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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840–1894)

IN the novels of Constance Fenimore Woolson, a certain subtle element of femininity is blended with masculine vigor and disinterestedness. She had the self-restraint to stand aside from her creations, yet she met the necessities of her art with a woman’s intuition. For this reason her novels are among the most charming in the whole range of American fiction; satisfactory because they always conform to a high standard of literary excellence, having nothing about them shabby or careless or indifferent. Their author looks upon life with that steadiness and clearness of gaze which is only possible to one who wishes to see things as a whole, and as they are. Miss Woolson might be called a realist for this reason; yet she is also true to the unknown romance which forever haunts the souls of men.

Although she is primarily a novelist, not a little of her power is shown in her short stories. Of these she has written a great number, their backgrounds being generally the scenes with which she was at the time familiar. She was all her life a wanderer, so that she wrote with equal freedom of New England and its people, of New York life, of the South, of Americans and Italians in Florence and Venice and Rome.

She was born in Claremont, New Hampshire; a great-niece of James Fenimore Cooper, she was to give early evidence of possessing not a small share of his literary power. As a child she was taken to Cleveland, Ohio, where she received her primary education; going later to a French school in New York City, a school reproduced perhaps in her novel ‘Anne.’ She lived in Cleveland until the death of her father, Charles Jarvis Woolson, in 1869. From 1873 to 1879 she lived with her mother in Florida and in other Southern States,—a sojourn whose fruits appear in the book of short stories of life in the South headed by ‘Rodman the Keeper,’ and in ‘East Angels.’ Miss Woolson seemed capable of appreciating with equal intensity the stern, self-sufficing, conscientious New England character, and the sensuous, easy, lovable nature of the far South. She drew both with equal truth, and enjoyed contrasting them by bringing them together; as in the story ‘The Front Yard,’—in which a good-for-nothing family of Italian peasants have for a stepmother a New England woman who lives a modified New England life in Assisi,—in ‘East Angels,’ and elsewhere. Her later short stories are nearly all of Italy, or of Americans in Italy. She herself lived abroad continuously after 1880, dying in Venice January 23d, 1894.

The scenes of her novels are laid in her own country, recalling the associations of her childhood,—‘Horace Chase,’ however, being a novel of life in North Carolina. ‘Anne,’ ‘Jupiter Lights,’ ‘For the Major,’ have their setting in the North; ‘East Angels,’ in the far South. Of these novels ‘Anne’ is the most powerful and striking, showing as it does Miss Woolson’s ability to portray many kinds of people—above all, her skill in the portraiture of women. She understood her own sex; her heroines are in no wise remarkable. They may be met every day; their weakness, their strength, their love, are found in every household. She understood men as well as an unmarried woman can understand them,—an unmarried woman with the intuition of the artist. She understood perhaps best of all “the common people,” especially their homely and hearty qualities. In her novels she rarely gives way to sentiment or to feminine pathos; the reader receives the impression that she has certain marketable qualities in writing under curb. Her reserve force is a part of her charm. On the whole her novels are strong, sane, and wholesomely objective, having nothing in common with the hysteria of current fiction. They fulfill the best purpose of a novel, to entertain without enervating.