The Open Door

by Elizabeth Maguire

Reviewed by Nancy Klingener
of Bone Island Books

The Open Door by Elizabeth Maguire To the extent Constance Fenimore Woolson is remembered at all, it is primarily as a minor, though popular at the time, woman novelist who was foolishly in love with Henry James. The Open Door, a novel written in the form of a memoir by Woolson, presents a far different version from the one featured in literary histories.

According to the novel, she is a remarkable, determined and admirable woman who revered James as a writer and avidly sought his friendship – on an intellectual level. With James, she is "the Constance I most wanted to be …" and their relationship is a "marriage not of body, but of minds." Her real love is another famous man from that time, Clarence King, founder of the U.S. Geological Survey but never a success in life. "Henry was a passion of the mind; King was, quite simply, a passion." (King’s double life – he was married to a black woman using a false name; she believed he was a Pullman porter – is detailed in Passing Strange by Martha Sandweiss.)

What Woolson truly longs for, though, is independence from the demands of society and family. And she longs for artistic fulfillment. This may be a case of "wouldn’t it be pretty to think so," but the novel makes a heartfelt and persuasive case for the complex inner life of an intelligent, passionate woman. I’d like to believe this version, if only because it is so much more reassuring than the Woolson in history books – who finally died of a fall from a Venice balcony, widely believed to be suicide. According to The Five of Hearts by Patricia O’Toole, James quickly decided Woolson’s death was the result of "some sudden explosion of latent brain disease." She had influenza at the time and there is definitely a sense of impending mortality as The Open Door proceeds. This is especially poignant because the author, Elizabeth Maguire, died of ovarian cancer shortly after finishing the book. (2008, 236 pages)

More about The Open Door at Powell's Books or

Fiction by Constance Fenimore Woolson:

For the Major (1883), a novella that is probably Woolson's most widely admired work. More info

Rodman the Keeper: Southern Sketches (1880), a collection of short stories based on Woolson's travels in the South during winter visits to her mother in St. Augustine, Florida. More info

Anne (1880), Woolson's first novel. More info

Other novels featuring Woolson as a character:

Felony by Emma Tennant (2002). More info

The Master by Colm Toibin (2004), about Henry James. More info

Author, Author by David Lodge (2004). More info

Nonfiction about Woolson and the people in her life:

The Five of Hearts by Patricia O'Toole (2006). More info

A Private Life of Henry James: Two Women and His Art by Lyndall Gordon (1998). More info

Passing Strange by Martha Sandweiss (2009). More info


Constance Fenimore Woolson at the Washington State University website

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