Sunday, December 13, 2020


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

The Great Florida Sunset, 1887, oil on canvas by American artist Martin Johnson Heade (1819–1904). Standard Oil magnate Henry Morrison Flagler commissioned Heade to provide the painting for the new Hotel Ponce de León in St. Augustine. Eight feet in width, the painting was the largest of Heade’s career. Image: Sotheby’s.

During the 1880s Heade traveled throughout northern Florida and decided that St. Augustine was “by far the most attractive resort.” Provided by his sponsor with a studio in the hotel, he wintered in Florida, yet (like Woolson a decade earlier) grumbled about the other tourists who were “crowding out” local residents and wildlife. “Every two-thirds man I meet is a Northerner,” he complained to a friend.
“It is not too much to say that Constance Fenimore Woolson was in a sense reborn during her stay in St. Augustine,” writes Anne Boyd Rioux in her recent biography of the author. In 1873 Woolson and her widowed sister Clara, worried that their chronically ill mother wouldn’t survive another Cleveland winter, took her to Florida, where they spent the next six winters until her death in 1879. Constance almost immediately fell in love with the region, and she wrote to her friend with some early impressions:
The life here is so fresh, so new, so full of a certain wild freedom. 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. Yes, shade! For it is so warm that shade is desirable. 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 forest 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.
The fecund marsh areas also gave Woolson the opportunity to pursue one of her interests: ferns. There were several species in the area she had never seen before; unable to identify one of them, she wrote to botanist Daniel Cady Eaton for help, beginning a correspondence that included her sending to him samples of the local flora for his studies. (Eaton would publish The Ferns of North America in two volumes before the end of the decade.)

Woolson wrote her first and most successful novel, Anne, during her time in the state and her winter home served as the setting for several stories and a later novel. Her enthusiasm for the local flora and fauna was matched by her fascination with the residents, particularly the Minorcans, who traced their lineage to indentured servants brought in 1767 to work on indigo plantations sixty miles south of St. Augustine. After nine years of cruel working conditions and malarial outbreaks, they revolted, won their freedom, and established themselves in the city. The influx of Northerners after the Civil War caused some friction between the fair-weather migrants and the city’s Minorcan residents. “Many of the people regret the incursion of rich winter residents, who buy up the land for their grand mansions, raise the prices of every thing, and eventually will crowd all the poorer houses beyond the gates,” remarks a guide in “The Ancient City,” a travel feature Woolson wrote for Harper’s after her first season in Florida.

It wasn’t long before Woolson, too, began bemoaning the changing population. “Think of it,” she wrote to a friend during her second winter in Florida, “a railroad to the ‘ancient city’! It will soon be ‘ancient’ no longer. Indeed, it changes daily, I am sorry to say.” The railroad, in fact, reached St. Augustine less than two years later. She struck a similar note in a letter to one of her literary correspondents:
St. Augustine in the winter is full of grandees you know; by grandees I mean scions of those old New York City families who come down from the Dutch times and have “Van” in their names somewhere; people who have been rich for generations and absolutely know nothing of their own country outside of the “City,” although very familiar of course with Europe!
After her mother died, Woolson went to Europe, always intending to return to Florida once she had enough money to “buy a wee cottage down there; set up a crane & three orange-trees; & never stir again.” But by the late 1880s, she was concerned St. Augustine had become “a good deal spoiled” after Henry Morrison Flagler had spread around his “Standard Oil money” to help develop the area.

One of Woolson’s Florida tales, “Felipa” (1876), brings together a trio of Northern tourists and an orphaned, androgynous Minorcan girl. Both Catherine, the narrator, and Felipa, the girl, are attracted to the beautiful Christine—as is her lover, Edward, who arrives midway through the story. The tension in the story develops as Felipa’s crush becomes an obsession. Two years after the story appeared, in an unpublished defense of Alice Perry’s 1878 novel Esther Pennefather (which Woolson admitted was “the most utterly ridiculous book of the season”), she directly addressed the unspoken issue of same-sex attraction with a declaration that applies almost as well to her own story:
All the men may as well now retire, and read their newspapers; since they do not believe this. . . . namely, a woman’s adoration of another woman. There is such a thing. I myself have seen tears of joy, the uttermost faith, and deepest devotion, in mature, well-educated, and cultivated women, for some other woman whom they adored; have seen an absorption for months of every thought. But — but! there is a monotonous certainty that follows on, which arouses to laughter the unregenerate masculine mind and makes it deny the whole (which is a mistake: it is there), namely, the certainty that once let loose an agreeable man in this atmosphere, and, ten to one, the whole cloud-structure topples over.
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Notes: The epigraph is from “The Marshes of Glynn” (1878) by Southern poet Sidney Lanier. The Latin phrase cui bono? translates as “who benefits from it?” The quip about cynicism paraphrased by Woolson was made by Thomas Bailey Aldrich in the short story “Marjorie Daw” (1873). “Hope is more than a blessing — it is a duty and a virtue” was written by English writer P. G. Patmore, faulting William Hazlitt for his despondency, in My Friends and Acquaintance: Being Memorials, Mind- Portraits, and Personal Recollections of Deceased Celebrities of the Nineteenth Century (1845). The lines of poetry on page 326 are from Ben Johnson’s “A Celebration of Charis in Ten Lyric Pieces.”

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Christine and I found her there. She was a small, dark-skinned, yellow-eyed child, the offspring of the ocean and the heats, tawny, lithe and wild, shy yet fearless. . . . 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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