Constance Fenimore Woolson (March 5, 1840-January 24, 1894)

One hundred and twenty years ago this week, on January 24, 1894, an ailing Constance Fenimore Woolson fell to her death from a window in Casa Semeticolo, Venice. Lyndall Gordon’s A Private Life of Henry James contends that this was suicide, but I’m waiting for the publication of  Anne Boyd Rioux‘s new biography of Woolson to settle the matter.

In reading Gordon’s book at breakfast this morning, what struck me was not the manner of her death but Henry James’s reaction to it.  Distraught, he canceled his trip to attend the funeral (arranged by John Hay), yet some months later he moved to Venice, and, abandoning his usual rooms, rented hers for a few months.  Gordon reports that James felt comforted by Woolson’s strong presence there but also suggests that he had both wanted to avoid the publicity of his connection with her (hence not attending the funeral) and to court publicity through his extensive network, something that led to a “his heart is in the grave” piece in a newspaper about him.

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