It was my third trip to Venice, the last leg of a research quest to uncover something new about the elusive American author, Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840-1854). I was working on my next book, The She-Novelist in Venice. Like Henry James had, I referred to her as Fenimore, as if we were on such informal speaking terms, as if I knew her better than most. I did not. But somehow as I delved further into her life and death, it felt like I was closer to her, closer to knowing her mind. Or that was this writer’s wish.
There were other researchers on her trail, but that hadn’t bothered me since I was writing fiction. I was going to fill in around the skeletal facts of her brief fifty-four years of life. Yet, as I discovered and uncovered more, the desire to write just a fictional account lessened. I wanted to write something as close as possible to her truth. To imagine, as accurately as possible, how she lived and what prompted her to leave this world sooner than expected. Or is that even fair to say? Sooner than I wanted her to go? What did I know of her struggles?
On my first trip to Venice, I was lucky to get into Fenimore’s top floor Grand Canal apartment. I barely knew someone who knew the current owners. They kindly let me in, offered me coffee, and encouraged me to look around the seven-room apartment with the servant quarters up a small staircase. I was so giddy with the fact of being inside her apartment, I didn’t take notes or pictures—some researcher, but I did count everything—how many steps to her doorway, how many steps to the window overlooking the water, and how many steps from the bedroom to the window where she possibly plummeted to her death. I had to guess the last measurement as that section of the apartment had been converted into a studio. But I was embarrassed by my good fortune. I am not the kind of person to let random people into my home. I felt like I was imposing. The current owners knew of Fenimore and her tragic end, but were not sure which side of the apartment she used to facilitate her death. Did I know? I didn’t reply. She loved to swim. Her gondolier took her daily to the Lido for a soak. I am confident that she would have saved herself if she had dived or been driven into water. Though Fenimore jumped or fell from her bedroom, which faced the calle, I could not help but peer through the window on the water’s side and wonder if she thought of killing herself this way? Fenimore made it clear that if and when she did pass away that she wanted to be buried in The Protestant Cemetery in Rome. No floating cemetery for her. She was averse to the idea of being buried on the island of San Michelle, the final resting place for most Venetians in 1894.
The second time I was researching in Venice, I explored the Campanile at San Marco’s Square, the church tower across the water at San Gregore Maggiore, and then the one over on the Island of Torcello. She climbed them all. Today, only on Torcello can you climb round and round to the top. The other two have elevators as the only option. When Fenimore was alive, according to a Baedeker from the 1890s it took 38 bends to get up the Campanile, and 32 spiral bindings to get to the top of San Gregore Maggore. I counted 85 steps when I climbed to the top at Torcello. The views were magnificent from all towers. Yet, the island of Torcello has its charm. It is much less crowded, as most of the tourist don’t venture that far. When I ascended, the wooden stairs felt old and a bit creaky. I was sure I was stepping where she had stepped more than 100 years ago. I could imagine her looking out at all the islands, looking back at Venice proper, gazing at the dripping lavender-rose sky one only sees in this part of the world. There would have been a few people on the island but it was mostly deserted, like now. On this trip I spent more time just walking in her footsteps from the Accademia Bridge to Caffe Florian, from The Doge’s Palace along the Riva delgli Schiavoni to the spot where her pal Henry James penned Portrait of a Lady, and just beyond where she paid some sailors five francs for a Pomeranian spitz, she named Tello, to keep her company. But I was unsettled. So many unanswered questions remained. Still, the allure of Venice brought me back again. Some of the research is just experiencing where she lived, looking at the horizon she gazed at, floating along the Grand Canal as she did, so often each day. She was lucky to have two gondoliers to call on. A trip by gondola to Torcello then and today, according to the gondoliers I queried, would take at least two hours. And as they shook their heads, weary from the thought, they said I would need two gondoliers to get me there. And a pile of euros.
Last year I took my family along for the third trip. We were lucky to find an apartment that looked out onto the water, with the Arsenale to our left and the opening of the Grand Canal to the right. We were minutes from San Marco’s Square, but even better we had a room with a terrific view. I wanted them to see what Fenimore saw, much of it unchanged. Those first nights of jet-lag were made easier by being able to gaze out into the basin. The boats were docked until dawn but they knocked against each other as the sea waves came and went. A few people walked by in the dead of night. But one could only be right here in Venice, mesmerized by the muted lights and transfixed by the sound and sight of the water. Even during the heat of the day, we purchased sandwiches and returned to our lodgings just so we could sit and gaze out at the crowds of tourists passing by or at nothing at all. This trip was more for pleasure than work, but I did try to find the elusive nun who had stayed with Fenimore right before she died. I found the religious order that was supposed to have historical information on Sister Alfonsa. But they did not have any information for me. Trying to find a nun from 1894 in Venice is nearly impossible! I soon realized I would have to wait until the next trip to find her. But for now we concentrated on the touristy things—taking the narrow steps to the top of the Clock Tower, touring the secret sections of The Doge’s Palace, catching the boat to Burano and Torcello. We splurged on a gondola ride. It was the first time for everyone in our party of six. We boarded near Palazzo Barbaro, once owned by the Curtis family and where Fenimore had visited with and without Henry James. Surprisingly, our gondolier was a a young man who did not come from a family of gondoliers. He was the first in his family to ply these Venetian waters. He navigated through some back canals at first. It was towards the end of the day and many of the tourists had left the waterways. However, in one narrow canal we did have to glide carefully by another gondola. The two men were talking to each other in the dialect of the city, so fast I couldn’t catch one word. Then as we rounded out just before San Marco’s Square, the sun was beginning to set. As cliché as it sounds, it was magical. We headed right up the middle of the Grand Canal, with only a few boats in sight. Our gondolier sang a folk song and then bantered back and forth with one of his fellow gondoliers in another boat as he rowed us along. The light on the water was intoxicating. There was little chatter in our boat as we were all entranced by the timeless scene unfolding before us. Then my teenage daughter turned to me and said, Mama, when I die, I am going to heaven in a gondola. Amen.