I am revisiting my trip to follow in Constance Fenimore Woolson’s footsteps almost exactly three years ago. My first stops were Salisbury and Wells, England, which I discussed in my last post.
From Wells, via Bath, I visited Cheltenham, the spa town in which Woolson lived for about two years in 1890 and 1891. She was never happy there, so I didn’t stay long. While there, I took a day trip to Tewkesbury, which Woolson often visited. She loved England’s churches and cathedrals, and Tewksbury has a beautiful twelfth-century abbey.
I enjoyed my rainy day there (this picture was taken as I was leaving and the skies had cleared a bit). I prowled all around the abbey, examining every nook and cranny. I had the place almost to myself. While I was there, I came upon a memorial to the author Dinah Mulock Craik and realized that Woolson had stood on precisely that spot and examined it, as she had written about it in a letter:
“the new marble table in the Abbey to Dinah Maria Mulock (Mrs Craik), reminded me that Tewkesbury is scene of that beloved story of my youth, ‘John Halifax’; the story whose hero is not a man at all, in spite of his name; but a good, pious, elder-sisterly woman, attired in trousers and a coat.” (I would like to read that book someday).
Perhaps it had something to do with the atmosphere, but standing there, on the very spot where Woolson had once stood and thought about the author she had loved in childhood, moved me deeply. I had just stumbled upon it, as she had. I wrote in my journal that evening, “I felt very close to her for the first time on this trip.” I realized that I had been searching not only for the places she had lived but also for a glimpse of her somehow. Every place I visited, however, she eluded me. This was my first real glimpse of the traces of her presence. It would happen only a couple of other times on the trip. So many of the places where she lived had changed drastically. Buildings had been torn down and roads built to accommodate the ever-present cars. But here she was, in a place I had least expected to find her.
On October 16, I arrived in Oxford, where Woolson lived for almost two years in 1891-1893. The first words I wrote in my journal were, “It is easy to see why CFW loved living here. It exudes the medieval and the Gothic everywhere you look.” The literary guide of Oxford that I picked up in a bookstore talked about “the cloistral and clerical atmosphere” of the town. When she moved there in 1891, Woolson noticed that during term time the town and the university were a male preserve, but she found plenty of like-minded people there, including Henry James, who was glad she was living close to London again and visited her often.
On my last evening in Oxford, I attended Evensong in the Christ Church Cathedral. It was the Patronal Eucharist, and I was thinking Patronus charm, but I soon learned it meant they were celebrating the cathedral’s and the town’s patron saint, St. Frideswide. She was an 8th-century princess who refused to marry King Algar and instead committed herself to a life with Christ and founded a convent on the spot where Oxford later grew. Due to the special celebration, there were 30 or so canons in attendance as well as the bishop in his mitre and crozier.
Woolson had a special attraction to the aesthetic and spiritual environment of the Anglican Church (she grew up a High Church Episcopalian). She never admitted to a desire to become a Catholic, but she was drawn to the idea of convents. They were abolished in England in the 16th century. I realized during my time in Oxford that she was equally attracted to the life of the scholar. The first women’s colleges at Oxford had opened only very recently, in 1879. I wrote in my journal, “Had she been of a much earlier or a slightly later generation, she might have found a home outside of genteel American domesticity,” in either a convent or a university. She spent her adult life fleeing the roles of women enshrined in domesticity as she moved from boarding house to pension to apartment, all over the U.S. South and Europe. As it was, I realized, she had to make a home for herself in her art.