I have been rereading Woolson’s 1886 novel East Angels with my class on Henry James and the Women Who Influenced Him. I haven’t taught one of Woolson’s novels before because they are not in print. But now there is a reprint of the original novel available by a publisher called Forgotten Books. It’s not perfect, and the students have complained that the type is hard to read, but at least we’ve been able to read it. What we need, though, is a proper edition, with an introduction and footnotes. Someday, I hope, I or another Woolson scholar can make this happen.
We started off the semester with a couple of James stories and his Portrait of a Lady. I wondered how Woolson’s novel would hold up next to his. But the students’ responses have been enthusiastic and I have thoroughly enjoyed encountering it again.
The biggest difference students noticed between Woolson and James is how diverse her cast of characters is compared to his. While James’s novel is set in a Europe traversed by well-heeled Americans, all of the same class and of similar backgrounds (the biggest difference being whether they were raised in the U.S. or in Europe), Woolson’s is set in Florida with a cast of characters that includes a northern industrialist millionaire and his relations, the local genteel class that has been disinherited by the war, a Spanish-speaking Cuban, and freed slaves. Although some of the characters are decidedly minor, they are given a voice and their own unique perspectives. She takes the time to explain the rationales and backgrounds of so many characters who seem tangential to the plot, creating a universe in miniature that feels very real. Critics in her day often commented on how real her characters seemed. It’s easy to see why. She gives so many of them complex personalities and motives.
The setting could not be more different from James’s Europe as well. The town’s Spanish name, Gracios a Dios, harkens back to the region’s status as a Spanish colony, as do the frequent reminders of its proximity to Cuba. Woolson makes the most of her exotic locale, modeled on the region around St. Augustine, where she spent many winters in the 1870s. Coquina structures made of shells, palmetto palms, labyrinthine swamps with snakes that fall from the trees, and the ruins of old plantations create an unforgettable backdrop for her story.
The plot focuses on two women—an unworldly southern girl of sixteen who is frank and outspoken, and an older, wiser northern woman who works hard to hide her suffering from everyone around her. Of course, all the men are drawn to the young girl, who is “natural” and uncorrupted by the complicated mores of northern civilization. The older woman, Margaret, is considered cold and self-righteous, a paragon of the priggish morality that has poisoned the cultured world, a world represented by women who cling to their silk lamp-shades and respectability. At least that is how the hero, a worldly northerner named Winthrop, sees it, until he learns how Margaret has been mistreated by her husband, who left her for another woman and now has returned to claim his rights to be cared for by his estranged wife, trapping her in a loveless hell that he insists on calling her “home.”
After she read The Portrait of a Lady, Woolson wrote to James that she wanted him for once to “give us a woman who loves.” We never see if Isabel really loves Osmond, she complained. “Don’t leave it implied,” she told him. East Angels is in many ways her response to his novel, a purely American book, not a European one, and one that shows a woman’s deep, tragic love. For, we gradually discover, Margaret has been so “cold” precisely because she has loved Winthrop. Her reserve has simply been her best effort to hide this fact, knowing that nothing can come of it. (This isn’t a French novel, after all.) When he discovers her secret, all hell breaks loose. We’ll be reading that part for the next class. I can’t wait to see what the students think.