I had a fabulous weekend in San Francisco at the American Literature Association conference (more about that in a moment). The highlight of my trip was getting to see and hold in my hand the letters that Constance Fenimore Woolson wrote to Francis Boott in the late 1880s and early 90s. If you have read the biography, then you know how central her relationship to Boott was during the last years of her life. And we wouldn’t know that without these letters.
The letters are in the hands of the descendants of Lizzie Boott and Frank Duveneck, and are being cared for by a friend, with whom I have been corresponding ever since I learned of the letters, very late in the process of writing the biography. It was one of those AHA! moments that every researcher loves. When she told me over the phone that were over twenty letters I wanted to get on the next plane. Because Francis Boott was a close friend of Henry James as well, I thought, this could be the jackpot, i.e., the letters that finally tell us what their relationship was really like.
Turns out there was no smoking gun about James, but what I did find profoundly deepened my sense of Connie and her inner life, which she hid so well. I learned that Henry James was “Harry” to her, as he was to his family members, and that her closeness to the Boott/Duvenecks was profound. She was a member of their family, and when it all fell apart, her grief was immense. If she carried around with her any tragic feelings in her final years, I think the loss of this family was at their source (not unrequited love for James, as his biographers have assumed).
So you can imagine the flow of feelings that rushed through me as I held these letters in my hands for the first time last weekend. I wasn’t prepared for that. I thought I had closed the book on Connie, but it seems that was not the case. I don’t think she will ever leave me, really. And holding the letter below, the first one she wrote to Boott after he left for America and they could no longer hop across the short distance between their homes on the hill of Bellosguardo, she came alive to me again. And this time I felt so deeply all of the pain and grief she was feeling when she wrote that letter. She knew she might never see him or his grandchild (her Godchild) again. Behind the seemingly ordinary words of those opening lines was a mountain of grief she would carry with her for the rest of her life.
There were other treats in store in the packet of letters, including envelopes (very rare to find with the original letters) and a letter written on the letterhead of the Hotel Intercontinental in Cairo.
Then there were also some of Lizzie’s sketchbooks, with exquisite little sketches in them. The two of Connie painting at an easel I put in the book.
There is also one of Francis Boott (on the left) and another I am tempted to say is James, although a few people have told me it could be his brother William James.
Back at the conference, as president of the Constance Fenimore Woolson Society, I moderated a panel on using digital resources to teach recovered women writers and presented on another about Teaching Woolson. I collected some great ideas from other Woolson scholars who use her in their classrooms. My goal ultimately is not only to encourage other college teachers to include her on their syllabi, but also to help Woolson make her way into high school classrooms. If you have any ideas on either score, please share them. I’d like to put together a nice new section for the Society’s website about “Teaching Woolson.”
Looking ahead to my next book, I also presented a paper on “Little Women In and Out of School,” in which I documented the novel’s virtual disappearance from school rooms (where it once reigned supreme) and talked about the dreaded fear teachers have of alienating boy readers. I also pointed out that it seems no one is worried about the girl readers who have to sit through Tom Sawyer, as my daughter did this past year. She and her friends did an interesting ritual with the book at the end of the school year that I can’t wait to write about in my book.
Another highlight of the trip for me was getting to know the wonderful scholars in the Alcott Society, such as Daniel Shealy, Joel Myerson, and Anne Phillips. If you have done any research on Alcott, then you no doubt know these names well. They are as welcoming and friendly in person as their scholarship is rigorous and informative. It was also a real pleasure to meet Krissie West and Azelina Flint, two British scholars working on Alcott, proving that her appeal is not limited to the U.S.