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Two Women and His Art

by Lyndall Gordon

Pub Date: April 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-393-04711-3
Publisher: Norton

A sharply observed but ultimately frustrated view of the Master, as reflected through the lives of one woman who inspired his art and another who shared in his dedication to fiction. To the frustration of his biographers—even, to an extent, the dedicated Leon Edel—James’s scrupulous maintenance of his privacy was equal to his construction of the public persona. Gordon (Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life, 1985, etc.) takes an indirect approach to illuminating his inner existence through two atypical outside lives. The first is his cousin Minny Temple, whom he used as the model for Daisy Miller, Isabel Archer, and Milly Theale. The second, who arrived as James published Daisy Miller, is a fellow expatriate American novelist, Constance Fenimore Woolson, whose suicide in Venice would be a magnet for later biographers. James’s overshadowing idealization of his cousin, who died tragically young enough to be an excellent resource for his fiction and his memoir, bears only partial resemblance to the real person. Gordon’s factual, perceptive portrait of the socially unconventional, intellectually questing Minny unfortunately lacks only the vitality that fascinated James and that fails to emerge her letters, excerpted here, mostly to people other than James (who burned his). Constance Woolson, nicknamed Fenimore for her great-uncle James, comes across as less original, even with Gordon’s extra sympathy. Nonetheless, Fenimore was able to live abroad independently and write her novels, which became far more popular than James’s later work—to the Master’s dismay. While some biographers have imagined a romance between James and the woman Alice James called a “she-novelist,” Gordon portrays the relationship on Fenimore’s side as intellectually motivated and on James’s as typical masculine condescension and inability to commit. Despite the focus on these two relationships, this Jamesian portrait is otherwise little different from other biographers’. Although Gordon works hard to detach Minny and Fenimore from James’s shadow, she can’t quite unravel his strategies to keep his private life private. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen)