WOOLSON, CONSTANCE FENNIMORE (5 March 1840-24 January 1894) was an American writer who is considered a significant female author who had connections to several of the major writers of the era. Born in Clairemont, New Hampshire, Woolson was the sixth child of Charles Jarvis and Hannah Cooper Pomeroy Woolson, the former of which washer father being a descendant of the famous author James Fenimore Cooper. Following the death of three of her older sisters from scarlet fever shortly after her birth, her family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where Constance would spend much of her childhood. Woolson received her education in Cleveland, first in Miss Fuller’s School on Public Square, where her teacher, Harriet Grannis, encouraged her in her earlier writing endeavors. Later, in 1850, she joined the CLEVELAND FEMALE SEMINARY, in which she met LINDA GUILFORD, who helped her further hone her writing capabilities. While she graduated from Madame Chegary’s School in New York in 1858, it wasn’t until after her father’s death in 1869 that Woolson began pursuing a career in literature.

After her father’s death, Woolson and her remaining family left Cleveland and began moving throughout the U.S. First, she resided in the New York, but due to her mother’s health complications, she relocated to the South. She remained in the South until her mother’s death in 1879, at which point she travelled to Europe, where she lived for the rest for the rest of her life. It was during this period of constant travelling that Constance met several other contemporary writers, including poet Edmund Clarence Stedman and, most notably, author Henry James. Woolson and James had a very close friendship, and it is speculated that Woolson served as the inspiration for Isabel Archer, the main character of James’ novel The Portrait of a Lady (1881).

Woolson began her literary career by writing descriptive articles for magazines such as Harpers, Atlantic Monthly, and Galaxy. Later, in 1873, she wrote a children’s book titled The Old Stone House under the pseudonym Anne March. She then spent the following years working on Castle Nowhere: Lakeside County Sketches (1875) and Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches (1880), two works which serve as collections of various of her short stories, including some of her earlier works written prior to the time she began publishing.. During the 1880s, Woolson shifted her focus to writing full length novels, publishing Anne in 1882. The work was a great success, outselling even Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, which was released around the same time. Woolson followed Anne by publishing 4 more novels, For the Mayor (1883), East Angel (1886), Jupiter Lights (1889), and Horace Chase (1894). After her death, several of the short stories she had written while living abroad were published in Dorothy and Other Italian Stories (1896).

Woolson’s writing was significantly shaped by the events that took place over her life. Her earlier works focused heavily on life following the Civil War, an event that she lived through and which had a profound effect on her and subsequently on her writing. Woolson often explored ideas such as the racial tensions of the time and the effects the war later had on immigrants. However, following her move to Europe, she came to focus more on international topics. Her stories were set abroad, and challenged the contemporary perception of women by society at large and also focused on the problems faced by female writers. 

Woolson spent the last months of her life in Venice. She died at the age of 54, after contracting typhoid fever and falling out of her bedroom window.  Whether this was an accident or a suicide is unknown. She never married, nor did she have any children. She is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, Italy.

Alberto Cabrer

Article Categories