Constance Fenimore Woolson: An Interview with Anne Boyd Rioux

Anne Boyd Rioux and I both hang out in a number of places on line where women talk about writing, history, and writing about history.  She is a smart, savvy and generous scholar who writes about forgotten women of the past.  You will not be surprised to hear that when her newest book, Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist, showed up on the February list of books to review for Shelf Awareness for Readers, I was quick to call dibs.  Once I started reading , I was so engaged that I asked Anne if she would answer some questions here in the Margins.

WoolsonBefore we get to the interview, a little bit about the book:

Nineteenth century novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson is one of the lost figures of American fiction. In her lifetime she was recognized as an important writer. today she is generally treated as simply a footnote in the life of Henry James–the woman he feared committed suicide because he did not love her. In Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist, literary historian Anne Boyd Rioux reclaims both Woolson’s life and her work for a modern audience.

Rioux successfully navigates the balancing act at the heart of any literary biography. She considers Woolson’s literary works–six novels and dozens of short stories–within the context of her life, but never reduces Woolson’s fiction to mere biographical illustration. The end result is a portrait of a complex woman who chose a literary career over family and domesticity–one of the first women to successfully create such a life. She presents Woolson as a serious writer who strove to portray the pressures of convention on women’s lives within the format of the realistic novel. Like her male peers, Woolson traveled extensively in Europe, was a familiar figure in American expatriate circles in England and Italy, and occasionally retreated into solitude when the need to write was strong. Woolson’s relationship with Henry James appears less as a story of unrequited love and more as the most important example of her lifelong efforts to find intellectual companionship and respect from her male peers.

Constance Fenimore Woolson is an engaging combination of storytelling and scholarship.


And now please welcome, Anne Boyd Rioux:

What path led you to Woolson?

I found her by accident really. I was browsing the library stacks when I was in graduate school and saw a book with my name on it: ANNE. That was the title of her first novel. So it caught my eye, but it was a recently published collection of her stories nearby–Women Artists, Women Exiles–that really got me interested. I was looking for women writers who had written about what it was like to be a serious artist in the 19th century, and she turned out to be the real deal–someone who wrote about serious women artists and was one herself.  The more I read, the more I was drawn to the tensions between ambition and renunciation that were at the heart of her portraits of women.

I ended up writing about her in my dissertation, which became my first book: Writing for Immortality: Women and the Emergence of High Literary Culture in America. She was one of four writers I focused on and she always stuck with me as the most ambitious and successful of the group. Then I took a break from scholarship for a bit when my daughter was young, but I found my way back to Woolson when the scholarly group, the Constance Fenimore Woolson Society, asked me to return to their biennial conference. This wonderful group of devoted scholars pulled me back in, and I am grateful for that. I soon discovered, though, that the work they had done bringing Woolson’s work back into print and getting her into the college anthologies was stalling. There weren’t as many new scholars to take the place of the ones who were retiring (because of budget cuts in academia and the slow rate of new hiring). The collection of stories I had loved went out of print, and then Woolson was removed from one of the main anthologies. So I knew we had to do more to make sure she didn’t disappear again.

One of the themes that struck me as I read Constance Fenimore Woolson was the difficulty of a woman being taken seriously as a writer, particularly when dealing with women’s emotions and themes related to women’s lives.  More than a hundred years later, the question of being defined in terms of “women’s fiction” is still a vexed one for many writers.  Could you tell us a little about the specific challenges Woolson faced, and how they compared to those that women writers face today?

This is such a great question. I’ve been thinking a lot about this. When I first started writing this book, I didn’t make the connection. I was, frankly, living in the 19th century and missing all of the headlines about the VIDA count and Wikipedia taking women writers out of the entry on American writers. My students actually brought them to my attention. We were reading some women writers from the 1850s, who were derided by Nathaniel Hawthorne as a “damned mob of scribbling women.” As we discussed the prejudices they were up against, some of the female students were visibly frustrated and one swore under her breath. I realized this was touching a nerve and asked them about it. “It’s still going on today,” they said and proceeded to tell me about the gender imabalances in the publishing world VIDA was bringing to light, as well some sexist comments a Canadian professor had recently made about women writers. So I went searching online and was shocked at what I found. I had been toiling away on my research on the 19th century, assuming that things had improved considerably for women writers, but I was wrong. Here were women pointing out that Jonathan Franzen was being treated as the second coming for writing essentially domestic novels, while women writers were corralled into a separate category with a lesser status. The same thing happened to Woolson vis-a-vis Henry James in the late-nineteenth century.

In terms of what Woolson specifically faced, she grew up with the kind of animosity towards women writers expressed in Hawthorne’s remark. It was in the periodicals she was reading, and someone in her family drew a goatee on the picture of woman writer in one of the family’s magazines. When I came across that in the archive, I felt like I understood why she waited so long to begin her career. She was 29 and her father had just died and she needed to support herself and her mother. Only necessity could justify the leap into the public sphere. Her brother apparently still didn’t like her being a writer. The fear was that it would lead to even more radical things, like campaigning for women’s rights and thus unsettling her family and the nation. Although Woolson tried hard all of her life to play down the radical nature of her career and her ability to support herself outside of marriage and male power, the fact remains that simply by publishing and speaking her mind she was participating in the gradual revolution in favor of women’s rights.

As a writer, Woolson was not content to be lumped together with other women writers, however. She knew they were treated as second-class citizens in the literary world, and she wanted the respect of male critics and writers, if she could get it. She did, for the most part, by writing what was perceived as “powerful” and “vigorous” fiction. Yet she had to walk a thin line between writing more like men and being considered unladylike. Throughout her career, really, she was accused of writing too much like a woman and not enough like a woman. She couldn’t win, really.

How difficult was it to write about a woman whose biography has been overshadowed by a famous man, in this case Henry James and to a lesser extent Woolson’s great uncle, James Fenimore Cooper?  

In some ways, these relationships have kept her name alive. Yet, their reputations, especially James’s, have so overshadowed hers that she has become a minor character in his story, a background figure in the panorama of his life. The challenge was to put her at the center of the frame and not let him overwhelm the picture. Unfortunately, there are far fewer archival materials about the first forty years of her life, before she moved to Europe, which is where she met James.  People tended to keep her letters from Europe, so there is more information about that period of her life, but not a whole lot about him. Their friendship, as it became more intimate, also became more private, and they decided to burn their letters to each other. Only four of hers to him have survived. There is so much we will never know about their relationship, as a result. This has led to some fairly wild speculation from his biographers, particularly Leon Edel, who assumed she must have been in love with him. Part of the challenge, then, was dismantling these assumptions without giving them too much space. The biography needed to remain her story. So in many cases I simply took out my responses to previous critics or buried them in the footnotes, allowing Woolson to remain center stage.

Writing about an historical figure like Woolson requires living with her over a period of months or years.  What was it like to have her as a constant companion?  

The more I learned about her, the more I admired her, which I imagine is not always the biographer’s experience. It felt like I was going on an archaeological dig every day, trying to understand what was under the surface of the mask she wore for the world. I wanted to respect her privacy, but I also decided that she would want to be known for who she was, not as some tragic heroine who threw herself out of her window because of unrequited love for James. (That is another myth I had to tackle.)

What I found under the mask was an extremely generous, empathetic person who wrestled mightily with her feelings, in a day when women were encouraged to present a placid facade to the world. There is so much feeling and desire just lurking under the surface, particularly in her fiction. I couldn’t help but feel with and for her. Ultimately, I felt like it was my great honor to get to know her, as if she were a good friend in life.

With this book you’ve made the leap from writing for an academic audience to writing scholarly work for a broader audience.  What were some of the challenges involved?

The biggest challenge was learning how to cut the manuscript down to size and shape it into a narrative. Academic writing is information- and argument-driven. You throw everything you have in there, either to inform the reader or to convince them. And you don’t think too much about what the reading experience is like. Sure, you want to be clear (at least some of us do), but you aren’t thinking about making your writing a pleasure to read. But one of the main reasons I wanted to write a biography was that it would give me the opportunity to stretch myself as a writer and to create something that was more pleasing to write and to read.

The second challenge was learning to tell the story in my own voice. Once I had the narrative shaped and the manuscript cut down, I still had too many quotations. Both my agent and editor said that all of the quotations pulled the reader out of the story. Academics are used to providing evidence as accurately as possible, so they tend to quote A LOT. The main part of the second round of revisions was to paraphrase and summarize in my own words and to use quotations more judiciously.

Finally, it was simply learning to keep rewriting and rewriting and listening to the sound of the prose. I have never worked so hard at my writing before. It was a great lesson for me that I have brought back to my students. The saying goes that writing is rewriting, but how much time do most academics or students spend reworking their prose until it really flows?

 Which of Woolson’s novels or short stories would you recommend as an introduction to her work?

Of the stories I have collected in Miss Grief and Other Stories, I would recommend “Miss Grief” as a great starting point. It gives you a sense of her skill and power as a writer, as well as what she was up against in a world that valued women as beautiful objects rather than as creative minds. Readers also shouldn’t miss “Rodman the Keeper,” which captures the difficulties of reuniting the nation after the Civil War on such a personal level. It is an immensely moving story. Each story is really so different from the others. Although there are some similar themes, particularly in terms to her showing the reader the humanity of marginalized characters, the stories as a whole capture the great breadth and diversity of her career. She was a master at setting scene and providing revealing details that really make you feel like you are there. So you couldn’t go wrong starting with any of the stories.

As for her novels, Anne, published in 1882, was her most popular. I enjoyed teaching it in a class on the female Bildungsroman last semester, and it was a hit. The students loved it and felt that young women should grow up reading it alongside Austen and Charlotte Bronte. Anne is a wonderful, iconoclastic heroine who learns to stay true to her own mind and sense of morality when the world around her expects her to conform to certain images it has of her. It’s also an adventure story and carries you along on a wave of suspense and emotion. It’s a real page-turner. Some of my students couldn’t resist staying up to finish it long before it was due in class. It is not currently in print in a reliable, edited edition. I’m hoping we can change that!

Is there anything else you wish I had asked you about?

Why should readers know Woolson’s writings? Do they have more than a historical importance? What is their literary value?

Woolson believed that the greatest literature touched our emotions, made us feel for characters who may come from very different backgrounds than ourselves. In this way, she was at odds with Henry James and William Dean Howells, but her editor at Harper’s agreed with her. Today, we tend to agree with Woolson, that literature should convey empathy and make readers understand what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes. This is precisely what her fiction does. Although written a hundred and thirty or so years ago, we can still feel her great empathy for lives lived on the margins, lives her male contemporaries tended to overlook. She wrote with empathy but not sentimentality; the emotions she evokes are never simple. I also believe that it was her great gift to show readers how little they know about others through self-assured characters who discover their own ignorance. She wrote with great subtlety and power, unsettling readers by allowing the silenced to speak.

AnneBoydRioux Anne Boyd Rioux is a professor at the University of New Orleans and the author/editor of four books, including Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist and Miss Grief and Other Stories, both published by W. W. Norton. She is the recipient of two National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships, one for Public Scholarship. Rioux also writes reviews and essays for general and academic audiences, specializing in biography and women writers. Her current project is Reading Little Women, which will celebrate and reevaluate the classic novel for its 150th anniversary in 2018.* You can find her on Facebook and Twitter as well as at her website: If you’re interested in forgotten women writers of the past, I strongly recommend that you sign up for her newsletter, The Bluestocking Bulletin

*I’m putting this on my reading calendar now!

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