In April 1894, a middle-aged gentleman, bearing a load of dresses, was rowed to the deepest part of the Venetian lagoon. A strange scene followed: he began to drown the dresses, one by one. There were a good many, well-made, tasteful, and all dark, suggesting a lady of quiet habits and some reserve. The gondolier's pole would have been useful for pushing them under the still water. But the dresses refused to drown. One by one they rose to the surface, their busts and sleeves swelling like black balloons. Purposefully, the gentleman pushed them under, but silent, reproachful, they rose before his eyes.
The dresses belonged to a writer, widely read at that time, called Constance Fenimore Woolson. She was a great-niece of James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and other frontier tales, and the first American writer to achieve worldwide fame. `Fenimore', as she was known to choice friends, had combined Western vigour with the quiet manner of a patrician family strongly rooted in the New World. In 1879 she had settled in Europe, and a few months later met a fellow-expatriate, the distinguished but less popular novelist Henry James. The course of their long friendship was rudely broken when, on the night of 24 January 1894, Fenimore, aged fifty-three, had fallen to her death from her bedroom window in Venice.
A mystery has always surrounded this death, but James believed it was no accident. It was suicide. He, alone, was certain. What exactly it was that James knew of Fenimore which convinced him, remains obscure, blurred by his claims that Fenimore, contrary to appearance, had been mad — beyond help. The very urgency of his repeated denials of responsibility calls attention to their tie. So does his attempt to drown her clothes. Henry James was a bachelor of fifty-one at this time, with a high forehead, accentuated by receding hair and a high nose with the faintest bend to it. He had a mobile, sensitive mouth, with a fuller lower lip, firm, not petulant. It was exceptionally wide; parallel to the edge of his eyes. In repose, it would have shown a long line, slicing through the lower half of his face, had it not been hidden by a brown beard — a natural-looking growth, neither unruly nor too clipped. He dressed in English clothes with too much care to be an Englishman. Some thought he looked like a Russian count; others, a bishop. What friends noticed first were the eyes: light grey and extraordinarily keen (when they were not veiled by his lids), looking at them with complicit amusement or with scorching intensity as though he could see into their secret selves. He was known for explorations of the inward life: the unvoiced exchange and the drama of hidden motives. These were his skills, as well as a power, beyond that of any other man, to plumb the unknown potentialities of women. Two women, in particular, provoked his attention — a creative attention which claimed them through their untimely deaths.
Fenimore was the second of these two women. The first was his cousin Mary Temple, known as Minny, who had died in 1870 at the early age of twenty-four. Where Fenimore was part of his middle years in Europe, Minny had been the real-life `heroine' of his youth in Newport, Rhode Island. James saw her as a free spirit, `a plant of pure American growth', amongst the polished ladies of their time. The very air of Newport was `vocal with her accents, alive with her movements'. Fenimore was free in a different way: a solitary, mature woman who pursued her ambitions with an intentness that matched his own. In her, James encountered the kind of writer with whom he might share, now and then, the privacy of the artist..
The freedoms of these two women went masked, as most nineteenth-century women were masked (whether they knew it or not) by the demands of social consensus: publicly, they fitted themselves to approved models of womanhood. Fenimore appeared to everyone as the needy gentlewoman she in fact was, and this helped to establish her in her career. Her need did her no harm with editors, who found they could combine profit with gallantry towards a lady with a widowed mother and broken-down brother. She disarmed editors and fellow-writers with modest, self-deprecating letters which go out of their way to stress how inferior was the fortune of a single woman who must write for her living to that of a cherished wife. It is uncertain to what extent she actually believed this in the loneliness she certainly endured, but her best stories subvert contemporary pieties about wifehood and womanly dependence. For herself, Fenimore was strong, serious, and determined to put her work first. She published fifty-eight stories (amongst them her best work), five novels, poems, and travel-writing..
Where the freedoms of Fenimore passed scrutiny in the guise of retiring gentlewoman, the freedoms of Mary Temple were acceptable in the guise of vivacious young girl. Intelligent men, all destined for public distinction, surround her in the woods of New Hampshire or on Newport verandahs. Their eyes follow her advance in her buttoned, high-necked dress. She holds her slight form erect as she hugs her arms. Her eagerness for ideas, her directness, and wide laugh showing all her teeth, seemed to Henry James the embodiment of innocence and untried youth. Yet, with others — his brother, the future psychologist William James, and a law graduate, John Chipman Gray — she was different: less playful, more troubled. Overwhelming questions about human possibility in the face of fate disturb her letters to these men. Why was she less serious towards Henry James? Why did she make fewer demands on her favourite, her `dearest Harry', who was the fittest to gauge her depth?.
Mary Temple left behind the mystery of those with promise who die young. An unfinished life cries out for form: this challenge took hold of James with Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady (1881), Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove (1902), and in a memoir he published in 1914. There was something uncategorisable in Minny. Like his brother William and other gifted men, he saw an uncommon spirit behind the girlish vivacity; but the uncommon was, of course, unwelcome to guardians of gender. Henry's mother — small-minded Mrs James, the ruling angel in the James house — deplored the expanse of Minny's laugh, while Henry's sister, Alice, seething with correct repression, scorned her eager response to every idea. Given the obscurity and brevity of her existence, it is hard to find the woman behind the fictions. Barring access is the safe label of girlish charm or the unsafe label of `aggressive': one implies that Mary Temple knew her place as a woman; the other, that she did not. Yet her questions — a dying plea to James or query about the purpose of living — open up an order of existence not to be defined in reductive ways..
Fenimore began to publish in 1870, the year of Minny's death. Though she differed in many ways from Minny, she provided a second model of independence. Her looks displeased her, or so she said, but photographs reveal delicate features, curly hair, and a classic profile, set off by a narrow velvet band about her throat. As a `local colorist' of the latter half of the nineteenth century, Constance Fenimore Woolson did participate in a genre going out of fashion at the time of her death, yet as a watcher of women's lives — the single woman, the exile, the artist — she now invites renewed attention. Her innovative fables of artists precede those of Henry James..
This biography will draw out these two women in their own terms, marking the points at which they intersect with the shaping consciousness of Henry James. It is easy to see how he put his stamp on them, and made them `Jamesian'. The mystery is why he kept them under wraps: his reasons for doing so, and for the weird behaviour which the circumstances of Fenimore's death provoked, remain to be uncovered. He did not forget them; on the contrary, they return obsessively in his works..
By LYNDALL GORDON