companion.” The places they visited together in Florence and their differing views on art made their way into Woolson’s story “A Florentine Experiment.” During the same period, James was working on The Portrait of a Lady, and Woolson seems to have provided some of the inspiration for the book’s heroine, Isabelle Archer. “With no character of yours have I ever felt myself so much in sympathy,” she wrote James shortly after reading the novel. When “‘Miss Grief’” was subsequently anthologized in Scribner’s Stories by American Authors (1884), Woolson changed the name of the narrator’s romantic interest from “Ethelind” to “Isabel.”

In a recent essay Rioux suggests why Woolson’s story resonates so strongly with readers today:
Although the story has been read primarily as an index to Woolson’s own feelings of neglect as a woman writer, it is much more than that. It showcases the conflicting views of her time about what made literature valuable, staging the tensions between polish and power in the forms of a male and female writer, respectively. It touches on still-sensitive questions about how gender informs perspective, literary value, and success. Besides that, it is a delight to read.

Parts of the above introduction have been adapted from Anne Boyd Rioux’s “Chronology” and “Notes on the Text” in the new Library of America collection, Constance Fenimore Woolson: Collected Stories.

Notes: In the opening paragraph, the narrator says, “When found, make a note of it,” a quote from Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son. Tullia D’Aragona was a highly esteemed Renaissance poet and philosopher as well as a great beauty and courtesan; in later accounts she was often portrayed as dangerously seductive. In the early sixteenth century salacious rumors of incest and murder swirled around Lucrezia Borgia, the daughter of Pope Alexander VI and his mistress, Vannozza dei Cattanei. The Latin phrase “Væ victis!” means “Woe to the vanquished!” Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed his famous poem “Kubla Kahn: or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment” came to him in its entirety in a dream but was interrupted in its composition by “a person on business from Porlock.”

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“A conceited fool” is a not uncommon expression. Now, I know that I am not a fool, but I also know that I am conceited. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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