The Portrait of a Lady Novelist

The working title for my biography of Woolson 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.

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