Digging for the “real” Woolson

My class finished our discussion of East Angels last night. I was afraid they wouldn’t like the ending and would find the heroine rather contrived, but they did not. Having read The Portrait of a Lady first and understanding how Woolson was responding to and revising James in East Angels made it so much more meaningful and gave us a useful frame for comparison. I must say that James didn’t come off too well. Although they had enjoyed reading what many consider his masterpiece, they completely agreed with Woolson that something was missing, and they felt that Woolson supplied it in spades. Namely, she showed how her characters truly felt about each other. By the end, you don’t have to guess about their feelings, like you do about Isabel in Portrait. Did she love Osmond or Goodwood ever? Or was she simply incapable of loving them? It’s hard to say.

The students also saw Woolson’s characters as complex and her settings as very real, as if you are right there in the midst of the action and not simply watching from a distance, as with James. Of course, I don’t want our class to devolve into a competition between Woolson and James, but it is easy to see how the two writers were competing with each other, responding to and rewriting each other’s stories. The next two weeks we will be reading their artist stories, so I am interested to see how much more revising and rewriting they were doing. Lyndall Gordon saw in their relationship a kind of posthumous collaboration, in which James fed off her ideas after she died. But clearly there was an awful lot of competitive collaboration going on while they were still alive.

What has made me so sad, though, is the way that the heroine of East Angels, Margaret, had to repress and hide her emotions from everyone around her. There are some very poignant passages about this, such as when the young woman Garda, who has been allowed to express herself freely for all of her sixteen years, points out to Margaret the difference between them: “you never in the world could stretch yourself out full length on the ground, as I’m doing now. The ground’s nice and warm, and I love to lie on it; but you—you have always sat in chairs, you have been drilled.”

Like Margaret, Constance was raised to maintain propriety and hide her true self. Although it is not hard to imagine her stretching herself out in the grass, it is quite plain that she found herself unable to as freely express her emotions as Garda does in the novel. Garda falls headlong in love and isn’t afraid to show it, even to the object of her affection. When she is angry, she blurts out her defiance. Margaret, on the other hand, represses her feelings to the point that we begin to see her physically wasting away.

At one point, Margaret challenges Winthrop, the man from whom she is hiding her feelings: “what do you know of slavery? That is what I have been for years—a slave. Oh, to be somewhere! . . . anywhere where I can breathe and think as I please—as I really am! Do you want me to die without ever having been myself—my real self—for even one day?” To what extent, I wonder, did Woolson feel like a slave, unable to be her true self?

Henry James told a friend that Woolson was one of the few people in the world who truly knew him. But did he know her? Was she able to show her “real self” to him? Or were her novels the only place where she could express her anger and desire? I’m not sure if I will ever know the answers to these questions. But at least she left a trail in her letters and novels for us to follow. As one student in my class wrote in his journal, reading her works is like going on an archaeological dig. I couldn’t agree more!

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