It is something of a literary convention that the life of the Famous Writer is carefully documented, while the lives of those around her or him—husbands, wives, friends, lovers—routinely fall into the paperless oblivion reserved for what Diane Johnson so memorably called “lesser lives.” Yet “a lesser life,” as Johnson poignantly stressed, “does not seem lesser to the person who leads one.”
Constance Fenimore Woolson was a popular American writer of the late 19th century whose friendship with Henry James has, among James scholars, long qualified hers as a distinctly lesser life. In all the James biographies, Woolson appears as a shadowy presence whose morbid anxieties simply echo those of the Master himself. Now, with the publication of a full-length biography and the reissue of a collection of her stories, Woolson emerges as a figure of some dimension in her own right.
She was born in a New Hampshire village in 1840, to a spirited woman who was also the niece of James Fenimore Cooper, and an equally spirited man of charm and literary intelligence who couldn’t make a go of any of the occupations he pursued. These people wanted to be happy, but filial tragedy dogged them. Within a month of Constance’s birth, three of the five sisters who preceded her died of scarlet fever; the other two would die some years later of tuberculosis. After Constance came three more babies, only two of whom lived. All in all, Hannah and Jarvis Woolson buried six of their nine children, and the ones who survived remained infected with a brooding depressiveness that haunted them all their lives.
Shortly after the three little girls died, the Woolsons pulled up stakes and moved, first to upstate New York, then to Cleveland, and, after the father died, down to St. Augustine, Florida. “When tragedy struck,” Anne Rioux tells us in Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist, “the Woolsons moved on.” For Jarvis, “new scenery was a powerful tonic.” This response to loss and grief, Rioux says, “became ingrained in their children, most of all Constance, who would spend the majority of her adult life on the move.”
Although she had been writing since childhood, Woolson didn’t try to publish until she was nearly 30 years old. Her work met with immediate success. Very soon—and for decades to come—her stories, essays, and sketches were appearing in the major magazines of the time: Harper’s, Scribner’s, The Atlantic Monthly. Unlike other women writers of her generation who, for the most part, were concentrating on tales of love and marriage, Woolson wrote out of a strong sense of place. Bret Harte, the great storyteller of the West, had been one of her earliest influences; because of him, she thought it fine to set her own stories in the world of the Great Lakes, specifically on the islands and marshlands and logging camps in and around Lake Huron, where the Woolson family had regularly visited when they lived in Ohio. Woolson was enchanted by the protean beauty everywhere to hand, as well as by the many eccentric people who dwelled in the local wilderness areas that she, from earliest youth, had loved exploring.