Readers often have a great curiosity about the authors who write the books they love, especially the novelists. And in fact sometimes the life of the author lives on long after
the novels cease to be read except by scholars. That’s what seems to have happened to Constance Fenimore Woolson, one of the most successful American authors of the 19th century.
Back in the days when I studied American literature, Woolson was considered a female regional writer—not at all important when compared with the great writers like Twain,
Melville, Howells, and James. One professor of mine commented that she was “the spinster woman who killed herself because she was in love with Henry James”. Years before that she had been ignored when Howells and James set up their canon of important American writers. They included only male writers because they didn’t think women were capable of great writing, or even rational thought.
In recent years, of course, attention has shifted to women writers and several are now studied in college literature classes. Constance Woolson is seldom included, but her books are available in libraries and bookstores and there have been new biographies and a novel written about her life. A lot of the interest in her has developed because of her relationship with Henry James, which is a shame because her life and work are worth reading on their own.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about Woolson’s life is how seriously she took her writing despite the lack of encouragement from “serious” critics. She devoted time and attention to her novels. When she was living in Venice in 1893, she wrote of her daily schedule: “I am now called at 4:30 every morning, and then, after a cup of tea, I sit (in a dressing gown) and write until 9:30, when I have breakfast. This is to get the cool hours for work. Then I dress and go on writing until 4 p.m., when I go to the Lido and take a sea-bath.” This is not a woman who rushed out her books in order to maximize sales.
Woolson started publishing in 1870, first magazine stories and then novels. She was a success from the beginning and was able to support her mother as well as help her brother and sister. After her mother died in 1879, Woolson traveled to Europe in order to meet Henry James, a writer whose work she admired. She did meet him, in part because he was impressed that she was a relative of James Fenimore Cooper, and their relationship continued for the rest of her life. It is this relationship that has fascinated both critics and general readers through the years.
During the past year I have read two books about Woolson and enjoyed both of them thoroughly. One is a biography by Anne Boyd Rioux, Constance Fenimore Woolson; Portrait of a Lady Novelist, which gives a full account of her life and travels. She did not have an easy life because her hearing began to fade while she was still a young woman. Her deafness was a barrier that kept her from enjoying the music she loved and from easy exchanges with friends and colleagues. She sometimes said that she valued Henry James because she would never run out of things to talk about with him. Conversation was important to her, although not as important as her writing. James envied her success in writing and continued to patronize her because he recognized—they both recognized—that he was a greater artist.
The second book I read about Woolson this year is Elizabeth Maguire’s novel, Open Door, based on Woolson’s years in Europe and her relationship with Henry James. The author invents many details of Woolson’s life, some more convincing than others, and readers
may quarrel about whether she successfully portrayed the connection with Henry James and whether Woolson did indeed know about his carefully closeted homosexual life.
Woolson’s death, after a jump or fall into a canal in Venice, is still a subject of speculation. Could it have been just a fall? Was it suicide? Was it caused by chronic depression or perhaps by the intense pain caused by her deafness and brain cancer? There will probably never be a definitive answer.
So where is truth? Is it in a fully-documented biography or in an imaginative novel? My answer would be that it is in both. We need a solid biography like the one Rioux has given us so we can understand Woolson’s background and life and better appreciate her work. But there is also truth in trying to imagine what Woolson’s life must have felt like from the inside. I think we all try to do that instinctively when we read biographies. Maguire gave us intriguing speculation about what it might have felt like being Constance Woolson. Both books deserve to be read.
Summer is coming up and for many people that is the prime season for binge watching TV series they missed during the year. But television isn’t the only media that is ripe for binging. Binge reading is a perennial favorite especially during rainy summer weekends when the beach is sodden and hiking trails are muddy.
Some people define binge reading as reading a book obsessively and not putting it down until you’ve finished it, whether that is 2 a.m. or sunrise. But equally satisfying is the binge reading done in bits and pieces but covering a whole series of books, usually genre books like mysteries, romances or science fiction. I remember one stressful holiday season when I gulped down one Ruth Galloway mystery after another, relishing the excuse to leave my crowded household for the north shore of England filled with mysteries about archeology and with patient sleuths. (In case you’ve never read them, the Ruth Galloway mysteries are by Elly Griffiths).
Binge reading can be by subject too. I remember spending a snowy Christmas week, stuck in the house with small children, reading one book after another about Renaissance Italy. It was almost like having a vacation.
Binge reading could be difficult in the old days when ending one book and feeling the urgent need for another meant a trip to the library or possibly even a bookstore if one was available. Now with ebooks, it takes only a few clicks to have the next book in the series delivered electronically from your public library or ebook supplier.
Most readers don’t think about the people who supply the books for us to read, but the enthusiasm for series books to read has put a lot of strain on writers. In the days before the indie publishing revolution—five years ago or more—there was usually a wait of two or three years between books. Traditional publishing is a time-consuming business. Now, if you look at writing blogs, you will see writers complaining that their publishers want at least two books a year from their series of mysteries or romances. It’s not easy for a writer to come up with several new ideas for books every year. As a result, a sparkling series may dwindle away as old plot twists are reused and irrelevant padding dragged into the story. It can be as sad to see a good, lively book series die away as it is to watch a TV series wither in its final season. It is much better for writers and publishers to aim for “limited series” as the TV shows are now doing. A quartet of lively books using the same characters and setting is better than a dozen books of repetitious stories.
On the other hand, some writers could be called binge writers. They keep turning out books and finding an audience year after year after year. One of these was Barbara
Cartland, who wrote more than 700 books in her 80-year-long career before her death in 2000. And her fans kept on loving them. Another was Isaac Asimov, who wrote more than 500 books both science fiction and non-fiction. He contributed so much to our culture that he deserves a separate post.
There should be a special award for binge writers whose energy and ideas feed our need for more stories to feed our passion.
It has taken me two days to absorb the information that President Trump has decided the United States will drop out of the Paris Climate Accord, which was signed with such cheering only last year. I have to wonder how much the President looks around the world that both he and I live in.
The first time I really noticed how a changing climate can affect people’s lives is when I visited Mali in 2003. We flew to the small airport in Timbuktu passing over miles of empty sandscapes. Timbuktu looked like no place else I had ever seen–the buildings are
made of mud or stucco, and the roads and open spaces are covered with sand. It’s impossible to tell whether the roads are paved or not. They curve around the city and our drivers zoomed around buildings, donkeys, children, men in long robes and women in subdued colors walking along the streets. Everything tastes slightly of sand; even the bread had a grittiness from the fine sand that blew into the dough as it was being prepared. Our guide told us that people who live in the city often lost their teeth early because the sand in their food slowly grinds down the enamel.
The following year, I went to Argentina and saw the glaciers of Patagonia. Many of them are now sliding inexorably into the sea. The loud crack of huge chunks of ice breaking off and being swallowed up by the ocean punctuated our trip. Now, more than ten years
later, the ice is breaking off even faster. Huge cracks are appearing in the glaciers of Antarctica. How can anyone believe that climate is not changing?
It’s not as though the idea of climate change hasn’t been discussed for many years. The medieval idea that the world is unchanging and that human beings have no influence on it was challenged more than 200 years ago by Alexander von Humboldt, one of the greatest scientists the world has ever known.
Humboldt traveled to South America in 1800 to explore nature and culture in the Spanish colonies there. When he saw the changes that Europeans has brought to the country by cutting down forests and cultivating lands, he developed his theories of how men affect climate. “When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America by the European planters, …the springs are dried up or become less abundant.” He noted how this allowed the soil to be washed away during heavy rains, causing erosion and a loss of fertile soil. He did not know that in the years that followed his visit, mankind would change the landscape and the climate even more by all the carbon emissions from the cars, airplanes, and factories that people have introduced all over the world.
Knowledge is a slow-growing plant, but Humboldt planted new ideas that have blossomed during the centuries since he started his explorations. In a recent book, Andrea Wulf, has explored Humboldt’s life and ideas in The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in seeing how scientific ideas have developed over the years and how long it takes to persuade people to accept new knowledge and to change their ideas.
The recent five-year drought in California has brought home to me the conviction that we should all think about what we can do to prevent climate change from destroying our fragile planet. Droughts cause deserts to be formed and to expand. A warming ocean creeps up our shores and makes larger and larger areas unlivable. Violent storms eat away at cliffs destroying homes and exposing communities to danger. The cliffs in the picture below are in Pacifica, California.
No matter what our leaders may tell us, all of us as citizens must look for ourselves and decide what we can do as individuals and communities to keep our planet safe for the future.