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  1. Book ImageMiss Grief and Other Stories

    Constance Fenimore Woolson, Anne Boyd Rioux, Colm Tóibín

    To celebrate her forthcoming biography of Constance Fenimore Woolson, Anne Boyd Rioux has selected the best of this classic writer’s stories.

Discussion Questions

  1. Which story was your favorite, and why? Did you have more than one favorite?
  2. Which character(s) from the stories do you most vividly remember and why? Did you have any favorites? What drew you to them? Alternatively, did you find yourself reacting strongly against a character? If so, why? Did any of them remind you of people you know?
  3. Did you notice any common themes among the stories, or similarities between characters? Which ideas or issues seem to preoccupy Woolson?
  4. Woolson felt that the most important goal of literature was to make readers feel. What did you feel while reading these stories? Which ones made you feel more than the others? Were there particular characters with whom you were most sympathetic? Why or why not?
  5. Compare/contrast the narrator of “Miss Grief” and the male characters in “A Florentine Experiment” and “In Sloane Street.” All of them have been said to reflect, in varying degrees, Woolson’s feelings about Henry James. Which did you find most/least sympathetic, and why?
  6. Many of Woolson’s characters exist on the margins of society: the wife of a religious zealot in “St. Clair Flats,” the coal miner and his wife in “Solomon,” the nun in “Sister St. Luke,” the failed woman writer in “Miss Grief,” the unmarried woman in “In Sloane Street.” Does Woolson pity, empathize, or champion such people? How does she portray them compared to the less-marginalized characters, such as the visitors in “St. Clair Flats,” “Solomon,” and “Sister St. Luke,” or the male writers in “Miss Grief” and “In Sloane Street”? Where do her sympathies lie, and how does she convey that?
  7. Setting plays a very large role in Woolson’s stories. Some have described place as almost a character in her fiction. Would you agree? Which places were most memorable? Could you visualize the maze-like straights in “St. Clair Flats” or the coastal swampland of “Sister St. Luke”?
  8. Have you been to any of the locations described in Woolson’s stories? Zoar, Ohio, in “Solomon”; St. Augustine, Florida, in “Sister St. Luke”; Florence in “A Florentine Experiment”; London in “In Sloane Street”? Compare your memories of these places with how they are described by Woolson. How much have they changed since Woolson’s day?
  9. Each of the stories, except perhaps “Rodman the Keeper,” contains a married couple or a romantic relationship, either at the center of the story or on the margins. How would you say Woolson characterizes love and marriage—positively, negatively, or ambivalently?
  10. Although not particularly known for her humor, Woolson has struck some readers as quite funny. What do you think? Did you smile or laugh while reading any of the stories? If so, which characters or lines struck you as humorous or witty?
  11. Do Woolson’s stories generally end unhappily or happily? Compare the endings of “Miss Grief” and “A Florentine Experiment.” Which do you prefer, and why? Sometimes it’s difficult to say whether the ending is happy or not. How would you characterize the endings of “Rodman the Keeper” and “Sister St. Luke,” for instance?
  12. Can you imagine any of the stories as films? Which ones? If you were the director, whom would you cast in the main roles? And what changes would you make to the setting or plot? For instance, would you keep the time and place the same? And would you keep the ending as it is?

Further Reading

For the full story of Woolson’s life and career, for which the introduction provides an overview, read Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist. What surprised you about her life, after reading her stories? In particular, you can compare Anne Boyd Rioux’s portrait of Woolson’s relationship with Henry James and the Henry James–inspired characters in “Miss Grief,” “A Florentine Experiment,” and “In Sloane Street.” You can also consider the autobiographical elements of her stories. How do you see her fiction growing out of her life?

Read Henry James’s “The Lesson of the Master” and compare/contrast it with “In Sloane Street.” What do they each seem to be saying about the possibility of combining love and art? Compare the perspectives from which the stories are told and consider how they affect the themes and conclusions the stories reach.

Read Henry James’s “Daisy Miller” (1878) and compare/contrast with “A Florentine Experiment” (1880).

Read Edith Wharton’s 1901 story “The Rembrandt” and compare it to Woolson’s “Miss Grief.” Do you think Wharton could have been influenced by Woolson, although she never acknowledged an influence?

Books by Constance Fenimore Woolson

  1. Book CoverMiss Grief and Other Stories

    To celebrate her forthcoming biography of Constance Fenimore Woolson, Anne Boyd Rioux has selected the best of this classic writer’s stories.More

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

  1. Book CoverConstance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist

    "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

  2. Book CoverMiss Grief and Other Stories

    To celebrate her forthcoming biography of Constance Fenimore Woolson, Anne Boyd Rioux has selected the best of this classic writer’s stories.More

Books by Colm Tóibín