'It was said of her that she never failed to win a person if she desired to do so, for her charm was potent and well-nigh irresistible. There were many who came under the spell and the spell was lasting...she was able to draw out of people the best that was in them, while giving them in return the most inspiring and comfortable comprehension.'
I've no idea where I heard about The Open Door by Elizabeth Maguire published by Other Press and I certainly knew nothing about Constance Fenimore Woolson but I think Clare Bendict's assessment of her in 1930 suggests that Constance was a very astute listener if nothing else.
She was of course a great deal more.
I am warming increasingly to the premise of fiction which takes real people and builds a novel around factual events, more to add to the lesser known Faction genre.
First things first, nice sized small hardback with rough cut page edges which suit the era and well-spaced text which doesn't migrate into the spine of the book. I think I'm getting worse as I get older but if I open a book with a tiny close-spaced font and just more line-width than the eye copes with comfortably I get all crotchety.
Born in 1840 in Claremont, New Hampshire (where I do hope they have a statue) Constance was a writer, the grandneice of James Fenimore Cooper, he of Last of the Mohicans fame, and a woman who dreamt of artistic friendships, so a letter of introduction to Henry James enough to make Constance up sticks for Europe and seek out the great man.
Classed as 'second rate regional scribbler' Constance was by no means assured of an audience, Henry allocating but an hour a day to devote to 'reviewing his invitations and engagements.'
What Henry has not bargained for was a woman with an intellect as fierce and as penetrating as his own and an unlikely friendship flourishes, except Constance is no sycophant.
Elizabeth Maguire invests Constance with an innate authorial wisdom and an assertiveness which makes her a perfect judge of Henry's character. She really can read him like a book and is no slouch with her own ideas not only on the art of fiction but also the art of friendship and literary greatness, death of the author arguments and much more. Henry only gets one chance to damn Constance's literary achievements with faint praise in a published review,
' Ah Harry, I knew what you were trying to do. You wanted the world to think you were bestowing a great favour upon me. But nothing could have hurt more than those words of faint praise. It was no accident that you published this essay in the same magazine that has provided such a welcome home to my writing.'
Henry's goose now well and truly cooked though he remains far too above it all to admit the error of his ways and Constance far too gracious to point it out to him.
Urged by Henry's sister Alice to marry him and offer Henry a respectable guise for his less respectable amours, Constance will have none of it,
' James Family I wanted to shout, the world does not revolve around you.'
Independent and free-thinking, and very much in control of her own destiny, Constance forges her own path as a
writer beneath the ever-present leaden cloud of excruciating pains in her
ear and what emerges is a fiesty likeable woman who now seems to have very few books in print and of course I want to read them yesterday.
I'm sufficiently intrigued to try and track some down and in the meantime I really should read Colm Toibin's The Master, shouldn't I?