When Henry James died one hundred years ago, on February 28, 1916, he took many secrets of his private life with him. One of the most mysterious is his close friendship with the writer Constance Fenimore Woolson. There is little archival evidence to go on, which has led to plenty of speculation and innuendo. But there are indications that their friendship was far more intimate and mutually supportive than previously realized.
James met Woolson in the spring of 1880 in Florence. Although Woolson was already a famous author, having made her mark as an accomplished short-story writer with one book and prolific contributions to the leading literary magazines, James had not heard of her. Her hopes of meeting him as a fellow writer were dashed, but he still showed an extraordinary interest in her. Although James was supposed to be writing his new novel, The Portrait of a Lady, he extended his stay in Florence to play cicerone, showing her the city’s churches and galleries.
Why such interest in a 40-year-old, half-deaf single woman, many have wondered? Despite her age, Woolson had a lot in common with the heroine James was in the process of inventing. Like Isabel Archer, she was on the cusp of possibility, having come to Europe after the death of her mother and charting her own path for the first time in her life. She possessed the same curiosity about Europe and the same spirit of independence and free will that he was putting into his character. No wonder that Woolson would feel, after reading the completed novel nearly two years later, “a perfect sympathy, & comprehension, & a complete acquaintance as it were” with Isabel.
Thus began a 14-year friendship that lasted until Woolson’s death in 1894. At some point, their intimacy deepened to the extent that they agreed to destroy their letters to each other. Only four have survived. He made no such agreement with anyone else, and she only with her sister. While James’s and Woolson’s careful sabotage may forever hide the true nature of their relationship, it is clear that the immensely private Woolson and James trusted each other with parts of themselves that they may have shown to no one else.
Their relationship became almost like that of siblings, particularly after Woolson’s brother’s suicide and James’s sister’s death from cancer. Still, what the two writers felt for each other was undoubtedly a kind of love that fell outside the sanctioned bonds of their era. Living in the same villa in different apartments or traveling to Switzerland to see each other had to be kept quiet since they were both unmarried and unchaperoned. Yet, their need for mutual support made them take these chances.
In addition to the emotional strength they provided each other, Woolson and James came to understand and support each other’s work beyond what James’s biographers have recognized. Critic Leon Edel was particularly dismissive of Woolson’s influence on James even though Edel wrote admiringly of her in unpublished correspondence, claiming that she was a powerful writer in her own right who understood James’s work like no one else. Why Edel abandoned this perception of her when he wrote his five-volume biography of James is a mystery, but he deeply damaged her reputation by fostering an image of Woolson as a kind of love-sick puppy following James around Europe rather than the peer she was. In contrast to this image, in 1887, James inscribed one of the books he gave her, to “Constance Woolson / from her friend and confrère.”
Not only did Woolson understand James’s work; she also gave him advice and tried to push him to reveal more emotion in his writing. In one of her four remaining letters to him, written three years after they met, Woolson challenged James to portray a woman who truly loves and thereby to allow his readers to feel deeply for her. His portrait of Isabel ultimately fell flat for Woolson because she could not tell if Isabel truly loved Gilbert, or anyone else for that matter. “[L]et us care for [your next heroine], even greatly,” she dared him. Woolson also proceeded to show him what she meant in her next novel, East Angels, a kind of rewriting of The Portrait of a Lady, in which the tragedy of a woman’s failed marriage is made more palpable by her deep desire and love for another man.
What Woolson advocated and practiced was an empathetic realism that she (and many readers and critics) found more satisfying than James’s psychological realism, or William Dean Howells’s social realism. While James supported Woolson as a writer by publishing a laudatory profile of her and collecting it in Partial Portraits (she and Emerson were the only American writers included), Howells turned against her. His influence as an editor and critic was greater than James’s, and his criticism of her helped to ensure that Woolson’s significant contributions to American literature were quickly forgotten after her untimely death in 1894. James didn’t do anything to help, unfortunately, remembering her privately as his friend rather than memorializing her as a writer.
Woolson’s impact on James’s writing, however, did not die with her. It is particularly visible in The Beast in the Jungle, his most affecting work. He published it nine years after her death. In many ways, it is about the failure of a man to love. John Marcher’s realization of his failure and all that he missed in not loving May Bartram while she was alive is one of the most poignant scenes James ever wrote. What is significant is not only the way James’s feelings for Woolson appear to have made their way into the story (as many critics have previously pointed out), but also the way her advice about how to write literature that truly moved readers (the primary purpose of literature in her view) affected his writing. In essence, Woolson lived on in his writing, not only in The Beast in the Jungle or in The Wings of the Dove, but also in his daring to excavate his characters’ deepest emotions. Now we ought to return the favor and let Woolson live on in a rediscovery of her writing.
Anne Boyd Rioux is the author of Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist, published by W.W. Norton.