Constance Fenimore Woolson’s Room of Her Own, Part I

The grading is done, the semester is over, and the manuscript beckons. As my mind tries to find its way back into the book, I have been re-reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I have copied down so many passages that have made me reflect on Woolson’s life and work. I wonder if Woolf would have thought any differently about the history of women and fiction if she had known of Woolson. In some ways, she was the coming woman writer Woolf envisioned. In other ways, she couldn’t yet be.

The leitmotiv of Woolf’s extended essay is, of course, that in order for a woman to write well, she needs a room of her own—with a lock on it—and 500 pounds a year guaranteed income (she got hers from an inheritance). The keys here are uninterrupted time and solitude as well as freedom from worry about how to keep a roof over your head.

Obviously, Woolf didn’t have in mind writing for a living. But that’s what Woolson (and most women writers in the late-19th century) did. Although she worried about money for the rest of her life, she was proud of her ability to support herself and her mother after her father died.

Early on, I think, the necessity of making a living affected her writing quite a bit. She even wrote a Sunday school novel for children, the only time she wrote in a blatantly religious mode, for a $1,000 contest. She won but had to split the prize with another winner. $500 may not have been 500 pounds, but it was a very good start. Later, once she had an exclusive contract with Harper’s magazine to publish all of her works, she was more secure. But the necessity of writing a novel every few years took its toll on her. Nonetheless, she managed to produce some of the finest stories of post-Civil War America and five very compelling novels.

The room of her own was easier to come by, precisely because her mother knew that her daughter was supporting her with the writing she did when she shut herself away. But I think what Woolf had in mind was a room of one’s own in the context of a fairly stable home. That, Woolson did not have. Instead, she had an endless series of rooms as she traveled, spending anywhere from a couple of weeks to a few months in one place at a time. This rootlessness undoubtedly made writing more difficult. And writing for hire, in the early years of her career, meant that time was short. The leisure that Woolf envisioned to sit and look out of the window and think for hours on end was not hers.

However, the kind of writer Woolson became was due in no small part to the worries she had about money, space and time. Without them she would not have developed her exquisite sympathy for her rootless characters—expatriates, defeated Southerners after the war, women who have been thrust out into the world—and those who existed outside the margins of the excessively moneyed Gilded Age. She certainly desired a steady income and room to herself in a stable home, and she achieved them for a while at different times in her life. But she made do without them as well and became the compassionate, incisive writer she was because of their absence.

So I take issue with Woolf’s formula for women to be able to write well. I am far from the first to do so. In some ways, I think she was looking enviously at the lives male writers had presumably been living and argued for the same privileges for women. But it was also true that many male writers—such as Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne—were hardly free of money worries.

Most writers inevitably write in the context of a marketplace, not only of ideas but of cash. What fascinates me is how Woolson (and other women writers of her era) were able to flourish in that context. Just as the field of magazine and novel publishing boomed, women came pouring out of their homes, metaphorically and literally, to participate in it.

The marketplace enabled the flourishing of women’s literature in many ways, and Woolson was alive at the right time to take advantage of it. What makes her special, I think, among 19th-century women writers is the way she wrote not only for the market but beyond it. Like Hawthorne and James, she sought a way to create art and make a living. No easy task, then or now. Woolf, a product of her modernist times, could not see those two motivations coexisting. But Woolson did.

[More thoughts to come soon . . ]

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