Woolson, Constance Fenimore (1840–1894)

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Woolson, Constance Fenimore (1840–1894)

American author and friend of Henry James. Name variations: (pseudonym) Anne March. Born on March 5, 1840, in Claremont, New Hampshire; died from injuries resulting from a fall after a protracted period of illness on January 24, 1894, in Venice, Italy; daughter of Charles Jarvis Woolson (a stove manufacturer) and Hannah Cooper (Pomeroy) Woolson; grandniece of author James Fenimore Cooper; during 1840s, attended Miss Hayden's School, Cleveland, Ohio; graduated from Cleveland Female Seminary, 1858; attended Mme. Chegaray's School in New York City; never married; no children.

Selected writings:

(as Anne March) The Old Stone House (1872); Castle Nowhere: Lake-Country Sketches (1875); Two Women, 1862: A Poem (1877); Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches (1880); Anne: A Novel (1882); For the Major: A Novelette (1883); East Angels (1886); Jupiter Lights: A Novel (1889); Horace Chase: A Novel (1894); The Front Yard, and Other Italian Stories (1895); Dorothy, and Other Italian Stories (1896); Mentone, Cairo, and Corfu (1896).

Constance Fenimore Woolson was born in New Hampshire in 1840, the sixth and youngest daughter among Charles and Hannah Woolson 's nine children. Three of her sisters died of scarlet fever within weeks of her birth, and while she was still an infant, the family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio. The grandniece of novelist James Fenimore Cooper, Constance received a cultured upbringing. She attended Miss Hayden's school in Cleveland before entering the Cleveland Female Seminary, graduating in 1858 at the top of her class. She then attended Mme Chegaray's finishing school in New York City. The family spent summers on Mackinac Island in Michigan and in Wisconsin, where long walks in the woods and voluminous reading became lifelong customs. During the Civil War, she volunteered as a nurse.

After the death of her father in 1869, Woolson began to write seriously. She and her mother traveled extensively throughout the eastern and southern United States, which informed the distinctly American settings in Woolson's writings. She began publishing in 1870, and for the next few years contributed travel and descriptive sketches to such magazines as Harper's and Putnam's. She also wrote local color stories situated in the Great Lakes region, the Ohio Valley, and Cooperstown, New York. Her first novel, which had been serialized previously in Harper's, proved to be one of her biggest successes; Anne, a mystery thriller set on Mackinac Island, had sales topping 57,000 copies following its publication in 1882.

As Woolson became ever more familiar with the South during her travels, she wrote a series of short works that were collected as Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches (1886). Many of her stories concern the themes of responsibility and sacrifice. According to Notable American Women, she was probably "the first Northern writer to treat the postwar South honestly and sympathetically, without sentimentality." Although Woolson considered herself a realist because she based her stories on strong characters and carefully detailed settings, critics regard her use of remote and unusual locations and exhilarating plots more representative of romanticism.

When her mother died in 1879, Woolson traveled to Europe, where she remained the rest of her life. In Florence, Italy, during the spring of 1880, Woolson developed a notable friendship with American author Henry James, who apparently referred to her affectionately as "Fenimore." Biographer Lyndall Gordon, in Henry James: Two Women and His Art, presents Woolson as having had "a muselike influence" on James and suggests that James may have used plots originally devised by Woolson. However, James was no less an important influence on her, as she adopted his introspective, psychological style in her later works of fiction, particularly in For the Major, which is considered one of her best efforts.

Living in different parts of Europe throughout the 1880s and 1890s, and traveling to Greece and Egypt during the winter of 1889–90, Woolson wrote prolifically. During these years, she published four novels which, like her earlier works, first appeared in serial form in Harper's and were then published as books. Woolson's final short stories revolve around American expatriates living abroad, and are commonly regarded as inferior to her works with American settings.

In 1890, Woolson returned to England, residing in Cheltenham and Oxford until the summer of 1893, when she found an apartment on the Grand Canal in Venice. Her physical health had deteriorated, and that winter she battled the flu, which eventually turned into typhoid fever. On January 24, 1894, she either fell or jumped to her death from an upper-floor window. Woolson had suffered from depression her entire life, a condition she believed to be inherent to a creative temperament. Although Henry James speculated that she had committed suicide, the absence of a witness precludes a definite opinion. She was interred in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.


Boren, Lynda S. "Constance Fenimore Woolson," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 12: American Realists and Naturalists. Detroit, MI: The Gale Group, 1982, pp. 456–463.

Dean, Sharon L. "Constance Fenimore Woolson," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 221: American Women Prose Writers, 1870–1920. Detroit, MI: The Gale Group, 2000, pp. 370–380.

Edwards, Mary P. "Constance Fenimore Woolson," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 74: American Short-Story Writers Before 1880. Detroit, MI: The Gale Group, 1988, pp. 365–370.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Publishers Weekly. March 1, 1999, p. 51.

Wadsworth, Sarah. "Constance Fenimore Woolson," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 189: American Travel Writers, 1850–1915. Detroit, MI: The Gale Group, 1998, pp. 353–359.

suggested reading:

Gordon, Lyndall. A Private Life of Henry James: Two Women and His Art. NY: W.W. Norton, 1999.

Drew Walker , freelance writer, New York, New York

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