Reading Group Guide
Anne Boyd Rioux
"Biography at its best aims at resurrection. Anne Boyd Rioux has brought the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson back to life for us. Hurrah!" —Robert D. Richardson, author of the Bancroft Prize–winning William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism
These questions are designed for discussion, which means there are no easy answers. A life, just like a text, is open to interpretation. Some of these are questions that the author asked herself as she was researching and writing about Constance Fenimore Woolson’s life. See how you feel about Woolson’s life and support your views with evidence from the biography.
- Where do you see parallels between Woolson’s life and/or career and the lives and careers of women writers today? Similarly, where do you see Woolson’s life overlapping with your own?
- How does Woolson’s life story compare to that of other nineteenth-century women whose biographies you are familiar with?
- One of the main themes of Woolson’s life story is the tensions between her own ambitions and what was expected of her as a woman. Are there still taboos against ambition for women today?
- Another main theme is the search for a home. Did you identify with Woolson’s desire for a home and/or envy her ability to travel? How does Woolson seem to define home? How do you define home?
- Do you agree with Woolson, as she told Henry James, that the primary goal of literature should be to make the reader feel? What do you look for in a good book? Do you want it to make you think, make you feel, both, or something else?
- What role did Woolson’s relationships with men play in her life? Which men were most important to her and why? Alternatively, what role did her relationships with women play in her life? Why do you think she seemed to have more male friends than female?
- How did you feel about Woolson’s relationship with Henry James? How would you define it? Was he a positive influence in her life?
- Do you agree with those, including Henry James, who believe that Woolson deliberately chose to end her life? If so, why do you think she made that choice? If not, what leads you to believe that her death could have been accidental? (There is more discussion of this issue in the endnotes to chapter 15.)
- Do you see Woolson’s life as inspirational, either overall or in certain aspects? Would you define her as a success or a failure ultimately, and why? Do you see her as overcoming or as succumbing to obstacles in her way?
- What do you wish Woolson had been able to accomplish in her life that eluded her?
- Although the word “feminist” had not been invented yet when Woolson was alive, do you think she can be considered a feminist role model? Why or why not? If she were alive today, do you think she would call herself a feminist?
Which of Woolson’s novels or stories would you like to read? See if it is available in print (in Miss Grief and Other Stories, also available from W. W. Norton, or in a reprint edition). If not, you may be able to find an e-text online. After reading it, what surprised you about it? How does it compare to other nineteenth-century authors you have read?
Read the stories in Miss Grief and Other Stories for an overview of some of her best stories. Which did you like best, and why?
Read Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Where do you find similarities between Isabel Archer and Woolson?
Read Henry James’s The Beast in the Jungle for its evocation of his grief after Woolson’s death.
About Anne Boyd Rioux
Anne Boyd Rioux is a professor of English at the University of New Orleans and president of the Woolson Society. A recipient of two NEH fellowships, she is the author of Wielding the Pen and Writing for Immortality.
Books by Anne Boyd Rioux
"Biography at its best aims at resurrection. Anne Boyd Rioux has brought the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson back to life for us. Hurrah!" —Robert D. Richardson, author of the Bancroft Prize–winning William James: In the Maelstrom of American ModernismMore
To celebrate her forthcoming biography of Constance Fenimore Woolson, Anne Boyd Rioux has selected the best of this classic writer’s stories.More