Sunday, February 27, 2022

In Sloane Street

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

Sloane Street, c. 1900, a short walk north of the townhouse where Woolson stayed during her first winter in London. The dominant building at the end of the street is an apartment block built in 1882, the year before she arrived. After a fire in 1904, it reopened as the Hyde Park Hotel (currently the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park). The horse-drawn omnibus at center boasts then-ubiquitous advertisements for Pears Soap and Oakey’s Knife Polish. In her story, which is set in 1892, Woolson describes omnibuses passing by on Sloane Street: “their sides bore advice (important in the blackest of towns) about soap.” (Photo by LL/Roger Viollet via Getty Images)

While Constance Fenimore Woolson was staying in the German spa town of Baden-Baden during the summer of 1883, she learned that her brother, Charlie, had killed himself in California. For several years, Charles Woolson had suffered from episodes of depression, alarming his family, yet his death was nevertheless unexpected and the news sent Woolson, who had in the past experienced her own depressive episodes, into a tailspin.
I have been ill three months. Three times during that period I rallied, & tried to call myself well; but only to sink back again. . . . It was not any one thing but a succession of ailments & difficulties. All is well now, I trust. The Dr has dismissed me.

I presume all came from the shock of Charlie’s death,—which made me suffer more than I have ever suffered in my life. I was so extremely unhappy for a number of weeks that I did not know where to turn.
Her grief was compounded by Charles’s suicide note: several pages written in diary form in the days and weeks before he poisoned himself. She decided to head to England, which nearly all her friends opposed, convinced that a winter alone in London would make her even worse. “Fortunately, I have learned to do what I think best and let the rest go,” she wrote to a friend after her arrival. “If I tried to follow all the advice I get, I should soon be in an asylum.”

And so she arrived in London in October, taking up residence for eight months at 116 Sloane Street, in a townhouse apartment across the street from the Cadogan Place Gardens, between the Chelsea and Belgravia neighborhoods. As it happens, she got very lucky: “The winter has been the ‘mildest on record,’” she wrote in late March. “It has been far warmer than it ever was (in winter) on the Riviera, in Florence, in Sorrento, in Rome.” (Subsequent trips would cure her of any fondness for London’s weather.) Henry James, whom she had met three years earlier and whose writing she greatly admired, was also in town for the winter. “[He] comes to see me now & then, & sends me books to read,” she wrote to her nephew in January.

A few years earlier, James had privately inveighed against “the literary spinster, sailing into-your-intimacy-American-hotel piazza type” who showed up in London expecting to meet him; later in life, he would write to a friend, “Women aren't literary in any substantial sense of the term.” Yet Woolson, calling herself an “admiring aunt” (she was only three years his senior), quickly won him over; she eventually became one of his closest friends and literary confidants, and the two authors shared, and forcefully critiqued, each other’s writing. They even discussed collaborating on a play, although nothing came of it. “Though in the course of his professional career James offered outlines to various editors,” writes biographer Lyndall Gordon, “there is no evidence, so far, that he discussed work with anyone else in the questioning way he did with Miss Woolson.”

Just how much the two writers cared for each other has always been a matter of speculation for their biographers. “He was as good at hiding his desire for men as she was at hiding her desire to be loved,” concludes Anne Boyd Rioux in her recent biography of Woolson:
James recognized that Woolson was as devoted to her work as he was to his. Living below her apartment [in Italy during the spring of 1887], he was aware of her steady work habits and admired her for them. Sometime in 1887 he gave her a volume of Shelley’s poetry inscribed to “Constance Woolson / from her friend and confrére.” With the French word confrére—colleague or comrade, the root of which is Latin for “brother’—he acknowledged her as a companion in the writing life and as a would-be sibling. Theirs was a chosen kinship. They both knew by now that the other would never marry.
As a result of their close friendship, their stories contain echoes of each other’s work. In early 1888, after returning to London from various trips to the Continent, James wrote “The Lesson of the Master,” in which a famous novelist advises a young author not to get married because it would require him to compromise his art to provide for his family. Four years later, Woolson published “In Sloane Street,” which addresses the same theme in an entirely different manner. Gordon, along with other literary historians, believes that Woolson’s story “retold” James’s novella, but Rioux thinks that Woolson had probably begun her story long before its publication. Hard at work on a new novel, Woolson may not have even read “The Lesson of the Master” when it first appeared in two consecutive issues of The Universal Review, a small-circulation London monthly that folded two years after its founding. The chance that Woolson had access to copies of the magazine in Italy seems slight, so her first opportunity to encounter James’s story was likely when it appeared in book form in 1892, just before her own story was published in Harper’s Bazar. Woolson and James probably both discussed in general terms how marriage might weigh on an author’s artistic goals—James occasionally proclaimed he would never marry because it would ruin his writing—and their conversations simply inspired two very different stories.

Two of Woolson’s best stories, “Miss Grief” (a previous Story of the Week selection) and “In Sloane Street,” bookend her real-life relationship with Henry James; in both tales she portrays a male author who bears a marked resemblance to her confrére. “Miss Grief,” written before she even met him, depicts its protagonist as Woolson imagined an author like James might be. “In Sloane Street,” published eighteen months before she died, conjures a writer of “analytical novels” similar to the books published by James; unlike his real-life counterpart, Philip Moore is married. At the center of both stories are unmarried “literary” women: one an author, the other a reader, and both thinly disguised reflections of Woolson herself.

Notes: In the 1870s English writer Augustus J. C. Hare published Memorials of a Quiet Life, the life story of his adopted mother, who, he says in the introductory note, would be surprised to learn that “anything she could do or say would have an interest beyond the loving circle in which she lived.” Anna Brownell Jameson was an influential Anglo-Irish art historian. John Ruskin, the most prominent art authority of the nineteenth century, was author of the multivolume Modern Painters. Martin Farquhar Tupper published Proverbial Philosophy (1838), a collection of moralizing maxims. The popular children’s book The History of Sandford and Merton was written in the 1780s by Thomas Day. The opera Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni, had its British premiere in London on October 19, 1891. French-born British writer George du Maurier was known for his popular novels, such as Trilby, as well as his illustrations for Punch, Harper’s, and other magazines. Jules Lemaître was a French literary and drama critic. The journal of Russian-French artist Marie Bashkirtseff, translated into English in 1890, was published to great acclaim—and criticism—for its frank portrayal of the author’s extraordinary ambitions to become a famous artist. The Society for the Collegiate Instruction for Women, popularly known as the Harvard Annex, was founded in 1879 and became Radcliffe College in 1894. St. James’s Gazette was a London evening paper known for its conservative politics and highbrow literary content.

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