Portrait of a Lady Novelist
Email this review


A fine reappraisal of the work of the Victorian novelist and dear friend to Henry James.

In this comprehensive, fleshed-out biography, author Rioux (English/Univ. of New Orleans; Writing for Immortality: Women and the Emergence of High Literary Culture in America, 2004, etc.) works back from Woolson’s suicide in 1894 to consider the enormous obstacles a woman writer in her era had to overcome in the sexist American literary culture. Woolson’s work was largely overshadowed by her contemporary and frequent companion James, and Rioux does not speculate idly about their relationship outside of their mutual devotion to their work, loneliness, and James’ essential “underlying disdain for women writers.” Indeed, Woolson grasped that disdain and even—painful as it is to modern readers—subsumed the sexist strictures of the time, declaring to James, “a woman, after all, can never be a complete artist.” Yet the two novelists were serializing their work in periodicals at the same time and similarly employed intelligent, thwarted, unrealized female characters in their fiction. A product of a large Cleveland family of mostly daughters—many of whom died tragically in their youth—Woolson saw firsthand the wasted fates of mothers and wives. She narrowly “escaped” (her word) a similar fate in marriage in her late 20s before choosing the writing life over teaching (the two professions available to single women), partly due to her middle name—James Fenimore Cooper was her great uncle. Woolson was determined to make a living by her pen, and she was able to support her mother and sister, moving constantly and eventually settling in Venice—although she was plagued by depression and ill health for much of her life. Rioux delineates the toll her writing ambition took on her and how, curiously, she hid her lethal literary drive from her friend James.

An intelligent, sympathetic portrait of a complicated, even tortured writer who calls for fresh readers.

Pub Date: Feb. 29th, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-393-24509-7
Page count: 432pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 2015


NonfictionHENRY JAMES by Sheldon M. Novick
by Sheldon M. Novick
NonfictionPORTRAIT OF A NOVEL by Michael Gorra
by Michael Gorra