Brenda Wineapple at The New York Times:
If the American writer Constance Fenimore Woolson is remembered at all, it’s mostly for her dresses. And these weren’t just any dresses. These were the dark silk ones that, after her sudden death, Henry James presumably tried to drown in a Venetian lagoon, hurling them from his gondola and jabbing them with a pole to keep them from rising. But he failed, and to Woolson’s admirers his failure is symbolic: You can’t keep this good writer down.
Woolson’s latest advocate is Anne Boyd Rioux, a professor of English at the University of New Orleans, whose very reliable “Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist” resurrects her subject as a pioneering author who chose a literary career over the more conventional options of marriage and motherhood, a choice made in spite of the debilitating depressions that plagued her and her family.
Woolson’s bookish father, a prosperous New England stove manufacturer, was an insecure man whose deafness intensified his inherent melancholy, and the deaths of three of her older sisters, weeks after Woolson’s birth in 1840, so devastated her mother that she never recovered. In the aftermath, the Woolsons moved to Cleveland, but more family tragedy — the sudden deaths of two more sisters, shortly after they married — persuaded the 13-year-old Woolson to fear “the ways women gave up their health and even their lives to love and marriage.”