Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The Lover of a Palestinian

Selim Nassib’s The Palestinian Lover presents the possibility of an impossible relationship: a love affair between Gold Meir and a Lebano-Palestinian banker, Albert Pharaon.  Golda is in her thirties, committed to the Jewish State, Eretz Israel, and Albert is older and sanguine, and disgusted with his own class of partying and corrupt Arab aristocrats.

The novel places the characters firmly in the historical setting of a Jewish settlement supported by Great Britain in Palestine in the early 1920s, and then follows them through the initial years of immigration and strong leadership of the Jewish state, and the increasing uneasiness and unrest of the Arab population, including the Hebron Massacre in 1929; into the 1930s with British waffling on Jewish immigration into Palestine and the changes in immigration as the situation in Germany and Eastern Europe deteriorates; into the 1940s with the world’s discovery of the horrors of the Holocaust; and finally, in 1948, the establishment of the state of Israel and the beginning of a separated Palestine, one Jewish and one Arab, and the eviction of seven thousand  Palestinians from Haifa and other towns newly allocated to Israel.

The novel raises the questions — without asking them outright — of cultural and religious identity and birthright:  what do these concepts mean, really?  Golda is in Palestine to create a Jewish state, coming from Kiev via Milwaukee, and Albert and his family have lived in the Levant, Lebanon and Palestine, for hundreds of years.  Golda has a religious ancestral claim to the lands that Albert feels just as bound to through historical ancestry.  Who has the superior claim?  Does anyone have a birthright to land?

Albert rejects the decadence and abuses of his class and yet he embraces and supports the Arab people that are organically tied to the country they have survived on for centuries:  their physical attachment to the land is “the very substance of history.”  Yet he also recognizes that “Golda …was bound in that organic way to this earth.  She would never leave.  Come what may, her attachment to the land would be as strong as the [Arab] peasants.

Ada, a Jewish refugee from German, is offered as a contrast.  Nazi Germany has stripped her of her German identity: she feels more German than Jewish but now she must identify herself as Jewish.  When fighting escalates in Palestine between the Jews and the Arabs, she chooses to leave, once again a refugee from war.  Albert lets her go because he knows that “Ada had nothing to do with this country.  She had not come to this land because she desired it, her destiny was not inextricably linked to that of the land.”  Is Ada the lucky one, even though she was portrayed as rootless and flaky?  She has no historical ties that will bind her to lands to the point of fighting for them. She would never ascribe to what Golda proclaims, looking out over a kibbutz in 1923, that “no society can survive if it refuses to sacrifice its children” (alluding to Abraham).  Ada would not consider herself lucky: there is nothing she wants more than to return to Germany but the country she knew and identified herself with, is gone forever.

Identity is also examined as an exercise in choices: whom you love, whom you protect, what or whom you will fight for, will define who you are, and even more so than your ancestral identity. Both Albert and Golda are stalwart in support of their loves, but for Golda the beloved is a state, and an ideal; for Albert his beloved are certain and specific people, including Golda.

Written without diatribe or anger or condescension, this novel is a quiet and deep exploration of identity.  When self-identity is bound up with land — as in the lands of Israel and Palestine — the fierceness of attachment to that land creates bonds that make hostages out of everyone living there. Can a release be negotiated?  Nassib does not try to answer that question but he ends with Golda visiting Albert in a dream: “She is looking through him, he has become transparent.  He is afraid, she is so real.  She is still talking, he cannot concentrate anymore, but who is she talking to?

The Palestinian Lover was translated by Alison Anderson.

Joyce Carol Oates: Drowning Revelations

Yesterday I read Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates.  It is a re-telling of the awful night in July 1969 when Ted Kennedy drove a car into a pond on Chappaquiddick Island: he escaped the sinking car but his passenger, 28-year old Mary Jo Kopechne was left in the car and died. Kennedy left the scene and did not call authorities until after Kopechne’s body was discovered the following day.  In Oates’ fictionalized version, much remains the same but slight changes have been made: the Senator is certainly Kennedy, but the young girl is now a woman named Kelly (who graduated from Brown and wrote her senior thesis on the Senator), the car is driven into a swamp on an island of Maine, not Martha’s Vineyard and the date is July 4th in the late 1980s instead of July 18, 1969.

The “chance meeting” between Kelly and the Senator at a party earlier that day is retold in chapters that are interspersed with chapters detailing horrifically but without excess the evening’s accident and its aftermath:  “the black water flooded over the crumpled hoof of the car, washed over the cracked windshield, over the roof, a sudden profound darkening as if the swamp had lurched up to claim them.”  We are there with Kelly, waiting; either for rescue or for the water to overtake her and bring her death.  The moments in the water, and the drive leading up to its plunge into the water, come to us in pieces of lucidity and of dreaming.  Kelly’s life comes back in snippets of a failed love affair, scholastic achievement, youthful optimism, and scared, frozen thoughts of death coming in with the black water.

This novel has many levels and reached me in so many ways.  It is an exploration of fate and destiny, a chilling dissection of “what if”. Horoscope forecasts are intermingled with Kelly’s own decisions to go the Maine party or not.  “[H]ow it had been chance, this Fourth of July on Graylings Island“: Kelly is marveling at how chance brought her to the Senator but it is much more momentous, the decisions she made that brought her to Maine, to the Senator’s notice, and within his embrace. It is not an affair she is about to embark upon; it is the last journey of her young, and troubled, life.

On another level, Oates brings us to the horrid and vivid place of a young person recognizing that death is imminent. Death at a young age, whether from illness or accident or violence, is incomprehensible, an act against nature and against the promises made to us from childhood: we will live a long life, with time to fulfill our dreams and ambitions and pass something on.  Kelly, in those moments before she dies, does not accept the death.  She hangs onto the mantra of her upbringing: she’s a good girl, she’s an American girl, she loves her life.  And she will not lose it.  She thinks back to those times when she’s questioned that mantra, when she faltered, considered suicide, starved herself.  But she came through all that and now she is in charge. Only we know she is not in charge, not at all. The car has her pinned, the black water is rising, the senator has kicked  against her to get himself out of the car, and he will not come back.

As powerful as the imagery of impending death is in the novel, and how heartbreaking those final moments are when she still believes the Senator will come back for her and then when she sees herself as a little girl again, the most poignant and galvanizing element of this novel for me was Oates’ unabashed revelations about the American dream as sold to girls, the loneliness of youth, and the abuse of youthful exuberance and trust by older men.  It is an ugly story, and a common one.  Girls — especially good-looking ones who are hard workers and sincere — are fed the dream of having it all, of being respected for their brain but also their perfect bodies, of being wanted and desired — but they are expendable and replaceable, and used again and again, by men in power eager to get laid. The Senator has noticed Kelly and found her attractive: “she was the one, the one he’d chosen.”  From that moment, her fate was sealed.  Raised to be obedient, she will obey now.  The Senator uses his power, his prestige and his celebrity, to take her as he wishes. She never had  choice.  Fed magazine cover stories like “Dream your wishes.  [Follow] your desires for once,” she marches forward, but is it willingly?  It cannot be, when she has never felt desire herself, only a man’s desire for her.  It is her duty to respond to the man’s desire, and she will do it. The Senator has groped her, kissed her, and she can’t back out:  “I’ve made you want me, now I can’t refuse you.”  She also wants more: “if I don’t do as he asks there won’t be any later“.  She won’t give up this chance to be with her hero: “You’re an American girl, you love your life….you believe you have chosen it.”

She continues the mantra to herself that she is chosen and thus she cannot die. But the black water rises and we know she is going to die.  We hope she will not but we know the story already, it is part of American political lore, a tragic episode of deceit, fear, and abuse.

Kelly, as evoked so clearly by Oates, is vulnerable and the Senator sees that vulnerability, smells it on her and takes her for his own use. She cannot see what is happening because it is beyond her orbit of behavior: she’s been following the rules all her life and expects others to, also.  Even her late-teens rejection of her parents’ Republican mores was part and parcel with the in-step progression of her life, the necessary rebellion that did nothing more than place her on the other side of the line from her father, but left her behaving in the same way as her parents, judging herself by her father’s same measurements of success, and by her mother’s rules on men.

Her life was never hers: she relinquished it in her struggle to be good, to work hard, to perform. And her relinquishment led to the fateful decision to leave that Independence Day party (the irony!) and go off on with that drunken animal of a man, to speed off into the night, racing to catch a ferry to mainland and his motel room.  What a waste, what a terrible waste.  Given more time, she might have grown into the woman who could claim her own life, her own way, and truly love it.  Not just fake it.

Lessons from The Samurai’s Garden

The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama is a quietly compelling novel.  It tells of the  passage of a boy out of childhood: the year is 1937 and Stephen is a Chinese boy sent to recuperate in his family’s Japanese beach house following a withering bout of tuberculosis.  Separated from his friends at university, from his sister and mother whom he loves, and from the hustle and bustle of his hometown of Hong Kong, Stephen finds the quiet town of Tarumi silent and lonely.  But he pursues a friendship with the house caretaker, Matsu, and begins to find pleasure and strength in his daily swims in the ocean, time spent in Matsu’s beautiful Japanese garden, and in his painting.  As Matsu and Stephen grow closer through the season of fall and winter, Stephen learns about the leprosy that visited the little town years earlier and the resulting deaths, suicides, and the establishment of a leper colony up in the mountains.

The leper colony is both a place of protection and a place of escape; for Stephen the village of Tarumi is both protection and escape. But the outside world bears down: the Japanese are taking over China in a brutal and savage war, Stephen’s parents’ marriage is threatened by the woman his father maintains in Japan, and concepts of honor threaten relationships of friends and lovers.

The gardens in the novel are also places of protection and escape, whether it is the living garden Matsu created at the beach house with flowers and trees, bushes and moss, or the one he made of stone in the leper colony, where placed rocks and raked pebbles create illusions of rivers, mountains, and plains.  In both cases, the gardens are protected by walls but those walls can be breached by events out of human control. In the novel we see people also can create walls around themselves, through mantles of beauty or prejudice or ignorance, but that these walls too can be breached by events out of their control.

We all of us walk around in protective walls of identity (wife, husband, child, sister, brother, artist, banker, athlete, funny girl or dependable friend) and what we do and how we react when our protection — our identity — breaks down, is a test of our mettle and our endurance.  In The Samurai’s Garden, the concepts of honor and courage are defined by how the characters respond to breaches brought about by storm, fire, devastating illness, quarantine, and the actions of others (parents, soldiers, friends).  How they endure are the lessons that propel Stephen into adulthood.  He learns that there are all kinds of being alone, different types of honor and courage, and that the strongest bonds between humans come from acceptance and forgiveness.

The novel is written as Stephen’s journal entries. The sentences and words are simple but there are beautiful descriptions of landscapes and seasonal changes, as well as acute renderings of his emotions, including first love and his growing respect for qualities of resilience and endurance.  Given what is coming, Japan’s war against China folding into World War II and years of suffering in China and Hong Kong, we know that Stephen will need these qualities.  Given the example set for him by Matsu, we are confident he will endure, leaving his tuberculosis and his boyhood behind him, and carrying the beauty and strength of the little village with him always.

Master of Illusions: Alex Rose

Alex Rose writes with precise undulations of imagination and intelligence, creating brilliantly invented but perfectly believable historical phenomena in his book The Musical Illusionist.  Masquerading as a guide book to a subterranean museum called “The Library of Tangents”, each chapter in this book describes a different exhibit in the library, all of which document advances and explorations in human thought and perception, lost now to mankind above-ground but still available to visitors to the library.  The introduction (induction into the museum) and the interludes between the chapters (exhibits) are presented in eye-teasing two-page spreads of italicized words that draw you through the  museum and set you up for the next exhibit, enticing you forward in your exploration through time, numbers, sound, language, narrative, delusional cases, visual and auditory experience, and microbes (yes, microbes!).

The introduction and interludes are written with romantic twists of words.  From the intro:  “You proceed in darkness.  A gust of cool air slides over your cheeks.  A distant rattle is heard echoing through the passage ahead.  You slip the token into the slot and pass through the turnstile.”  Yes, eagerly.  From the interludes:  “At certain points, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the natural and the industrial, and often too little information is provided to make a reasonable judgment.  The colorful swirls of minereal compounds, for example, can be mistaken for the bed of an old landfill, just as the heavy sludge of chemical waste might be confused with a tress of molten alkalines.  Though some are disturbed by this eccentric interchangeability, it is precisely the sense of ambiguous estrangement, the rift between clarity and wonder, that the Library strives to evoke.  Consider, for instance, the subject of the next exhibition….

In contrast, the chapters are written so firmly that I doubted at times I was reading a book of fiction.  Rose mixes in real characters from history (Aristotle, Anaximander of Miletus, Zeno of Ilia, the Corinthians, Etienne-Jules Marey, etc.) with ones that he has imagined so perfectly ( Diophanes of Ionia, Hassan al Jafar, the Locrinthians, Phelix Lamark, etc. ), their work and their discoveries seemed perfectly plausible and quite exciting.  Rose adds in myths and fables that are charming and quite plausibly from the time he has described in that  exhibit (chapter).  An exhibit on al-Jafar, “a 9th century algorist determined put an end to all ‘accursed insolubles””, ends with the tale of a young prince who is “given a puzzle for his 18th birthday by a distant relative, but soon becomes so enchanted with the game that he forgets to age.  Ironically, while the youth is bestowed with eternal life, his is deprived of the vial moments of which it is composed.

Rose also imagines incredible places, such as Oaxaxghana (pronounced “wah-ha-ZHON-uh”), described thus:  “Skies in this region are jaundiced from successive waves of rising radioactive gas.  Vegetation is scarce: Trees are leafless and wiry and low to the ground, the ferns are of a fried-looking, brownish-purple variety, the narrow spectrum of edible fruits have a disconcertingly malty aftertaste.  Air is almost sulfuric — stale and tangy and overwarm, like the breath of a flu-ridden child” and the fifth Island of Japan, Nyogima, where, following a cataclysmic tsunami that destroyed everything, a new language developed, a communication based solely on “intricate phonemic strings….a system of metric and notational values.”

The pseudo-medical cases Rose describes are equally compelling and believable, for example the woman who replaced all her own memories with memories she took from books, commercials,  soap operas, and movies, and whose case her physician compared to a (real) painting by William Wegman made up of found postcards and an interlacing oil-paint landscape (reproduced for our perusal: there are many graphics accompanying the chapters of this book, enhancing its scholarly tone).  Another example is the man who was completely deaf to a certain piece by Chopin; when he died, a tiny hematoma was discovered in his brain that could have been the cause of his targeted deafness, versus the accepted Freudian diagnosis that he was thwarted by a “narcissistic mother.”

Although the tone of the book is scholarly and serious, Rose can be quite funny, as when he describes the Island of Santanzes.  This island was feared by the Spanish and others as hell on earth, a place ruled by Satan.  It turns out the poor Santanzese were cursed after a great epidemic in the late 16th century with “an incapacitating acuity of memory.  Or, more accurately, an inability to forget.”  Every single detail of every single day never to be forgotten?  Yes, hell on earth; Satan’s curse indeed.

For all its sparkling attributes, its intelligence, charm, stretching of imaginations and possibilities, The Musical Illusionist lacks a heartbeat.  It is brilliant and provoking and mind-bending but it is cold.  The humanity is presented clinically, even through various heartbreaks of genius denied, breakthroughs in thought lost forever, and discoveries buried or burned or drowned away. My brain was fully engaged by this novel novel, but I would have liked to have had a few heartstrings plucked as well.   For pure imagination and skill in writing (his sentences are perfectly timed, rich and satisfying, and his descriptions are mind-expanding), Rose cannot be beat; I ask only that he add in some blood to create a living work that moves both brain and soul. Neverthless, this is a collection well-worth reading.

Great Thrillers, Terrible War

Yesterday I read Drink to Yesterday, the first in a series of twenty-two spy thrillers written in the years between 1939 and 1959 by British spy Cyril Coles and his neighbor Adelaide Frances Oake Manning.  The series stars the very English, very brave, and quite laconic yet brilliantly resourceful British secret service agent Tommy Hambledon. Hambledon and his crew of spies are very good at what they do, like infiltrating the German intelligence agency and sabotaging German strategies, but they are not super heroes: they make mistakes, innocent people die, and war goes marching on, leaving those still standing scarred inside and out.

I read the second in the Tommy Hambledon series, A Toast to Tomorrow, before the first, but the backwards chronology didn’t hinder my enjoyment:  I loved both of these books.  The novels are exciting but also very gritty and real, with no excess of war or savagery or misery or deprivation: just the facts, and the facts are powerful enough. The facts come from Cyril Coles’ personal experiences as a very young man, lying about his age to join the British army during the first years of World War I in and being quickly brought into espionage because of his facility with the German language.  This wartime spying is not cloak and dagger stuff, no elaborate plans of hidden meeting places and code words and discreet handing off of packages.  The spying that goes on is intelligent but it is also, by necessity, done by the seat of the pants, it is  spontaneous and resourceful, and effective only when luck is working for the British that day.

Drink to Yesterday is far more somber than A Toast to Tomorrow. The book begins as Britain is drawn into war against Germany and British males are urged to do the honorable thing and join up.  Join up they do and sent off they are, to Ireland to quell the rebellions, to Belgium and France to fight the “Jerries”, and to shipyards in England to build the machinery of war. Drink to Yesterday is masterful at portraying what happens to these young and idealistic young men.  A few months in the trenches ages a man fast and furious, changing  him beyond the understanding of those he’s left behind in Britain, even as difficult as daily life does become in a rationed and deprived Britain. Pat Barker explores brilliantly the more profound and far-reaching mental and physical disabilities that maim the men of World War I in her Regeneration trilogy but the Manning Coles spy novels do a good job of explaining the changes that occurred for every soldier that while not permanently disabling were permanently altering.  Alteration of a personality, of an outlook, can be a form of disability when those at home who have known you all your life can no longer understand you or know what you have been through “over there.”

Because the story of Drink to Yesterday is based almost entirely on Coles’ personal experiences in the war, the novel is genuine in both fact and emotion.  These are not generic or embroidered-together experiences of trench warfare, Coles was there and he felt disgust as the rats climbed over his body, he felt fear as he saw new friends blown apart, and he felt desperately lonely as he heard the roar of German planes overhead.  The tales of war time spying are real as well; Coles was actually placed behind enemy lines to infiltrate German intelligence, he played his role and killed when necessary, and he was burdened with the knowledge of what he had done, for his country but against his humanity.

Drink to Yesterday concludes with the defeat of Germany at the end of World War I but there is little to rejoice about: too many men died, too much poverty and misery have resulted, and the world is altered, irrevocably and yet without any wisdom gained.  Within twenty years another world war will begin.  There was no happy ending to World War I and there is no happy ending to Drink to Yesterday.  But there is much for the reader to learn and to enjoy in the novel and in its successor, A Toast to Tomorrow.  They are the best spy thrillers I’ve ever read, and even more, they are moving and personal portrayals of the costs of war.

Terror with the Tudors

Yesterday I read Revelation by C.J. Sansom.  It is the latest and the fourth in his series of Matthew Shardlake mysteries, set in Tudor England.  These historical mysteries are great; they are based on historically accurate incidents from which Sansom has drawn fabricated but truly compelling stories of political and religious intrigue (the two were even more tightly entwined than today), and, always, murder.

Sansom’s hero (and mine), the humpbacked lawyer Shardlake, is drawn into the intrigues, usually against his will, because of his intelligence and because of his neutrality in the never-ending political struggles.  He is rightfully frightened of becoming involved in those battles, where to end up on the weaker side means to end up dead — or imprisoned. But using his wits and his few trusted friends,including a Black ex-Monk and doctor and his right-hand man of Jewish ancestry, Shardlake stays alive and solves a few mysteries as well.

In Revelation, a serial killer is on the loose, a murderous maniac obsessed with the explicit and violent prophecies from the Book of Revelation.  I had never know that the Book of Revelation was contested as being a true gospel (word of God) by prominent Christians including John Calvin and Martin Luther.  My own research found that Thomas Jefferson called Revelation “merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams.”

I always learn so much reading Sansom’s books. His books are full of many tasty (as well as some very unsavory) tidbits of English history and as a rigorous researcher, his facts line up with the history books and his stories don’t stray far from the believable.  His first novel, Dissolution,  was set at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, orchestrated and led by Cromwell.  Dark Fire revolves around a plot involving alchemists, a secret chemical weapon, and the slipping fate of Cromwell, as Henry VIII looks to protect himself and get rid of yet another wife.  Sovereign was incredibly gripping, with its plot line of hidden papers revealing the true genealogy of Henry VIII (the blood was not blue) and set amidst the Henry VIII’s grand march to York. Cromwell is long gone, executed like so many others, and Henry VIII is marching to York with his present queen, Catherine Howard, in an effort to quell the rebellious stirrings in the North of England.  The facts that Sansom weaves in are fascinating: the King traveled with an entourage of thousands, including horses, soldiers, noblemen, servants, livery, clergy, carpenters, entertainers, and privy diggers. In Revelation, Henry VIII is now wooing his final wife, Catherine Parr: she is a religious reformist (against the rituals of Rome) and reformers hope she will draw Henry back from the traditional tendencies he is drifting towards, after scorning them so soundly under Cromwell.

Sansom’s books are dense with detail and plot, rich with characters and landscape.  Shardlake ends up prevailing in the end (we are satisfied) but his victory of uncovering truth is marred, always, by the reality of how the truth must be concealed and by the bodies left on the floor: although Shardlake is able to untangle the mysteries presented to him and save some of those endangered by the political and religious swords swinging wildly from reformist to traditional, he can never save everyone.  And so the poor hunchback is saddled as literally as he is figuratively with the heavy double yoke of guilt for those he could not save and inadequacy for those he could not help.  In other words, he is a very human character; we sympathize with him, feel his pain and his sorrow, and we breathe of sigh of relief whenever he manages to save himself, one more time, from imminent torture or death.

The Open Door: Women Writing About Life

I read an amazing book yesterday. The Open Door by Elizabeth Maguire is a fictionalized account of the life of Constance Fenimore Woolson (grandniece of James Fenimore Cooper).  She was a nineteenth century “women’s” writer, and very popular in her time.  After the mother she’d cared for and supported for years (with her writing) died, Woolson set off to Europe for adventure and new sights.  She also hoped to finally meet her hero, Henry James.  They met, they became friends, they were close for years.  When Woolson died, James made sure all letters between them were burned.  And so we have the makings of a novel.  Was Woolson as portrayed by James’ fans, a second-rate writer and spinster who wanted James to marry her and hounded him to do so?  Or was she as presented here, an independent thinking, free-wheeling and free-loving, wholly honest and admirable, and very American woman?

At first it bothered me that I could not tell what was fiction and what was fact but as the novel went on, I didn’t care.  For me, now, Woolson will always be as Maguire made her for me, an amazing woman I wished I had known, and who had a fabulous life.  Without a man, or kids, or admiration of the literary world, but with what she valued most: her freedom, her independence, and her own true self.  According to Maguire, Woolson always kept a copy of the works of the Stoic Epictetus at her side and one favorite quotation was “Is freedom anything else other than the right to live as we wish?  Nothing else.”  Woolson did live as she wished, often solitary, always busy, and wholly herself.

Maguire captivated me early on in the novel (but after a somewhat silly scene involving swimming naked off Mackinac Island) by giving me a personal and intimate audience with Woolson.  Woolson’s thoughts come across as a conversation, a story told with lyrical yet simple phrasing: “Have you ever been heartbroken to finish a book?  Has a writer kept whispering in your ear long after the last page is turned?  Did you ever long to meet that person who sees the world with your eyes, so that you can continue the conversation?”  Yes, Yes, Yes!  I yelled.  And I understood her explanation of why she set off to Europe to meet Henry James.

Maguire imagines scenes between James and Woolson that seem very true and spontaneous.  For example, Woolson is excusing her simple apartment in Rome to the visiting James (who has more opulent tastes) by saying, “All I need are the things I love and a table to write on.”  He responds, “Well, you have surrounded yourself with so many things, Fenimore, that one can only surmise you possess an extremely promiscuous heart.”  Yes, she loved many things, and people, and places.

I think that Maguire (who tragically died at the age of 48 from cancer) had a really good time writing this novel.  She seems to have fun with Woolson’s words and thoughts and she did a good job giving us the woman and the writer.  She has Woolson express so many wishes and desires and satisfactions that I understood down through my spine, like, when she asks, “Is there anything more luxurious than selling descriptions of pink villas and terraces and the gorgeous Bay of Naples to a magazine?”  I cannot imagine anything better than to travel and be paid for it, and I bet Maguire felt the same way.  Woolson lived that way, writing for Harpers and Atlantic magazine, writing her stories and novels and travel pieces, and making her way through the world.

Maguire also had fun portraying James as a priggish jerk, his sister Alice as self-absorbed, and Woolson’s lover Clarence King as “the most purely American creation, more devoted to personal freedom than any creature….”, all the while having her heroine accept the people in her life, foibles and all.  Woolson was forgiving; Maguire perhaps not so much.

The title of this novel, “The Open Door”, refers to a nasty review James wrote of her work (but couched in terms of friendship and admiration) in which he spoke of  “the way the door stands open between the personal life of American women and the immeasurable world of print” and how the “conservative” nature of Woolson’s  writing ensures she wants nothing more than to stay inside a women’s life, restricted and ruled by those with power over her. Nothing could have been further from the truth, according to Maguire, according to biographers of Woolson, and according to the heroines of her own short stories and novels.  Her most famous story, “Miss Grief”, is about a female artist of talent and drive who comes up against  a male power player whom she has admired, and from whom praise or advice would be welcome; instead he shuts her down and refuses to admit that her genius is as real and full as his own. Written before her friendship with James developed, it was however uncannily correct in its forecast of how she herself would be treated by him.

Woolson wrote liberally but tactfully about social issues many male writers were afraid to address; in addition, her acceptance of the equality of blacks and whites, and her understanding of the tensions in Europe, the problems with class distinctions and ethnocentricity, were indications of her broad and brilliant mind.  Constance Fenimore Woolson is definitely on my list of people from the past I would like to invite to dinner.  Elizabeth Maguire is too, for that matter.