First things first. Who was Constance Fenimore Woolson? Maybe you have heard of the story “Miss Grief.” Maybe you have heard about her close friendship with Henry James. Maybe you read something once about how she committed suicide in Venice in 1894. In any case, if you have heard of her, you’re probably thinking, didn’t she have a tragic life? Wasn’t she some second-rate writer chasing Henry James around Europe? As my biography will explain, her death may have been tragic, but her life was anything but. And she was simply one of the best women writers of the nineteenth century, often compared in her day to George Eliot. Finally, while she may have sought James out, their fourteen-year friendship was anything but one-sided. He once told a friend that of the three or four people in the world who truly knew him, she was one of them.
But I’m not writing about Woolson just to write about her relationship with James. I’m writing about her because she wrote amazing stories–about a young woman artist in Rome, a female lighthouse keeper in the Great Lakes, or a musician seeking the strains of music he hears in the Florida swamps. And I’m writing about her because she dared to devote her life to writing serious literature when very few women had been able to do so. She deserves to be much better known today than she is. Two decades after her death, a writer to the New York Times announced, “Miss Woolson has done too much for America and Americans to be forgotten and ignored.” It’s now been almost 120 years since her death. It’s time we remembered.