Today I wrote the words that brought Woolson’s life to an end. There is still much to say about her death and its aftermath, as well as her legacy. But to type the following sentences today was deeply moving: “When the nurse returned a second time, the window was wide open. (It had been tightly closed with curtains drawn when Miss Holas had left for the evening, according to her testimony.) The bed was empty. The nurse rushed to the window and looked out. Constance lay in the street below.”
It was only after I had stopped writing that I felt the impact once again of her death—of the great suffering that had preceded it and the blessed release that it must have been for her. I had felt that before, last October, as I stood in the street where she fell in Venice, behind the Casa Semitecolo. I had for about a minute the otherwise busy, narrow street to myself. But now, after writing it all out and seeing very clearly the days leading up to her final act, I feel it even more deeply.
I wonder how other writers feel when their protagonists die. I remember Hermione Lee saying in the interview she did at the Levy Center for Biography, “There’s always a great moment when they die!” I took her to mean that the writer feels a great sense of relief to have reached the end (or to be near it). It was a funny moment. I suppose I have felt a mixture of eagerness and dread to reach the “great moment” when Constance leapt from her window and ended her life.
In response to a query to writers about their emotional investment in their creations, Woolson wrote about “Thackeray’s grief after he had killed Col. Newsome” and “the way George Eliot’s novels ‘ploughed into her,’ she herself noting in her journal, ‘Killed Tito in great excitement.’” Woolson believed that a writer must feel for her characters first before she can ask her readers to feel for them. The same is surely true for the biographer as well.