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Constance Fenimore Woolson (March 5, 1840 – January 24, 1894) was an American novelist, poet, and short story writer. She was a grandniece of James Fenimore Cooper, and is best known for fictions about the Great Lakes region, the American South, and American expatriates in Europe.
Woolson was born in Claremont, New Hampshire, but her family soon moved to Cleveland, Ohio, after the deaths of three of her sisters from scarlet fever. Woolson was educated at the Cleveland Female Seminary and a boarding school in New York. She traveled extensively through the midwest and northeastern regions of the U.S. during her childhood and young adulthood.
Woolson’s father died in 1869. The following year she began to publish fiction and essays in magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's Magazine. Her first full-length publication was a children’s book, The Old Stone House (1873). In 1875 she published her first volume of short stories, Castle Nowhere: Lake-Country Sketches, based on her experiences in the Great Lakes region, especially Mackinac Island.
In the 1870s, U.S. author Constance Fenimore Woolson spent considerable time in the South, including St. Augustine. Originally published in 1876, her short story “Felipa” reflects, as she described, the “real impressions” of her time in the area. In this story, Woolson introduced the narrator, Catherine, as one of Florida’s nineteenth-century health tourists. Her beautiful friend Christine, along with Christine’s beau Edward, joins her on this trip to Florida’s east coast. While there, they become acquainted with Felipa, an eleven-year-old Minorcan girl living in a salt marsh. Woolson describes Felipa as a young immigrant ignorant of the path of womanhood and femininity. She dresses in boy’s clothing and becomes enamored of Christine, whom she often wants to kiss. When Edward asks for Christine’s hand in marriage, marriage, Felipa’s jealousy turns violent and she stabs him. Felipa’s grandparents worry the young girl’s actions signal a form of same-sex sexual depravity. When Catherine consoles them that “it will pass; she is but a child,” Felipa’s grandfather adds: “You are right, lady; she does not know. But I know. It was two loves, and the stronger thrust the knife.”
From 1873 to 1879 Woolson spent winters with her mother in St. Augustine, Florida. During these visits she traveled widely in the South which gave her material for her next collection of short stories, Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches (1880). After her mother’s death in 1879, Woolson went to Europe, staying at a succession of hotels in England, France, Italy, Switzerland and Germany.
Woolson published her first novel Anne in 1880, followed by three others: East Angels (1886), Jupiter Lights (1889) and Horace Chase (1894). In 1883 she published the novella For the Major, a story of the postwar South that has become one of her most respected fictions. In the winter of 1889–1890 she traveled to Egypt and Greece, which resulted in a collection of travel sketches , Mentone, Cairo and Corfu (published posthumously in 1896).
In 1893 Woolson rented an elegant apartment on the Grand Canal of Venice. Suffering from influenza and depression, she either jumped or fell to her death from a fourth story window in the apartment in January 1894, surviving for about an hour after the fall.
Two volumes of her short stories appeared after her death: The Front Yard and Other Italian Stories (1895) and Dorothy and Other Italian Stories (1896). She is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, and is memorialized by Anne's Tablet on Mackinac Island, Michigan.
The relationship between the two writers has prompted much speculation by biographers, especially Lyndall Gordon in her 1998 book, A Private Life of Henry James. Woolson’s most famous story, Miss Grief, has been read as a fictionalization of their friendship, though she had not yet met James when she wrote it. Recent novels such as Emma Tennant's Felony (2002), David Lodge's Author, Author (2004), Colm Toibin's The Master (2004), and Elizabeth Maguire's The Open Door (2008) have treated the still unclear relationship between Woolson and James.
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