Below are discussion questions for Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist and Miss Grief and Other Stories, as well as links to the PDF files. Both books offer plenty to discuss for any book club and could, in fact, be read together. If you would like the author to visit your book club when you discuss the books, in person or, more likely, via Skype, drop her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Questions for Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist
These questions are designed for discussion, which means there are no easy answers. A life, just like a text, is open to interpretation. Some of these are questions that the author asked herself as she was researching and writing about Woolson’s life. See how you feel about Woolson’s life and support your views with evidence from the biography.
- Where do you see parallels between Woolson’s life and/or career and the lives and careers of women writers today? Similarly, where do you see Woolson’s life overlapping with your own?
- How does Woolson’s life story compare to that of other nineteenth-century women whose biographies you are familiar with?
- One of the main themes of Woolson’s life story is the tensions between her own ambitions and what was expected of her as a woman. Are there still taboos against ambition for women today?
- Another main theme is the search for a home. Did you identify with Woolson’s desire for a home and/or envy her ability to travel? How does Woolson seem to define home? How do you define home?
- Do you agree with Woolson, as she told Henry James, that the primary goal of literature should be to make the reader feel? What do you look for in a good book? Do you want it to make you think, make you feel, both, or something else?
- What role did Woolson’s relationships with men play in her life? Which men were most important to her and why? Alternatively, what role did her relationships with women play her her life? Why do you think she seemed to have more male friends than female?
- How did you feel about Woolson’s relationship with Henry James? How would you define it? Was he a positive influence in her life?
- Do you agree with those, including Henry James, who believe that Woolson deliberately chose to end her life? If so, why do you think she made that choice? If not, what leads you to believe that her death could have been accidental? (There is more discussion of this issue in the footnotes to chapter 15.)
- Do you see Woolson’s life as inspirational, either overall or in certain aspects? Would you define her as a success or a failure, ultimately, and why? Do you see her as overcoming or as succumbing to obstacles in her way?
- What do you wish Woolson had been able to accomplish in her life that alluded her?
- Although the word “feminist” had not been invented yet when Woolson was alive, do you think she can be considered a feminist role model? Why or why not? If she were alive today, do you think she would call herself a feminist?
Which of Woolson’s novels or stories would you like to read? See if it is available in print (in Miss Grief and Other Stories, also available from W. W. Norton, or in a reprint edition). If not, you may be able to find an e-text online. After reading it, what surprised you about it? How does it compare to other nineteenth-century authors you have read?
Read the stories in Miss Grief and Other Stories for an overview of some of her best stories. Which did you like best, and why?
Read Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Where do you similarities between Isabel Archer and Woolson?
Read Henry James’s The Beast in the Jungle for its evocation of his grief after Woolson’s death.
Questions for Miss Grief and Other Stories
- Which story was your favorite, and why? Did you have more than one favorite?
- Which character(s) from the stories do you most vividly remember and why? Did you have any favorites? What drew you to them? Alternatively, did you find yourselves reacting strongly against a character? If so, why? Did any of them remind you of people you know?
- Did you notice any common themes among the stories, or similarities between characters? Which ideas or issues seem to preoccupy Woolson?
- Woolson felt that the most important goal of literature was to make readers feel. What did you feel while reading these stories? Which ones made you feel more than the others? Were there particular characters with whom you were most sympathetic? Why or why not?
- Compare/contrast the narrator of “Miss Grief” and the male characters in “A Florentine Experiment” and “In Sloane Street.” All of them have been said to reflect, in varying degrees, Woolson’s feelings about Henry James. Which did you find most/least sympathetic, and why?
- Many of Woolson’s characters exist on the margins of society: the wife of a religious zealot in “St. Clair Flats,” the coal miner and his wife in “Solomon,” the nun in “Sister St. Luke,” the failed woman writer in “Miss Grief,” or the unmarried woman in “In Sloane Street.” Does Woolson pity, empathize, or champion such people? How does she portray them compared to the less-marginalized characters, such as the visitors in “St. Clair Flats,” “Solomon,” and “Sister St. Luke,” or the male writers in “Miss Grief” and “In Sloane Street”? Where do her sympathies lie, and how does convey that?
- Setting plays a very large role in Woolson’s stories. Some have described place as almost a character in her fiction. Would you agree? Which places were most memorable? Could you visualize the maze-like straights in “St. Clair Flats” or the coastal swampland of “Sister St. Luke”?
- Have you been to any of the locations described in Woolson’s stories? Zoar, Ohio, in “Solomon”; St. Augustine, Florida, in “Sister St. Luke”; Florence in “A Florentine Experiment”; London in “In Sloane Street”? Compare your memories of these places with how they are described by Woolson. How much have they changed since Woolson’s day?
- Each of the stories, except perhaps “Rodman the Keeper,” contains a married couple or a romantic relationship, either at the center of the story or on the margins. How would you say Woolson characterizes love and marriage–positively, negatively, or ambivalently?
- Although not particularly known for her humor, Woolson has struck some readers as quite funny. What do you think? Did you smile or laugh while reading any of the stories? If so, which characters or lines struck you as humorous or witty?
- Do Woolson’s stories generally end unhappily or happily? Compare the endings of “Miss Grief” and “A Florentine Experiment.” Which do you prefer, and why? Sometimes, it’s difficult to say whether the ending is happy or not. How would you characterize the endings of “Rodman the Keeper” and “Sister St. Luke,” for instance?
- Can you imagine any of the stories as films? Which ones? If you were the director, whom would you cast in the main roles? And what changes would you make to the setting or plot? For instance, would you keep the time and place the same? And would you keep the ending as it is?
For the full story of Woolson’s life and career, for which the introduction provides an overview, read Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist. What surprised you about her life, after reading her stories? In particular, you can compare Anne Boyd Rioux’s portrait of Woolson’s relationship with Henry James and the Henry James-inspired characters in “Miss Grief,” “A Florentine Experiment,” and “In Sloane Street.” You can also consider the autobiographical elements of her stories. How do you see her fiction growing out of her life?
Read Henry James’s “The Lesson of the Master” and compare/contrast it with “In Sloane Street.” What do they each seem to be saying about the possibility of combining love and art? Compare the perspectives from which the stories are told and consider how they affect the themes and conclusions the stories reach.
Read Henry James’s “Daisy Miller” (1878) and compare/contrast with “A Florentine Experiment” (1880).
Read Edith Wharton’s 1901 story “The Rembrandt” and compare to Woolson’s “Miss Grief.” Do you think Wharton could have been influenced by Woolson, although she never acknowledged an influence?