The First Key to Woolson’s Life

Back to revising chapter one. I have already cut out 600 words–no small feat. But there is one piece that could never be removed. Although Constance was only weeks old when it happened, it would shape the rest of her life. Here is how I describe it:

Only two days after Constance’s birth, her five older sisters came down with fevers, and ominous red rashes began to spread across their faces. Scarlet fever had hit the family. The two oldest, Georgiana and Emma, recovered, along with the baby Connie, as her family called her. The other three girls—Ann, age five; Gertrude, age four; and Julia, age two—died before Constance was a month old. Their small graves were dug near their  grandfather’s in the town cemetery next to the park.

Their three small headstones, dwarfed by their grandfather’s, can still be found in the old cemetery. (One has fallen over.) I saw them when I was in Claremont, New Hampshire, Constance’s birthplace, in 2009. Members of the Woolson Society laid violets on their sad little graves.

Woolson girls graves

The next paragraph, I may have to cut. But it’s in there now, to show that such tragedies were not unusual.

The Woolsons’ misfortune was not uncommon, although it was unusually severe. So many children died during these years—most of them from scarlet fever—that elegies to dead children became a literary staple. One of the most touching was “Threnody” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who lost his son to scarlet fever in nearby Massachusetts only two years later. Without the typical sentimentality, Emerson captured the shock of sudden stillness after the death of a child: “The painted sled stands where it stood . . . / The ominous hole he dug in the sand, / And childhood’s castles built or planned. / The wintry garden lies unchanged, / The brook into the stream runs on, / But the deep-eyed Boy is gone.” Emerson would eventually find solace as a Transcendentalist in Nature. The Woolsons were Episcopalians, however, and their faith decreed a submission to God’s will that was difficult for many grieving parents. Hannah, it seems, was broken by the effort.

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