Constance Fenimore Woolson
and Henry James in Venice

 

For me it really started with the Henry James biographical novel glut in 2004.  The story of the ambiguous and oddly authentic relationship between Henry James and fellow author Constance Fenimore Woolson can't help but touch readers of David Lodge's Author, Author and (especially) Colm Toibin's The Master.  (The glut is explored by David Lodge himself, in an essay in a book called The Year of Henry James: The Story of a Novel published in May 2006.) I later found that Edward Sklepowich had beaten them all to it with a modern-day version of the relationship in his novel Death in a serene city in 1990.

And it seems I'm not alone in my fascination. Several site-friends helped with the finding of Miss Woolson's last palazzo and the site of her suicide when I visited Venice in 2005, and my mention of her name in my front-page news/blog thing around this time resulted in quite a few searches reaching Fictional Cities.

So I thought I'd give them a page to themselves and collect together some strands for interested Venice-philes keen to finds sites and clues.  I'll start by assuming that you know at least as much about the relationship as I mention, and conject about, in the reviews on the page linked to above, and so I'll start  with some further useful books, then identify some key sites, and finish with links to some sites devoted to CFW herself.

Books

Henry James
Letters from the Palazzo Barbaro

Pushkin Press

A lovely little book from an always-reliable publisher with a strong Venetian-subject bias in it's catalogue.  It has good notes and introduction by Rosella Mamoli Zorzi, the woman whose name seems to be on all the better books about Henry James in Venice. This volume contains mostly letters he wrote from the Palazzo Barbaro (pictured below) whilst staying with the Bostonians Ariana and Daniel Curtis, and later with Isabella Stewart Gardner, also from Boston, to whom the couple later rented the palazzo. There are also some letters he wrote to the Curtises and a few from them. Sometimes the letters read like lists of the members of smart and arty set the house attracted, but elsewhere you get that thrill of recognising events you've read about, and with that feeling of authenticity that letters confer. Miss Woolson's suicide is the subject of a couple of letters, and HJ's resistance to admitting to any reason for it beyond the woman's mental make up is unmistakable. He puts his loss of enthusiasm for Venice in the wake of her death down to his getting bored with the social pressures, rather than any feelings of sorrow or guilt at her passing. A little ironic that, bearing in mind how he seems to relish the social scene and intrigues. 

In one telling letter, sent in October 1893, when discussing Miss Woolson's writing (a mention of her missed by the index, but to be found on page 138)  HJ writes of her last novel - a great success, I believe in relation to the particular public (a very wide American one) that she addresses. A better combination of ostensible admiration masking subtle sniffiness is hard to imagine. Four months later he is writing letters to friends in Venice about her suicide there with the mix of anguish and detachment so well evoked by Toibin's novel. He puts the manner of her death down to some violent cerebral derangement as she was a victim to morbid melancholia and one's friendship for her was always half anxiety. He also never fails to mention her deafness as another factor.

Beyond this fascinating relationship the book gives good Venice and good Henry James, as it were. There is, for example, his discussion of the big three Venetian artists and the direct line the letters seem to give into the lives of the artistic set much written about elsewhere, most notably in John Julius Norwich's Paradise of Cities
 

In Venice and in the Veneto with Henry James
edited by Rosella Mamoli Zorzi
Supernova 2005 
88 88548 54 8


In which Ms Zorzi comes to our aid again, or at least to mine. I found this book in a shop in Venice on my 2005 visit - it makes finding James-related sites in Venice a piece of cake. It's itineraries cover the city and the islands and take you to places that HJ writes about, loves (or which contain art that he loves) and/or which inspired places in his novels. The Palazzo Semitecolo gets two small mentions - in the chronology of James's life and in the Grand Canal itinerary, but it does make it easier to identify it from the Canal, or from the Santa Maria del Giglio vaporetto stop opposite. (It's the gothic palace to the left of the Casa Salviati which has a large mosaic on it, it having once been the showroom and home of the famed  Salviati family, glassblowers from Murano - see photo below.) An essential little book for HJ lovers visiting Venice.
I've given more bibliographical info than usual, and have succumbed to the cover-scan thing,  as I've never seen this for sale outside Venice.

 


Places

Casa Semitecolo



 


The palazzo where Constance Fenimore Woolson was staying  in January 1894. She committed suicide, or merely fell, from the window of her bedroom into the calle, photographed below. Leon Edel's biography of Henry James says that she  'jumped from her bedroom window, and fell into the little street'. She was found by her gondolier Angelo Fusato, who carried her indoors. Fusato had been the gondolier, and long-time lover, of John Addington Symonds, a writer and historian and another member of the Palazzo Barbaro set. Addington's autobiography included a detailed description of his relationship with Fusato but it wasn't published until 1984.

 



 

   

 

 

 

 















The Casa Semitecolo is opposite the Santa Maria del Giglio vaporetto stop, to the left of the Casa Salviati with its mosaic panel.
 



Palazzo Barbaro
 


The Palazzo Barbaro is made up of the two paler palazzos joined together left of centre in this photo, with the Accademia bridge just out of shot to the left. This is where HJ famously stayed with the Curtises of Boston and where he wrote The Aspern Papers. It's the model for the Palazzo
Leporelli which Milly Theale rents in The Wings of the Dove, and was used in the film of the book. It was also used as the palazzo Sebastian's father (played by Lawrence Olivier) stays at in the TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. It's where the vampire hunter Professor Catalano (Christopher Plummer) stays in Nosferatu in Venice too. The letters in the collection reviewed above were mostly sent from here, as you might guess from the title. The Curtis family still own most of the main, left-hand, palazzo but had to sell off the piano nobile recently, as recounted in John Berendt's book The City of Falling Angels.



Constance Fenimore Woolson

In recent years Constance Fenimore Woolson has begun to get the recognition and attention she deserves as a writer. From a minor novelist and short story writer she has been transformed into a 'pioneering nineteenth century author'. There is also now some conjecture that her death was an accident and not suicide at all. You might put this is down to her being rediscovered by feminist theorists who need her not to be a victim, or see it as a necessary counter to her previous status as the niece and friend of famous men and merely an "elderly devoted spinster", as Leon Edel, Henry James' biographer, describes her. Amongst her books devoted to Italian subjects are Italian Villas and their Gardens and Italian Backgrounds,
a collection of essays, 

Note: A few days after writing this I learn that the word 'spinster' is now officially dead. From 21st of December 2005 it is no longer to be used by the Registrar General's Office in the UK on marriage certificates and the like. In the Cambridge dictionary a spinster is defined as 'a woman who is not married, especially a woman who is no longer young and seems unlikely ever to marry', but Webster's definition is 'a woman of evil life and character' and the word has long been seen as a euphemism masking witchcraft and/or lesbianism. Its original meaning derives from the fact that unmarried poor women were made to spin cotton and wool in workhouses.

Update March 2016:  Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist by Anne Boyd Rioux has just been published. Ms Rioux has also edited a new volume of CFW's stories, also just out, called
Miss Grief and Other Stories
.
 

 

The Constance Fenimore Woolson Society

downloadable works from Project Gutenberg

On online books search page

A piece called In Venice by CFW from The Atlantic Monthly, April 1882.

A very comprehensive Henry James links page

 

        


With profuse thanks to Carolyn and Marianne for all their original suggestions and encouragement.




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