The Grief of Women Writers

I am teaching a course this semester on “Henry James and the Women Who Influenced Him.” We’ll be looking at Minnie Temple, Woolson, and Edith Wharton, and reading quite a bit of biography alongside the fiction and critical works. So we started the semester last week with two essays on the pitfalls and virtues of biographical criticism. What does it mean to read literature through the lens of the author’s life, something we have been told for decades is the ultimate sin but that we do all the time in the classroom? I wanted my students (and myself) to be more conscious of what we were doing and why.

One of the essays we read, Allison Booth’s “Biographical Criticism and the ‘Great’ Woman of Letters,” raised so many useful issues. She talks a lot about how women writers have historically found it necessary to escape their gender (and thus their private lives) in order to create “great” literature, her two examples being George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. Most women writers, particularly in the nineteenth century, however, found it impossible to either write beyond gender or to be read simply as “writers” rather than “women writers.” Woolson wrote a fascinating story about one woman writer’s inability to be taken seriously apparently because of the inherent flaws of her gender—“Miss Grief,” her most widely known story today. (You can read it here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22401/22401-h/22401-h.htm.) In fact, the story has become a touchstone for feminist critics interested in the ways women writers have been stifled and forgotten.

As the title of that story implies, the lot of the woman writer was one of suffering and grief—or, at least it was in fiction. Women writers nearly always saddled their ambitious female characters with misery and failure. Booth homes in on this exact problem when she writes about “the gap between the female characters’ potential and their [creators’] achievement.” She mentions specifically Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch. Woolson has a fair number of ambitious female characters who conform to a plot of punishment, in contrast to her own success as a writer.

So, the question is, how miserable were women writers? Booth says that “[a]s feminist biographical critics, we may repeat this move; our subjects, the women writers, become heroines in a plot of women’s education and ambition necessitating self-sacrifice and suffering because of the ‘facts’ of oppression.” In other words, our understanding of the limitations imposed on women of the past has encouraged us to perpetuate narratives of thwarted ambitions and stunted personal lives. Booth doesn’t exactly explain how we can move beyond such a narrative. Certainly, such “facts” existed. But they weren’t the whole story. In Woolson’s case, that is definitely true. In spite of the final, horrible fact of her suicide, I don’t think that her life was a tragedy.

If you are studying or writing about a woman writer of the past, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these issues!

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  1. How interesting, Anne! I will look for this essay. I also focused on women writers in my dissertation (now some time ago) and am wondering
    in how far I also fell prey to this syndrome. I think there is definately something to it. There was a good article in the Tagesspiegel a few days ago about Vicki Baum, who I wrote about, and the way she also furthered this narrative of struggle about herself (which others focused on) once she was in exile in the US, even though she was very successful (and her husband was as well- no financial difficulties, and an oscar for a film based on her book). I will be watching for this now -thank you.

    1. Thanks for commenting Stefi! It’s interesting to think of how women writers may have encouraged others to read them this way. At one time I thought it might have something to do with how much they may have wanted to distance themselves from the “silly lady novelists” (Eliot) or “damned mob of scribbling women” (Hawthorne) who seemed to so effortlessly publish work after work that were artistically simplistic and commercially successful. But I’m not sure if this applies to twentieth-century women writers as well.

  2. I was delighted that my friend sent me a link to your blog. I find Woolson fascinating and I’m happy to know someone cares enough to be dedicating her work-life to writing and thinking about Woolson. I loved reading about your visit to her grave. When I still lived in St. Louis, I used to visit Fannie Hurst’s grave with many of the same thoughts and feelings you describe at Woolson’s grave.

    I’m originally a Clevelander and when I was working on Woolson I found some great material in the archives at Western Reserve and in the Cleveland Historical Society library. I also found people who were delighted to gossip about her and her family and the importance of her family to the history of Cleveland. It was interesting to learn how minor a family member she was in the minds of Cleveland historians — and I thought they were wrong to dismiss her so quickly and lightly. I still think there’s an opportunity to make something more of her in Cleveland. In a recent on-line “contest” about who has been the favorite Cleveland writer of all times, her name wasn’t even included.

    I imagine that you’ve seen what I’ve written about “Miss Grief” in my collection of 19th century lesbian stories by US women writers — TWO FRIENDS AND OTHER STORIES AND OTHER NINEWTEENTH CENTURY LESBIAN STORIES BY AMERICAN WOMEN WRITERS — and that you disagree with my inclusion of that story in that collection. There’s been a lot of vigorous debate in which I’ve either been contemptuously damned for that inclusion or praised for my courage in naming and claiming etc. I’ve enjoyed the debate and don’t really care which side anyone takes in that debate as long as they pay attention to Woolson, a writer whom I think deserves lots of serious admiring readers and scholars, and “Miss Grief” which I think is an incredibly provocative story. It’s fun to hear what readers have to say about the story when they are asked to read it and decide what they think is the “fatal flaw.” I don’t think the flaw is gender because it would make the narrator seem too stupid. James, whatever else he might have been, wasn’t stupid. I think the story is as much a projection of James as it is of whomever Miss Grief represented. But maybe not. And, as you say, the sin of reading literature through the lens of the writer’s life is still a sin, despite that fact that we all do it if and when we can.

    I talked about this story separately with three wonderful lesbian feminists – all now dead – for a long time and often because I knew that my thinking of it as a lesbian story was sure to be controversial for a variety of reasons, among them the fact that I had husbands instead of wives. I wanted to know if and why they read the story as a lesbian story. The three women – Joanna Russ, to whom that collection was dedicated, Barbara Grier, the more public of the founding partners of the famous now defunct lesbian publishing company, Naiad Press, and who wanted to publish my collection with Naiad, and Julia Penelope (Stanley), the early second wave lesbian feminist linguist and co-editor of THE COMING OUT STORIES – all read “Miss Grief” as a lesbian story for the reasons I talk about in my headnote to the story.

    I hope you will write more about it. I still think it is her most important story. And I like how you write about her and it.

    1. Hi Susan–Thanks so much for visiting my blog! It is wonderful to “meet” you. I know Kris Comment well, who has been very influenced by your inclusion of “Miss Grief” in your anthology. I admire her work and yours very much. My view is that reading the “flaw” as lesbianism is one valid way to read the story but not the only way. (Basically my view about similar readings of James’s stories.) Since publishing my own article about “Miss Grief,” I have come to view the story differently and more complexly than I did then. I discovered a review of her poem “Two Women” that had a great impact on her. The reviewer says basically the same things about her writing that the narrator says of Miss Grief’s. I’ll try to write a post about that sometime.

      I agree with you about Cleveland. It’s too bad they don’t recognize her there. I was delighted to see her sister Clara’s name on the monument to the Soldier’s Aid Society from the Civil War there!

      Thanks again for your comment and I look forward to hearing more from you in the future!

      1. Thanks for your warm response, Anne. I have read lots more of your words about Connie since I wrote the above and I am more and more impressed with your caring and your insights.Did you ever read
        Between Women: Biographers, Novelists, Critics, Teachers and Artists Write about Their Work on Women [Paperback]
        Carol Ascher (Editor), Louise DeSalvo (Editor), Sara Ruddick (Editor), Carolyn Heilbrun (Foreword)?

        For a while, when women writing about writing autobiography was hot and new as a feminist topic, I read everything people wrote. In the beginning, a person could read all there was about the subject, be completely in the thick of everything, and do lots of other stuff at the same time. I loved it all. (Pretty soon there was much too much for me to keep up with it all and I stopped reading anything about it. Your blog is the first I’m reading about feminist autobiographers in a long long time.)

        At the time I was thinking and collecting material for a biography I intended to write about Fannie Hurst. I wrote articles about her life, participated in panels about writing biography, etc. but in the end, once I knew some stuff that she had spent much of her life hiding, I decided not to write it. I didn’t want to tell her secrets. I just couldn’t bring myself to do that — and I don’t judge those feminist biographers who do tell the carefully guarded secrets of their subjects as doing something wrong. I love and eagerly read their work. It’s just that I couldn’t do it myself. So I gave up the project and luckily for me and for Fannie, Brooke Kroeger came along and wrote a fine fine biography of Fannie Hurst.

        From all of that, the very personal essays written by biographers in the book, I mentioned above, BETWEEN WOMEN, have stayed very vibrant and alive pieces of ethical and emotional and just powerful pieces of writing in my memory. After I finished it, I felt, as a biographer, although manque, that I had had all the wonderful experiences they reported even though I hadn’t finished the book.

        I hope you are having wonderful experiences working on your biography of Connie. I found myself deeply engaged and moved by her during my several months doing bio research in various places. There are so many moments in her life that just wrenched me as I learned about them. One of the main ones, for me, was taking the responsibility on for her widowed and impoverished mother. I am enjoying your Connie blog enormously. Thanks for writing it as you live it.

        1. Thank you, Susan, for your response and your book recommendation. I will definitely get a copy of it. Your experience with Fannie Hurst is incredibly interesting. Fortunately, I haven’t found anything that makes me feel uncomfortable or awkward. I have only grown in my estimation of Woolson the more I have uncovered. But I am definitely dealing with some tricky issues for the feminist biographer–how to handle the James-Woolson relationship and how to understand what James called her conservatism. Most scholars assume he was misreading her, but he was speaking as someone who knew her. She didn’t want her life to be exposed to the public. She hated having her photo published. She wanted her works to speak for her. And in the absence of letters or diaries that would illuminate her relationship with James, I am finding myself turning to the fiction, which raises a whole other set of issues. It’s all quite complicated, but still lots of fun. I can’t wait to read Between Women. Thanks for recommending it! And thanks for reading my blog!

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