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literature

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Woolson, Constance Fenimore (1840-1894)  
 
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The story is also significant for its connection between sexual expression and art. Catherine is a mediocre painter at best, arguably because she has been forced to repress her erotic feelings for Christine and will not allow them to inspire her work. Woolson obviously feels a good deal of sympathy for both Felipa and Catherine, but in the end, the story presents a rather bleak picture for women who desire other women: either they must repress their desire to gain social acceptance, or express it at the risk of social ridicule and unhappiness.

The theme of lesbian sexuality and its connection to art in "Felipa" opens the possibility of reading "Miss Grief" as another lesbian artist story. Woolson's overt theme attacks the male-dominated publishing industry that refuses to take a woman writer's art seriously. But encoded in the story are hints that Aaronna Moncrief is a lesbian and that her writing contains homoerotic themes. The evidence lies primarily in Aaronna's appearance and behavior, both of which reflect the emerging discourse on sexual inversion, and in the frequent use of the term "perversity"--one of the most frequently used terms in association with sexual inversion--to describe her writing.

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"Miss Grief" appears to reverse the situation of the lesbian artist as it appears in "Felipa." Catherine cannot produce great art because she has repressed her homoerotic desire and kept it from her painting; Aaronna Moncrief expresses her desire in writing that is filled with "earnestness, passion and power" only to face ridicule and rejection at the hands of male publishers and to die unknown in abject poverty.

Two of Woolson's novels, Jupiter Lights (1886) and Horace Chase (1894) are also notable for their lesbian themes. Jupiter Lights centers on an erotically-charged bond between Eve Bruce and the former wife of her dead brother, Cicely Morrison, who has married an abusive man less than six months after Jack Bruce's death.

In Horace Chase, Woolson's last novel, the sculptress Maude Muriel Mackintosh smokes a clay pipe and shows unusual fondness for her female companion, Miss Billy Breeze. The character Maude was likely influenced by the nineteenth-century sculptress, Harriet Hosmer, who lived in Charlotte Cushman's lesbian household in Rome between 1858 and 1865. She is certainly one of the earliest literary representations of the "New Woman" figured as "mannish lesbian."

Outside of her fiction, evidence of Woolson's interest in homoerotic themes appears in her review of Alice Perry's novel Esther Pennefather, published in the October 1878 "Contributors Club" section of the Atlantic Monthly. She describes the novel as an "utterly ridiculous book" in which "there is not in the whole volume a single man worthy of the name; nothing but a chorus of women, chasing each madly along, doing the most extraordinary things for the most senseless reasons." Despite this ridiculousness, however, Woolson admires the novel's "originality" in theme, which she describes as "the singular power one woman sometimes has over another," and as "a woman's adoration of another woman." She asserts: "There is such a thing. I myself have seen the tears of joy, the uttermost faith, and deepest devotion, in mature, well-educated, and cultivated women, for some other woman whom they adored; have seen an absorption for months of every thought."

Woolson is significant to the study of emerging homosexual identities in America because "Felipa" and "Miss Grief" are two of the earliest stories to incorporate the new medical discourse of sexual inversion, "Felipa" preceding James's The Bostonians (1886) by a full decade. Moreover, her stories display a startlingly modern self-consciousness about lesbian desire and its effects on the female artist who chooses either to repress or to express it--a self-consciousness that anticipates the growing dilemma of lesbian writers during the early part of the twentieth century.

Kristin M. Comment

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literature >> Overview:  American Literature: Nineteenth Century

Although sometimes coded as romantic friendship, both gay male and lesbian attractions are reflected in nineteenth-century American poetry and fiction, including works by such major figures as Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson.

literature >> Overview:  Romantic Friendship: Female

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, intimate, exclusive, and often erotic romantic friendships between women were largely perceived as normal and socially acceptable.

social sciences >> Boston Marriages

Boston marriages--romantic unions between women that were usually monogamous but not necessarily sexual--flourished in the late nineteenth-century between women who tended to be college-educated, feminist, financially independent, and career-minded.

arts >> Cushman, Charlotte

One of the most famous actresses of the nineteenth century, Charlotte Cushman was a commanding presence both on and off stage; she used her fortune and fame to champion the work of other women artists, among them her lover Emma Stebbins.

arts >> Hosmer, Harriet Goodhue

American sculptor Harriet Hosmer, among a handful of successful women artists in the nineteenth century, frequently scandalized the polite society of her day by her mannish dress and adventurous behavior.

literature >> James, Henry

Though closeted, Henry James had a number of intimate relations with young men, and his sexual orientation imbued his fiction.

literature >> Symonds, John Addington

John Addington Symonds was the most daring innovator in the history of nineteenth-century British homosexual writing and consciousness.

social sciences >> Ulrichs, Karl Heinrich

Nineteenth-Century German activist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs was both the first modern theorist of homosexuality and the first homosexual to "come out" publicly.


    Bibliography
   

Comment, Kristin M. "Lesbian 'Impossibilities' of 'Miss Grief's' 'Armor.'" Constance Fenimore Woolson's Nineteenth Century: Essays. Victoria Brehm, ed. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2001. 207-223.

Dean, Sharon L. Constance Fenimore Woolson: Homeward Bound. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995.

Edel, Leon. Henry James: The Middle Years. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1962.

Faderman, Lillian, ed. Chloe Plus Olivia: An Anthology of Lesbian Literature from the Seventeenth Century to the Present. New York: Penguin, 1994.

Gordon, Lyndall. A Private Life of Henry James: Two Women and His Art. New York: Norton, 1999.

Koppelman, Susan, ed. Two Friends And Other Nineteenth-Century Lesbian Stories by American Women Writers. New York: Meridian, 1994.

Moore, Rayburn S. Constance Fenimore Woolson. New York: Twayne, 1963.

Torsney, Cheryl. Constance Fenimore Woolson: The Grief of Artistry. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989.

_____, ed. Critical Essays on Constance Fenimore Woolson. New York: G.K. Hall, 1992.

Weimer, Joan Myers. Women Artists, Women Exiles: "Miss Grief" and Other Stories. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Comment, Kristin M.  
    Entry Title: Woolson, Constance Fenimore  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated August 25, 2004  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/woolson_cf.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  
 

 

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