One of the ten best books of 2016–Chicago Tribune

Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840–1894), who contributed to Henry James’s conception of his heroine Isabelle Archer in The Portrait of a Lady, was one of the most accomplished American writers of the nineteenth century. Yet today the best-known (and most-misunderstood) facts of her life are her relationship with James and her probable suicide in Venice. This first full-length biography of Woolson provides a fuller picture that reaffirms her literary stature.

Uncovering new sources, Anne Boyd Rioux evokes Woolson’s dramatic life. Raised to be a conventional woman, Woolson was nonetheless thrust by her father’s death into the role of breadwinner, and yet, as a writer, she reached for critical as much as monetary reward. Known for her powerfully realistic and empathetic portraits of post Civil–War American life, Woolson moved to Europe after her mother’s death, living mostly in England and Italy and spending several months in Egypt. While abroad, she wrote finely crafted foreign-set stories that presage Edith Wharton’s work of the next generation.

In this rich biography, Rioux reveals an exceptionally gifted and committed artist who pursued and received serious recognition despite the difficulties faced by female authors of her day. Throughout, Rioux goes deep into Woolson’s character, her fight against depression, her sources for writing, and her intimate friendships, including with Henry James, painting an engrossing portrait of a woman and writer who deserves to be more widely known today.

Reviewed on the Cover of the New York Times Book Review


“How refreshing . . . is scholar Anne Boyd Rioux’s rehabilitation of Woolson as a writer and a woman. . . . [T]his gentle portrait of a woman who struggled to be true to herself as an artist adds much-needed nuance to American cultural and social history.”

The Boston Globe

“[It’s] galling that most who remember [Woolson] today do so in connection with Henry James, who occupied murky territory somewhere between frenemy and soulmate. It’s the James legacy that Anne Boyd Rioux wrestles with most in her excellent biography. . . . [Her] complex account leaves readers with an impression of Woolson’s yearning ambition and uncertain triumph.”

Chicago Tribune

“Anne Boyd Rioux’s well-researched and highly readable “Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist” offers a fresh reappraisal of Woolson’s life and writing.”

The Wall Street Journal

“[I]n this timely biography, . . . Rioux captures Woolson as she saw herself: as a ‘serious artist.’”

The New Yorker

“Rioux is an excellent scholar who has assessed her sources shrewdly. . . . Rioux’s biography is the place to start before you make your way to Woolson’s work.”

–-Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“In this luminously written, thought-provoking biography by Anne Boyd Rioux, a portrait emerges of a writer driven to achieve on her own terms, but forced to answer to everyone else’s. . . .[It] introduces us to a real, vulnerable, irascible, and original mind.”

 Los Angeles Review of Books

“Anne Boyd Rioux’s new biography of Constance Fenimore Woolson is a riveting portrait of a lady whose literary reputation has been undeservedly eclipsed until quite recently.  . . . Rioux brings her vividly back to life in a book that is both perceptive and poignant.”–Sandra Gilbert, co-editor of the Norton Anthology of Women Writers

“In this eloquent and deeply-researched  biography, Anne Boyd Rioux draws  the  portrait of a 19th-century “lady novelist”  who challenged the era’s trivialization of  women writers and  bias  against female literary ambition.  Bursting out of the Jamesian frame, Constance Fenimore Woolson comes alive as an artist and a woman.”–Elaine Showalter, author of A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx

“I’m so glad Anne Rioux has brought Constance Fenimore Woolson to our attention. This is a thoughtful and comprehensive biography that brings to light a wonderful nineteenth century writer – sophisticated, eloquent and powerful – who should be much more widely known. I hope this book will make that happen.”–Roxana Robinson, author of Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life

Discover the fiction of a writer once deemed America’s “Novelist Laureate”–The Boston Globe

Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840-94) was considered one of the best writers of her generation. She depicted with precise realism and great empathy a broad landscape of Americans and their ways, from the people of the rural Midwest and deep South to socially refined ex-pats in Europe. Here, Anne Boyd Rioux, the author of Woolson’s highly praised biography, presents a gathering of Woolson’s most accomplished stories. Woolson’s strong characters, indelible settings, and concerns with passion, creativity, and the demands of society are timeless, whether portraying the keeper of a Union soldiers’ cemetery in the defeated South, a woman writer whose genius goes unrecognized, or ex-pats romancing in Florence.

Colm Tóibín’s illuminating foreword celebrates Woolson’s perceptive mind, aptitude for vivid description, and narrative intensity, establishing her as a writer whose work speaks to us today. (Tóibín is the winner of the IMPAC Dublin Prize and a bestselling novelist. He is the author of The Master, which portrays Henry James’s friendship with Woolson.)

Contents: “St. Clair Flats,” “Solomon,” “Rodman the Keeper,” “Sister St. Luke,” “Miss Grief,” “A Florentine Experiment,” and “In Sloane Street,” the last never before republished.


“[Woolson was] more than the smitten confidante of Henry James. . . . ‘Solomon’ and ‘St. Clair Flats,’ are particularly fine, meticulously delineating the natural beauty of eastern Ohio and the Great Lakes region.”

The New York Times Book Review

“Woolson’s writing was never better than when she was grappling with the ambivalence of men like [Henry] James toward women like herself. . . . Her short stories demonstrate irony, force and feeling that occasionally surpass the stories of Edith Wharton and Howells, rivaling ‘the Master’ himself even as they take aim directly at his privilege and presumptions.”

— Chicago Tribune

“[This] new collection of Woolson’s stories allow[s] us to see that Woolson in fact has some claim to being mentioned in the same breath with James.”

The Wall Street Journal

“An American realist of a high order. . . . The writing in all of [Woolson’s stories] is remarkably good.”

— The Nation

“[Woolson] paved the way for writers such as Edith Wharton, E. M. Forster, and Willa Cather, and who arguably might be hailed in the same breath as Henry James and George Eliot.”

Los Angeles Review of Books

“Like Jane Austen, Woolson’s protagonists knew and understood their place within the rigid social ladder of acceptable convention, and her portraits are vivid, picture perfect snapshots of that time and place. . . . Rioux reintroduces an American master of regionalism and local color.”

Shelf Awareness 

“A potent . . . [and] exciting volume. . . . These finely-crafted, place-rooted stories are startling in their mythic atmosphere, vital descriptions, and elegiac tributes to lost worlds. They are charged with a quietly ferocious tension between old-fashioned structures and the progressive psychological portraits shaped by Woolson’s compassion and penetrating vision. . . . Woolson belongs in every American literature collection.”

–Booklist, starred review

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