Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist

Cover smallerOne of the ten “best books” of 2016–Chicago Tribune.

Reviewed on the Cover of the New York Times Book Review; “Editor’s Choice,” New York Times; Editor’s Pick, Library Journal; Starred Reviews in Booklist and Library Journal; A “Hot Book” at The National Book Review; A Book Making News at Lit Hub; and one of the BBC’s ten books to read in February 2016.

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.  A best-selling nineteenth-century American novelist, friend of countless intellectuals (including Henry James and others in his circle), and intrepid traveler, the stubbornly independent Woolson was compared in her day to the Brontës, Jane Austen, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Mary Wilkins Freeman, and James himself produced a critical study of her work. Yet after her death she was sadly forgotten. Now 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

Read the prologue online

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Woolson’s latest advocate is Anne Boyd Rioux, . . . whose very reliable “Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist” resurrects her subject as a pioneering author who chose a literary career over the more conventional options of marriage and motherhood. . . . Appreciating Woolson as more than the smitten confidante of Henry James is laudable.

–Cover review by Brenda Wineapple in The New York Times Book Review 

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 publication of Ms. Rioux’s biography coincides with the release of a new collection of Woolson’s stories, allowing us to see that Woolson in fact has some claim to being mentioned in the same breath with James.

–Randall Fuller, The Wall Street Journal

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

The New Yorker

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.

–Wendy Smith, The Boston Globe

[Henry] James’ lofty reputation is such that his biographers, especially Leon Edel, presume Woolson mooned over James. Where is the evidence? It does not exist, Rioux reports in “Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist.” Rioux then goes on to demolish a good deal of the male romanticism that attributes Woolson’s death — after a fall from a window in Venice — to James’ inattention. . . . In her ambition and in the range of her work, Woolson was a precursor to writers such as Sylvia Plath. . . . 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.

-Carl Rollyson, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

It’s the James legacy that Woolson’s biographer Anne Boyd Rioux wrestles with most in her new and excellent “Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist.” “To begin to understand how Woolson ended up dying alone, in the cold street behind her home in Venice, we have to begin by looking at her life through her eyes instead of James’s,” writes Rioux, and she has accomplished this reframing in a biography that focuses on Woolson’s ambition and complicated relationship to literary status itself — of which James was a convenient figurehead, but hardly the only one.

–Amy Gentry, Chicago Tribune

To read about literary culture in the mid-to-late nineteenth century is to realize that, in several ways, not much has changed . . . . . cultural trends persist, and reading about a writer’s life often makes those trends clear. . . . Anne Boyd Rioux’s biography provides a rich and detailed portrait of Woolson. . . . [It] cannot be charged with the typical criticisms of academic writing: it’s accessible, engaging, and wonderfully written. . . . The overall effect is to expand the barebones mythology surrounding Woolson’s life by demonstrating how varied and fascinating it was — much more than a blank prologue to a friendship with a famous man and a sensational death. . . .  It should be clear at this point that this biography is enthralling and significant: read it, and help begin to give Woolson the posthumous recognition she no doubt deserves.

–Dan Froid, Bookslut

[In] this fine and detailed study . . . [Rioux] makes a strong case for reassessing this contemporary and close friend of Henry James . . .  whose work presages Edith Wharton.

–“New and Noteworthy,” Karen Shook,  Times Higher Education

In the first full-length Woolson biography, . . . Rioux vividly evokes Woolson’s struggles to choose independence and a writer’s life over domesticity, and gives a convincing reappraisal of her work.

–Jane Ciabattari, BBC

Rioux is strong on the context of Woolson’s writing and this book is an excellent guide to her work.

–Frances Wilson, Daily Telegraph

Woolson[‘s] friendship with Henry James has, among James scholars, long qualified hers as a distinctly lesser life. . . . Now, with the publication of a full-length biography and the reissue of a collection of her stories, Woolson emerges as a figure of some dimension in her own right.

–Vivian Gornick, The Nation

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.

–Stephanie Gorton Murphy, Los Angeles Review of Books

Rioux successfully navigates the balancing act at the heart of any literary biography. She considers Woolson’s literary works within the context of her life, but never reduces Woolson’s fiction to mere biographical illustration. The end result is a portrait of a complex woman who chose a literary career over family and domesticity–one of the first women who successfully created such a life. . . .  an engaging combination of storytelling and scholarship.

 –Pamela Toler, Shelf Awareness

A duet [between Rioux and Woolson] that is clear and strong and exciting. . . . [Woolson] creat[ed] a still relevant and exciting body of work that Rioux guides readers to.

— Susan Larson, New Orleans Advocate

An important contribution to reestablishing this long-overlooked writer to her rightful place in the American literary canon, this excellent book will captivate readers.

— Library Journal, starred review

Rioux has brought Woolson back to the republic of letters by writing a vivid, deeply involving biography and by putting together a potent collection of Woolson’s short fiction. . . . Rioux writes with captivating lucidity and conviction . . . [and] offers smart and poignant insights.

Booklist, starred review (Full review in Booklist Reader blog)

In this comprehensive, fleshed-out biography, author Rioux [as written a]n intelligent, sympathetic portrait of a complicated, even tortured writer who calls for fresh readers.


In this thoughtful retelling of Constance Fenimore Woolson’s life, . . . Rioux has brought to life an unjustly forgotten writer.

Publisher’s Weekly

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

Anne Boyd Rioux tells her compelling story of Constance Fenimore Woolson with force and power, the very qualities once ascribed to Woolson’s own fiction.  This is a beautifully researched biography of a talented American writer with a lively intellect and ambitious heart, a woman nonetheless inexorably caught in the crosshairs of 19th-century womanhood.  The denouement, though not entirely a surprise, is devastating.–Natalie Dykstra, author of Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life

Biography at its best aims at resurrection. Anne Boyd Rioux has brought the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson back to life for us. Hurrah!–Robert D. Richardson, winner of The Bancroft Prize for William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism

Rioux has researched her topic exhaustively. A fine work of scholarship and compelling narrative, Rioux’s work should do much to bring attention again to Woolson’s undeservedly neglected life, career, and writings and to establish an accurate assessment of Woolson’s relationship with Henry James.–Pierre Walker, co-editor of The Complete Letters of Henry James

Reader reviews at Amazon and Goodreads.