March 5, 2012

Birth of Constance Fenimore Woolson

Constance Fenimore Woolson was born on March 5, 1840 in Claremont, New Hampshire. Shortly after, three of her sisters died of scarlet fever. Woolson never knew them and likely never visited their graves; the remaining family members left New Hampshire forever and moved to Cleveland, Ohio. There, another of her sisters died in infancy. Two of her older sisters also died shortly after their respective marriages.

Woolson was the grandniece of novelist James Fenimore Cooper and, when her father died in 1869, the few remaining members of the family moved to Florida. There, she began writing, publishing short works in major publications like The Atlantic Monthly. After her mother's death in 1879, she traveled more widely, particularly in Europe and especially Italy. Woolson's most famous work is likely "Miss Grief" (1880), which is set in Rome.

The protagonist, a young male writer, is told that a woman came to see him and left only the name "Miss Grief." Grief, admits the narrator, has not visited him during his carefree time in Europe and he intends to keep it that way. Though she continuously came calling, he made sure to be elsewhere, until her eighth visit. "Not Grief," she says; her name is "Miss Crief" (though he continuously refers to her incorrectly) and she admits that she has read all his writings and even committed some to memory:

...Without pause, she began to repeat something of mine word for word, just as I had written it. On she went, and I — listened. I intended interrupting her after a moment, but I did not, because she was reciting so well, and also because I felt a desire gaining upon me to see what she would make of a certain conversation which I knew was coming — a conversation between two of my characters which was, to say the least, sphinx-like, and somewhat incandescent as well. What won me a little, too, was the fact that the scene she was reciting (it was hardly more than that, though called a story) was secretly my favorite among all the sketches from my pen which a gracious public has received with favor. I never said so, but it was... She had understood me — understood me almost better than I had understood myself. It seemed to me that while I had labored to interpret, partially, a psychological riddle, she, coming after, had comprehended its bearings better than I had, though confining herself strictly to my own words and emphasis. The scene ended (and it ended rather suddenly)...

Miss Grief has come with a manuscript, hoping the young author will help her have it published. To his surprise, he enjoys it and asks for other examples of her writing. But, when he suggests she make a few edits, she refuses and, she admits, if he reveals he does not like her work, she will be destroyed. On her deathbed, she asks for her manuscripts to be destroyed. Woolson herself was deeply affected by the deaths in her own family. Decades later, in her 50s, she took her own life.


  1. It's great to see a post on Woolson! Why not include her in your list of categories? She is an important author of the nineteenth century who deserves much more recognition than she has received.

  2. I only populate categories when they've already had a few posts about that subject. Alas, Ms. Woolson has been the subject of only this one. Sometimes the biggest drawback is my own interests, which put my squarely in the first half of the 19th century (during which Constance was still quite young). It's one of the reasons I invite - neigh, why I encourage! - guest posts from those who wish to draw more attention to a person/work of their own personal interest.


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