Writing The End

Today I wrote the words that brought Woolson’s life to an end. There is still much to say about her death and its aftermath, as well as her legacy. But to type the following sentences today was deeply moving: “When the nurse returned a second time, the window was wide open. (It had been tightly closed with curtains drawn when Miss Holas had left for the evening, according to her testimony.) The bed was empty. The nurse rushed to the window and looked out. Constance lay in the street below.”

It was only after I had stopped writing that I felt the impact once again of her death—of the great suffering that had preceded it and the blessed release that it must have been for her. I had felt that before, last October, as I stood in the street where she fell in Venice, behind the Casa Semitecolo. I had for about a minute the otherwise busy, narrow street to myself. But now, after writing it all out and seeing very clearly the days leading up to her final act, I feel it even more deeply.

Trip to Europe 2012 676

I wonder how other writers feel when their protagonists die. I remember Hermione Lee saying in the interview she did at the Levy Center for Biography, “There’s always a great moment when they die!” I took her to mean that the writer feels a great sense of relief to have reached the end (or to be near it). It was a funny moment. I suppose I have felt a mixture of eagerness and dread to reach the “great moment” when Constance leapt from her window and ended her life.

In response to a query to writers about their emotional investment in their creations, Woolson wrote about “Thackeray’s grief after he had killed Col. Newsome” and “the way George Eliot’s novels ‘ploughed into her,’ she herself noting in her journal, ‘Killed Tito in great excitement.’” Woolson believed that a writer must feel for her characters first before she can ask her readers to feel for them. The same is surely true for the biographer as well.


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  1. Anne,
    Thank you for including us in your writing journey. I feel your sadness and the jolt of the death again, especially in the method.
    I remember when I was reading Julia Ward Howe’s journals and reached the place where there was no more. She had seemed energetic even in her last days, planning for events ahead as she always did. And then there just wasn’t any more.
    I felt the loss.
    How much more to be writing it and to have been on the street of Woolson’s death.
    Thank you for sharing the photo, too.

  2. Hello Anne — I’ve reading your blog with great interest and congratulations on the forthcoming biography. I’m a published novelist, and am in Venice working on a new novel. I’ve long been interested in Woolson (my last novel was about Delia Bacon — my agent is still trying to sell!) and I’ve taught Henry James and in fact Hawthorne — although Melville is my particular focus. in any case, I was trying to locate the street you indicate above — I have wanted to visit “the site” of Woolson’s death — and while Lyndall Gordon’s excellent book has given me most of the indications, I’m still not exactly certain I was in the correct spot. Opposite the vaporetto stop of Santa Maria Giglio, there is no sign or indication of Palazza Semitecolo — there is a traghetti stop directly there on the canal, as well as a sign on the street in mosaic reading Salviati, and the great church of Santa Maria della Satute is just at the end of the street — the Guggenheim going the opposite direction. In Dosodoro, not opposite — is this all correct?

    I hope to incorporate Woolson’s story into a contemporary novel about a woman writer trying to sort herself out — and very much look forward to your biography and to the re-establishment of Woolson’s place in American letters.
    All Best Wishes,

    Sheridan Hay

    1. Thank you, Sheridan, for visiting my blog! It is wonderful to meet you and hear about your plans of writing about Woolson. Sounds like a book I would very much like to read!

      It is very fortuitous that you write to me now, as I am finishing the revisions of the final chapter, so I have been going over the story again. The street behind the Pallazo Semitecolo is called Calle del Bastion. It is very much in the area you describe. When I was there two years ago, there was a nice store right next door selling Venetiian glass. And across the street was another lovely store where I bought a beautiful scarf that reminded me of the shimmering waters of Venice. It is a small, narrow street that leads to the Salute church.

      It is rather difficult to know exactly where she fell because there appears to be a courtyard behind the Pallazo, and there has been an apartment added to the back of the house since Woolson lived there, on the ground floor. But contemporary newspaper reports from Venice indicate she was found in the street. The cover picture for this blog post has a picture of the Pallazo Semitecolo (it’s the one in the middle). I hope you find it! I was very sad that the owners were out of town when I was there and I was unable to go inside.

      Would you like me to put you on my email list for announcing the book when it is available?

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