Writer or Wifey?

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A recent piece in the Atlantic argues that women writers’ lack of all-supporting, all-sacrificing spouses—in the vein of Vera Nabokov—may be a missing link to help explain the lack of gender parity in the literary world today. Vera was the kind of wife who not only took care of all of the details of her family’s life (including doing all the driving—Vladimir never learned to drive) but also acted as an editor and almost a co-collaborator for her husband. I recently read Stacy Schiff’s biography of Vera and kept thinking about how really smart women in the past had to funnel their ambitions into their husbands—and also how nice it would be (but also kind of creepy), how much more one could accomplish, with such a spouse.

Vera and Vladimir

I wrote a while back about how Every Writer Needs a Wife (or a Mom). I was talking about getting some help and making it easier to do my work. I can’t imagine having a self-sacrificing Vera. And I wouldn’t want one. But it is important to remember that many great male writers in the past had one.

Then again, some didn’t. Henry James comes to mind. He specifically chose not to marry. He didn’t want the responsibility of providing for and caring for a wife. He essentially married his art. (His closeted homosexuality certainly also played a role, although many gay men married for the cover and for the convenience of having a “wife”—someone who did just about everything for you.)

But it was more common for women writers to decide not to marry in order to simplify their lives enough to be able to write. (I wrote about this at length in my book Writing for Immortality.) For to marry meant being essentially a Vera. Although Vladimir seems to have been particularly dependent on his wife, what Vera did wasn’t all that unusual. Wives simply were supposed to do everything at home and support their husband’s careers. They were supposed to see their husband’s achievements as their own. In the case of a writer’s wife, their responsibilities could entail breadwinning as well. Vera often worked to supplement their income. She was a rather modern woman in that way.

With all of those expectations, it is no wonder that many women writers not only did not have their own Veras—they chose not to marry at all. A husband and children were the death knell of any ambitions. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s novel The Story of Avis (1877) documented this sad fact most brilliantly.

In the novel, a woman, Avis, has committed herself to becoming a great artist but gets sidelined by a man who falls in love with her and promises to help her fulfill her dreams if she will only marry him. The rest of the novel documents her sad decline as two children are born and the household cares take over her life. One of the most pathetic scenes occurs when Avis is trying to return to her dust-covered studio and has locked the door, but sad little cries from the other side distract her until she opens the door and lets her children in. When The Story of Avis was published, the reviews were scathing, attacking it for arguing, in the words of the Atlantic critic, that “marriage is not a woman’s best and highest destiny”—that she might be made for something else, something better than washing the clothes and darning the shirts. (The review was written by a woman.)

As women’s ambitions grew, the number of women writers who married declined. Constance Fenimore Woolson, as well as Phelps, Louisa May Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Sarah Orne Jewett, and a host of other women from the 19th century chose not to marry or postponed marriage, in part because of their literary ambitions. (A case could be made for Emily Dickinson as well. Jewett had a “Boston Marriage” with a woman.) They knew they could not serve two masters. And for some of them it seemed rather unfair that they had to choose between love and work. Alcott didn’t mind so much. But Woolson did. She always wondered if she would have been happier married. A writing career seemed to be a consolation prize for spinsters. It seemed to her that “only the unhappy women took to writing.” Marriage or family for women was—and I would argue still is—assumed to be the thing that would make them happiest. All else paled in comparison. Today children may have replaced “a man” as the key to fulfillment for women, but the pressure to have a family remains as strong as ever—and that has historically meant more responsibility than can easily mesh with a writing career, or any career for that matter.

Many of the responses to the recent Atlantic article were very much in the vein of “I’m sure it’s the same for men and women”—that gender isn’t really the issue any more, that any writer could use a Vera, in the form of spouse but more likely in the form of a hired assistant. But historically gender has played a very large role. And to think that suddenly, in 2014, all of that history no longer matters is dangerous. The historical obstacles to women’s success won’t go away overnight.

The fact that women submit and query much less frequently than men—as reported by many of the defensive editors whose magazines aren’t publishing women’s writings more than 25% of the time—has everything to do with this history. It’s not just about biology or hormones—“oh women are more likely to accept the first rejection and won’t try again, whereas men keep coming back until they get published.” Studies have shown that women are still doing the overwhelming majority of the housework and childrearing. That more than anything can make a person give up trying. Many women are probably just too tired and distracted to take courage and try, try again.

What’s the worst review you ever got? Woolson’s was a doozy.  

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At the beginning of Woolson’s career, she wrote to William Dean Howells that the “critics seem to hold my very life in their hands.” She could not sleep after reading her reviews. In September 1874, she must have laid awake for nights after reading The Nation’s review of two of her stories just published. Without the support of Howells and other elite male writers, she might never have recovered from it. It was precisely the sort of review that was calculated to get women to break their pens in two and go back to their knitting.

It appeared in The Nation, a magazine that Frank Luther Mott said was known for its decided lack of “’genial’ criticism.” Henry James was writing reviews for The Nation then, although he did not review the periodicals. That task was undertaken by John Richard Dennett, who called Woolson’s story “Peter the Parson,” just published in Scribner’s,

noticeable for the raw coarseness of its assault on the feelings, and the unsteady, unskillful hand with which some commonplace figures are drawn.

Not content to denounce Woolson’s story, Dennett then launched an attack on women writers generally, the surest way to make yourself look like you have an axe to grind.

 Our band of heart-wrenching female dealers in false feeling was never, we think, so numerous as now. Some of them are better, some worse, but all their performances, from Mrs. Harding Davis’s down to ‘Saxe Holme’s’ [Helen Hunt Jackson] and her companions, have the general truth of sentiment of a romance by the leading graduate of a young ladies’ seminary. Their good effects on their writers and their readers may be guessed.

From here Dennett launched a further attack on another story that appeared the same month:

In the September Atlantic, Miss Woolson has another tale, wildly improbable, destitute of the truth of fact or the truth of fiction, which appears under the title of ‘The Lady of Little Fishing.’ It is of this as much as her story in Scribner’s that we are thinking when we speak of the large school of female writers to which she belongs, and of whom there is none who seems able to keep on her feet and write a moderate word when the reader’s feelings are to be touched, by the display of the throbbing feelings of the characters. Of the uses of restraint and the nature of reserve they seem to have really about as much conception as if they wrote letters for the Beecher-Tilton case; and of good sense as little. They are, in a strict and now obsolete sense of the word, indecent.

[“Beecher –Tilton case”: The most famous preacher in America, Henry Ward Beecher, had been accused of adultery by Theodore Tilton. The salacious details of the case were widely reprinted in the press.]

Dennett’s view of Woolson was in the minority. Only one year later, when these two stories were published in her first collection, Castle Nowhere: Lake-Country Sketches, Howells, writing for the Atlantic Monthly, praised “The Lady of Little Fishing” for its “dramatic skill and force.” He continued,

It argues a greater richness in our fictitious literature than we have been able to flatter ourselves upon . . . [and] it has a high truth to human nature never once weakened by any vagueness of the moral ideal in the author.

The New York Tribune was even more enthusiastic:

Since the day when [Bret Harte’s] ‘The Luck of Roaring Camp’ awoke us all to a new sensation, there has been published no book of stories so fresh in scenery and incident, so indisputably original.

In addition, the reviewer claimed she bested Henry James “in the quality of freshness, in the use of unhackneyed scenery and incident.” She displayed “positive genius” and exhibited such “power” that the reviewer was “ready to offer Miss Woolson glad welcome into the field of letters.”

The Nation was eating crow, but Dennett himself did not live to see his verdict of Woolson’s work overturned. He died of consumption less than three months after penning his virulent attack.

Historicizing the VIDA Count

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Inspired by the class I taught last semester and some of the writing that came out of it on this blog, I wrote a piece for VIDA that they have just published on their website: Women’s Citizenship in the “Republic of Letters” One-Hundred and Thirty Years Ago and Today

VIDA conducts an increasingly widely publicized count of women’s writings and reviews of their works in the leading literary venues. I had done something similar with the Atlantic Monthly from the late 1800s so wanted to compare then and now. The results were not good. Women were publishing about the same then as they are now.

VIDA “address[es] the need for female writers of literature to engage in conversations regarding the critical reception of women’s creative writing in our current culture.” I am honored to be part of the conversation. And I am thrilled to find today’s women writers interested in learning about how Constance Fenimore Woolson and other women writers of the past fared. For the obstacles they encountered and the struggles they endured are not entirely different from what women are facing today in the literary world. And that is the saddest news of all.

George Eliot and Constance Fenimore Woolson–Lessons in Compassion and Endurance

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I have been reading Rebecca Mead’s new book, My Life in Middlemarch, and thinking more about what drew Woolson to George Eliot, one of her favorite authors. When she began her career, Eliot was the most revered female author, so it was natural for her to be inspired by her. In fact, Woolson’s works were often compared to Eliot’s. The Century, for instance, wrote, “Sometimes one is ready to say that a fragment, and not an inferior fragment, of the mantle of George Eliot is resting on her capable shoulders.”

Their novels have much in common. They tend to be long and microscopic in their attention to individual lives. Yet Woolson focused her canvas more narrowly. She avoided the multiple subplots that often distract readers of Eliot’s novels. What unites their work, however, is the great project of sympathy—not in the sense of pity or looking down on those less fortunate, but in the sense of relating to the misfortunes of others and stopping to notice the quiet heroism and dignity of ordinary people.

Their great theme was the same, in fact, as those of many 19th-century realist novels: how individuals wrestled with the conflict between their own yearnings and the desire to do good for the sake of others. It was often dramatized as the tension between love and duty, a particularly powerful tension for women, who were trained to live for others and often had to sacrifice their own hopes and dreams to care for others.

In their lives, Eliot and Woolson had dramatically different experiences of the conflict between love and duty. After enduring years of yearning for love, Eliot found it with George Lewes, a man who was not free to marry her. She accepted his love nonetheless and lived essentially although not literally as a married couple for the rest of their lives. It was his love and encouragement, in fact, that allowed the author “George Eliot” to come into being. He is the one who urged her to write fiction and then built up her confidence by hiding negative reviews from her.

Woolson never found such a devoted love. In her twenties, she gave up a chance to marry in order to stay home and care for her aging parents. When she read the excerpts from Eliot’s journals and letters published after her death, Woolson was envious of Eliot’s life and felt she could not join in the general cry of pity that arose over the hardships she had endured.

Woolson wrote to a friend, “How can you say George Eliot was unhappy? I think that she had one of the easiest, most indulged and ‘petted’ lives that I have ever known or heard of . . . . From first to last, she did exactly as she pleased–law or not law, custom or no custom! Lewes adored her; I heard all the details in London. She was surrounded by the most devoted, personal, worshiping affection to his last hour. True, she earned the money for two, and she worked very hard. But how many, many women would be glad to do the same through all of their lives if their reward was such a devoted love as that!”

Eliot had not endured the kind of self-sacrifice she preached in her fiction, Woolson felt. In the same letter she wrote, “the one thing I have against her is that after getting and having to the full all she craved, then she began to pose as a teacher for others! She began to preach the virtues she had not for one moment practised in her own life.” Woolson felt the sting of self-sacrifice more deeply than Eliot did, and the effects are visible in their fiction.

While Eliot stressed the melancholic beauty of suppressing the self for the sake of others, Woolson focused on the pain of that process. Sublimating one’s desires into sympathy for others is central to the moral worldview of both authors. Their fiction focused on the unsung heroes and heroines of self-sacrifice, whose generosity often went unnoticed. But while Eliot tended to preach the necessity for a better world made up of such small gestures of goodness, Woolson never did. In most cases, her characters’ resignation does not serve any higher purpose. And sometimes her characters’ sacrifices benefit the least deserving. What matters is not the great good that results, as in Eliot, but the bulwark against dissolution of the self that noble acts provide.

Woolson was writing at a time when the moral certainty of Eliot’s generation was slipping away. The amoral relativism of Naturalism was dawning. Woolson tried to keep it at bay not by celebrating or blatantly promoting self-renunciation, as many popular novelists did, but by offering small acts of heroism as the only way to maintain one’s sense of a cohesive self. As the liberal humanist ideal of an autonomous self was beginning to dissipate—think of Isabel Archer’s failed attempt to realize her autonomy in The Portrait of a Lady—Woolson’s heroines maintained their individualism, paradoxically, by sacrificing their desires.

Self-sacrificing heroines like Margaret in East Angels and Anne in Anne seem almost impossibly good to our eyes today. Woolson didn’t think of them as “good” per se. (The last line of East Angels, “Well—you’re a good woman,” is ironically tragic.) Instead they were simply individuals who held firm in the face of pressures to give into a selfish love. This made them not simply paragons of virtue—for she shows how hard it was for them to stand their ground—but admirable examples of self-integrity. They could continue to look themselves in the mirror in a way that Emma Bovary never could.

Woolson found strength in resignation, not self-righteousness. For a heroine like Margaret, standing firm in the face of Winthrop’s repeated attempts to lure her away from her loveless marriage is the only bit of control she can exert in her life. So what looks like defeat is really triumph of a greater kind.

The theme of self-sacrifice has not done much to burnish either Eliot’s or Woolson’s reputations Eliot’s works have survived in spite of it. Rebecca Mead examines how Eliot’s reputation faltered in the early twentieth century, a time when world war had shattered people’s belief in social amelioration and the power of sympathy. Woolson’s fame also dissipated quickly after her death in 1894. Eliot’s reputation rebounded, however, while Woolson’s has taken more time to slowly come back to life.

Mead attributes Eliot’s fall to her earnestness, her belief in the ability to make the world a better place. Woolson had already lost that belief. But she clung to faith in a better world beyond this one that would make all of our sacrifices worthwhile. That faith certainly dates her. But her smaller faith in the sanctity of the self and its ability to endure in the face of tremendous suffering makes her an interesting literary figure at a pivotal moment in history.

Her books ask, how do we carry on when all of our hopes have been thwarted? How do we pick ourselves up and move forward when there seems to be no reason to, no reward for the sacrifices we make? These are bleak questions answered only by the power of love to sustain us, even when it remains unfulfilled, and a vague hope that it will be more fully realized in the next life.

Rebecca Mead makes a powerful case for valuing George Eliot’s message of sympathetic connection. Near the end of her book she writes, “We are called to express our generosity and sympathy in ways we might not have chosen for ourselves. Heeding that call, we might become better. Setting aside our own cares, we might find ourselves on the path that can lead us out of resignation.” It is a quietly persuasive argument.

I would argue that when we read Woolson’s writings, we are not called to a higher self. We feel ourselves pulled inside the thwarted, tortured lives of characters who have been misunderstood, and thus our understanding of those around us is widened, as in Eliot’s work. But once we are let inside another’s experience, there is no easy way to feel better afterward. We are confronted with the pain of the other and ultimately recognize that we can only stand apart and recognize it. We cannot ameliorate it. But there is some small help we can give, simply by acknowledging it. As Rodman says to Bettina at the end of “Roman the Keeper,” realizing that he cannot change anything, “Follow your path out into the world. Yet do not think, dear, that I have not seen–have not understood.”

Ultimately, Woolson was a more modern writer than Eliot. She would have agreed with William Faulkner’s 1950 Nobel Acceptance Speech, in which he said, “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.” These were the great themes of her writings—compassion, sacrifice, endurance.

The Portrait of a Lady Novelist

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The working title for my biography of Woolson—now also the title of this blog—obviously refers to Henry James’s now-classic novel. Let me explain why I chose it.

After reading The Portrait of a Lady, Woolson wrote to the author about his heroine, Isabel Archer, “With no character of yours have I ever felt myself so much in sympathy.” She experienced with Isabel “a perfect . . . comprehension, & a complete acquaintance as it were.” Her feelings of kinship with Isabel were no coincidence.

When she met James in Florence in 1880, he was just beginning to write the novel that would become his masterpiece. He had conceived of Isabel many years earlier, but meeting Woolson was like meeting his heroine in the flesh. Woolson was, like Isabel, an independent woman discovering Europe for the first time. Although she was older than Isabel was supposed to be, seeing the city and its treasures through her fresh, American eyes helped James to imagine himself more fully into his heroine.

But in one important way Woolson was very different from Isabel Archer and more like her creator. I was recently asked, what was daring about her life? The answer is her very modern devotion to a writer’s life well before the advent of the modern era.

Woolson’s ambition was not unique among the women of her era, but it was exceptional. Her desire for recognition far outpaced that of her contemporary Emily Dickinson, for instance, who remains the most visible icon of the nineteenth-century American woman writer. Unlike Dickinson, Woolson was not reclusive and stifled. She chose to brave public exposure and sought the good opinion of the critics, nearly all of them men. Theirs was an era of intense anxiety about women’s place in society and in the literary world. Dickinson chose to retreat from the world’s gaze, while Woolson confronted it.

When James first met Woolson, he didn’t recognize the mirror she held up to him. He only saw her similarities to Isabel. It would take him many years to discover that she was much more than another independently minded American woman searching for a purpose in her life. She had found one, but not the kind he could have imagined for his heroine.

What would Isabel’s life look like if she possessed the ambition of her creator? What if she desired not simply to make her life a work of art, as Osmond tells her to do, but to make art from her life?

Woolson’s life, like Isabel’s, has been called tragic. It is more accurate, however, to see its end so, not the life itself. That she dared to live as only men had previously done—to devote herself to a serious literary career over family and domesticity—makes her courageous, not tragically flawed. How she became one of the first women writers to make such a life for herself, and the particular demons that haunted her along the way—that is the story that needs to be told.

Constance Fenimore Woolson’s Room of Her Own, Part II

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Further thoughts about Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Constance Fenimore Woolson:

One of my favorite passages from Woolf’s extended essay is:

One must have been something of a firebrand to say to oneself, ‘Oh, but they [men] can’t buy literature too.’ Literature is open to everybody. . . . Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.

Woolson was deeply aware of how, like Woolf, she was locked out of the libraries and how the gates that led to the literary world had to be opened surreptitiously so that their squeaky hinges didn’t arouse the ire of the men guarding them. She helped to prove that literature was indeed “open to everybody,” even a middle-class Midwestern woman like herself with almost no literary connections. But she did have that middle name—Fenimore—that greased the hinges considerably.

Woolf’s comments about gender and literary tradition also got me thinking. She writes that nineteenth-century women writers

had no tradition behind them, or one so short and partial that it was of little help . . . For we think back through our mothers if we are women. It is useless to go to the great men writers for help, however much one may go to them for pleasure. [They] never helped a woman yet, though she may have learnt a few tricks of them and adapted them to her use.

Woolson looked to George Eliot as an important literary foremother, also Charlotte Brontë and George Sand. But the tradition behind her was short indeed. She augmented it with male writers—Nathaniel Hawthorne, her great-uncle James Fenimore Cooper, Bret Harte, and, of course, Henry James. It was Hawthorne’s and James’s female characters that gave her a sense of precedence, along with Jane Eyre and Maggie Tulliver. She didn’t have to create her heroines out of whole cloth.

In arguably the most moving passage from A Room of One’s Own, Woolf reflects passionately on “the pressure of dumbness, the accumulation of unrecorded life,” meaning specifically ordinary women’s lives. Throughout Woolson’s fiction, she takes us behind the masks of women’s social stoicism and allows us to glimpse their silent, solitary, suffering. She (indirectly) tells us over and again, you think you know the woman you see sitting patiently by the front window or sitting next to you on the train, but you don’t. The “other” to whom we are introduced is sometimes a respectable middle-class spinster but more often a destitute widow or girl from the margins of society, in whose “infinitely obscure lives,” to again quote Woolf, Woolson found the greatest capacity for heroism. She would have agreed with Woolf that the life of the girl behind the shop counter deserved to be written a thousand times more than “the hundred and fiftieth life of Napoleon or seventieth study of Keats.”

In one of Woolson’s earliest stories, “Ballast Island,” about a solitary old woman who has exiled herself to an isolated island, that narrator writes of how “We all long to be understood.” But this was the fairy-tale version of true comprehension that she and her contemporaries were raised to believe in (and most young girls are still today): “only a rare, true love can penetrate the sanctuary where each soul waits for its interpreter, as the beautiful sleeper in the wood waited for the prince.” Yet, the prince never comes for Joanna, the old woman. Instead, a young couple comes along and draws her story out  of her.

But more importantly, Woolson came along for Joanna. And she brought her readers with her. In Woolson’s own life, the prince never came either. Instead, she became the interpreter of others’ hearts. Nothing was more important to her than to understand and be understood. Unfortunately, that last part eluded her in her life.

The writer who would interpret the lives of ordinary people has to have access to other lives outside of her own. Perhaps the most important distinction between Woolson and her predecessors was her wide experience of the world. Woolf wrote, “we must accept the fact that all those good novels, Vilette, Emma, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch, were written by women without more experience of life than could enter the house of a respectable clergyman.” They were all more or less locked up at home. Not Woolson.

During her youth, she traveled widely throughout the Great Lakes region, and she spent much of the 1870s traversing the Reconstruction South. In 1873, she left her home for good and spent the next 20 years of her life on the road, the last 14 in Europe. There were even three glorious months in Cairo.

It was this exposure to the world that allowed her to create a literature beyond the domestic limitations of the women writers before her. With Woolson we begin to see the woman writer engaging the wider world, a development Woolf marks only obliquely. Had she known Woolson, she might have written a somewhat different history of the traditions of women’s literature.

Constance Fenimore Woolson’s Room of Her Own, Part I

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The grading is done, the semester is over, and the manuscript beckons. As my mind tries to find its way back into the book, I have been re-reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I have copied down so many passages that have made me reflect on Woolson’s life and work. I wonder if Woolf would have thought any differently about the history of women and fiction if she had known of Woolson. In some ways, she was the coming woman writer Woolf envisioned. In other ways, she couldn’t yet be.

The leitmotiv of Woolf’s extended essay is, of course, that in order for a woman to write well, she needs a room of her own—with a lock on it—and 500 pounds a year guaranteed income (she got hers from an inheritance). The keys here are uninterrupted time and solitude as well as freedom from worry about how to keep a roof over your head.

Obviously, Woolf didn’t have in mind writing for a living. But that’s what Woolson (and most women writers in the late-19th century) did. Although she worried about money for the rest of her life, she was proud of her ability to support herself and her mother after her father died.

Early on, I think, the necessity of making a living affected her writing quite a bit. She even wrote a Sunday school novel for children, the only time she wrote in a blatantly religious mode, for a $1,000 contest. She won but had to split the prize with another winner. $500 may not have been 500 pounds, but it was a very good start. Later, once she had an exclusive contract with Harper’s magazine to publish all of her works, she was more secure. But the necessity of writing a novel every few years took its toll on her. Nonetheless, she managed to produce some of the finest stories of post-Civil War America and five very compelling novels.

The room of her own was easier to come by, precisely because her mother knew that her daughter was supporting her with the writing she did when she shut herself away. But I think what Woolf had in mind was a room of one’s own in the context of a fairly stable home. That, Woolson did not have. Instead, she had an endless series of rooms as she traveled, spending anywhere from a couple of weeks to a few months in one place at a time. This rootlessness undoubtedly made writing more difficult. And writing for hire, in the early years of her career, meant that time was short. The leisure that Woolf envisioned to sit and look out of the window and think for hours on end was not hers.

However, the kind of writer Woolson became was due in no small part to the worries she had about money, space and time. Without them she would not have developed her exquisite sympathy for her rootless characters—expatriates, defeated Southerners after the war, women who have been thrust out into the world—and those who existed outside the margins of the excessively moneyed Gilded Age. She certainly desired a steady income and room to herself in a stable home, and she achieved them for a while at different times in her life. But she made do without them as well and became the compassionate, incisive writer she was because of their absence.

So I take issue with Woolf’s formula for women to be able to write well. I am far from the first to do so. In some ways, I think she was looking enviously at the lives male writers had presumably been living and argued for the same privileges for women. But it was also true that many male writers—such as Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne—were hardly free of money worries.

Most writers inevitably write in the context of a marketplace, not only of ideas but of cash. What fascinates me is how Woolson (and other women writers of her era) were able to flourish in that context. Just as the field of magazine and novel publishing boomed, women came pouring out of their homes, metaphorically and literally, to participate in it.

The marketplace enabled the flourishing of women’s literature in many ways, and Woolson was alive at the right time to take advantage of it. What makes her special, I think, among 19th-century women writers is the way she wrote not only for the market but beyond it. Like Hawthorne and James, she sought a way to create art and make a living. No easy task, then or now. Woolf, a product of her modernist times, could not see those two motivations coexisting. But Woolson did.

[More thoughts to come soon . . ]

How Far Have Women Writers Come?

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I have been reading a lot about how women writers continue to face doubts about their legitimacy, from without and within. (The latest a lengthy interview with a group of women writers.) And I have been reading about how today’s women writers would like to be known simply as writers, despite knowing how unlikely it (still) is that critics and readers will simply ignore their gender.

As someone who has studied nineteenth-century women writers for twenty years, writing at length about the obstacles they were up against as they stormed the gates of the patriarchal literary world, it has been a rather sad awakening to read recent comments by Meg Wolitzer about the segregation that still exists in the literary world, or by Eleanor Catton or Claire Messud about interviewers’ sexism. What they are up against, I realize, it not that different from what their 19th-century counterparts were experiencing.

The rumpus caused over wikipedia’s removal of women writers from their list of “American Novelists” was particularly eerie to read about. It reminded me of the protests by some vocal women over the Atlantic Monthly’s decision in 1877 to exclude female contributors from its twentieth birthday celebration. “In the republic of letters, if nowhere else, woman is a citizen,” insisted the future suffragist Frances E. Willard. Another writer anonymously penned letters from the neglected female contributors to the publisher, Henry Houghton, announcing their intention to host their own dinner and start their own magazine. “Merciful heavens!” she imagines him declaring. “I have actually been applying the paper-cutter to my own nose”–because he knows the Atlantic will not survive without Harriet Beecher Stowe, Constance Fenimore Woolson, Gail Hamilton, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Prescott Spofford, and others. [The full essays can be found in the collection Wielding the Pen.]

The fact that most of those names are almost entirely unknown today (despite their absolute centrality to the field of American literature in the 1870s) says a lot about the masculinization of American literature that successfully excluded women not only from the dinner table at the Atlantic’s 20th birthday party but also from the literary canon the magazine helped to form at the turn of the twentieth century.

When I was in college in the late 1980s, a revolution was taking place, as issues of literary merit, sexism, and racism were redrawing the boundaries of the American literary canon, as well as the playing field for many emerging writers. That was when I first became interested in the question: how and when did women writers first claim the right to be recognized as artists (as they seemed to be doing then en masse)?

That question led me away from contemporary writers, and I innocently assumed that the progress then fomenting had continued even while I immersed myself in the post-Civil War generation (about which I wrote a book, Writing for Immortality). Of the four writers I examined most closely, Constance Fenimore Woolson always stood out as the most committed and successful artist of the bunch. She wanted very much to be taken seriously as a writer, not a woman writer. And she was to a great degree.

To her delight, she was often compared to the most prominent male writers of her day. The New York Tribune compared her first collection of stories, Castle Nowhere (1877), to the work of James and Thomas Bailey Aldrich, writing, “in the quality of freshness in the use of unhackneyed scenery and incident, she has stolen a march on them both.” Appleton’s argued that her second collection, Rodman the Keeper (1880), “must be separated from nearly all our recent literature on account of its masterly methods.” Again, the reviewer compared her only to male writers, this time Aldrich, William Dean Howells, and Bret Harte.

Yet, when she met James in 1880, she discovered that he thought of her as “an authoress,” not an “author.” After years of struggling to gain the acceptance of male literary critics, it was a quite a blow. Over time she would prove to him she was his peer, but it wasn’t easy and her victory was never absolute.

It is disheartening to hear how much women still have to prove themselves to a literary world that continues to be dominated by male critics. (See the Vida Literary Project’s Count for the depressing numbers.)

But it could be inspiring for today’s women writers to hear the voices of their predecessors, who faced similar hurdles and overcame them, to some extent, in spite of even greater odds. Yet who among them has heard of, let alone read, Woolson, or others of her era (besides Emily Dickinson)? How many of them even know about these women’s great successes at the Atlantic and elsewhere and their struggles to overcome their era’s prejudices?

I like to think today’s women writers might enjoy hearing the voice of Woolson, such as when she wrote to the poet and critic Edmund Clarence Stedman, when she was 36, “I have played the part of ‘listener’ all my life. . . . at this late hour I have gotten hold of the pen, and now people must listen to me, occasionally.” I’m sure many of them have felt the same sort of triumph.

The First Key to Woolson’s Life

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Back to revising chapter one. I have already cut out 600 words–no small feat. But there is one piece that could never be removed. Although Constance was only weeks old when it happened, it would shape the rest of her life. Here is how I describe it:

Only two days after Constance’s birth, her five older sisters came down with fevers, and ominous red rashes began to spread across their faces. Scarlet fever had hit the family. The two oldest, Georgiana and Emma, recovered, along with the baby Connie, as her family called her. The other three girls—Ann, age five; Gertrude, age four; and Julia, age two—died before Constance was a month old. Their small graves were dug near their  grandfather’s in the town cemetery next to the park.

Their three small headstones, dwarfed by their grandfather’s, can still be found in the old cemetery. (One has fallen over.) I saw them when I was in Claremont, New Hampshire, Constance’s birthplace, in 2009. Members of the Woolson Society laid violets on their sad little graves.

Woolson girls graves

The next paragraph, I may have to cut. But it’s in there now, to show that such tragedies were not unusual.

The Woolsons’ misfortune was not uncommon, although it was unusually severe. So many children died during these years—most of them from scarlet fever—that elegies to dead children became a literary staple. One of the most touching was “Threnody” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who lost his son to scarlet fever in nearby Massachusetts only two years later. Without the typical sentimentality, Emerson captured the shock of sudden stillness after the death of a child: “The painted sled stands where it stood . . . / The ominous hole he dug in the sand, / And childhood’s castles built or planned. / The wintry garden lies unchanged, / The brook into the stream runs on, / But the deep-eyed Boy is gone.” Emerson would eventually find solace as a Transcendentalist in Nature. The Woolsons were Episcopalians, however, and their faith decreed a submission to God’s will that was difficult for many grieving parents. Hannah, it seems, was broken by the effort.

Publisher Found–Now Comes the Hardest Part of All

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I am happy to report that my biography of Woolson has found a publisher. Here is the announcement that appeared in Publisher’s Marketplace:

Professor at University of New Orleans Anne Boyd Rioux’s PORTRAIT OF A LADY NOVELIST, the first biography of Constance Fenimore Woolson, a critically acclaimed 19th century American writer who served as the model for her friend Henry James’s “Portrait of a Lady” (and whose books far outsold his at the time), to Amy Cherry at Norton, by Barbara Braun at Barbara Braun Associates (world English).

It all seems very surreal at this stage. But I couldn’t be more thrilled to work with the very experienced and talented Amy Cherry and to publish with such a reputable publishing house. My dream of gaining a wider audience for Woolson just may come true.

Now the work of rewriting begins in earnest. The hard part is cutting the manuscript down to a manageable size. Revision means killing your darlings, William Faulkner said. There’s no question it’s going to hurt. Each piece I cut out is a piece of Woolson’s life. I have grown to admire and love this woman, and it will be painful to make the hard decisions about what parts of her life are “unimportant.” But it’s even more important to get her story into the hands of readers.

So as I watch interesting pieces of her life fall to the cutting room floor, I will save them up—for posting here or publishing in another format. Maybe someday people will want to know more about her. I, for one, can never get enough!

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