The life of Victorian writer Constance Fenimore Woolson inspires a novel of artistic friendship, and conflict, with Henry James.
This second novel from publisher Maguire (Thinner, Blonder, Whiter, 2002), who died in 2006, is a fictional autobiography, narrated by James Fenimore Cooper’s great-niece Connie, an opinionated woman liberated at age 39, after her mother’s death, to pursue her writing and her obsession to meet Henry James. Proto-feminist and confirmed spinster Connie, the premier “regional lady writer,” yearns for equality with male geniuses. Traveling to Europe, she finally meets James in Florence and a close friendship is quickly forged. James (or Harry, as she calls him) emerges less impressively than expected—a giggler, with doughy fingers, who finds in Fenimore (as he calls her) a confidante. Although their friendship is temporarily ruptured after she makes reference to his homosexuality and he publishes a disparaging article about her work, it is later restored and he proposes a marriage of convenience, which she rejects. The novel suggests that history misrepresented Connie as Harry’s seducer, when all she sought was literary companionship. In these pages she emerges as smarter and more successful, but she’s not quite convincing when she calls herself Salieri to James’s Mozart. Full-blooded Connie, who suffered episodes of intense head pain, which was eventually diagnosed as a brain tumor, committed suicide in Venice in 1894.
A small episode in literary history becomes a feisty but self-justifying and vaguely melancholy tale.