Constance Fenimore Woolson Blog

Climbing Trajan’s Column on a Spring Day in Rome #3

I arrived at the American Academy in Rome (AAR) with two weeks of research and exploration and writing ahead of me. I was retracing the steps of the American author Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840-1894).  She was the main focus of my second work of fiction, The She-Novelist in Venice. Fenimore had arrived in Rome in 1881. There was little information about her from that time period, but I had pieced together details from a few letters she wrote and my stash of Baedekers to chart my course.

I told the AAR that I was hoping to visit Villa Madama and climb Trajan’s Column as part of my quest.

They gave me the email addresses for both places but were pretty sure Villa Madama was off limits, being reserved for State Visits, etc. and not for the whims of a traveling writer in search of another writer. And they were correct. But I wrote the professor in charge of preserving and restoring Trajan’s Column. I told her about Fenimore and how she was known to climb towers, campanile and mountain tops. I told her that when she had lived in Venice in 1893, she learned to row a gondola, standing up like all the men did. And I told her that in the first months of 1881, Fenimore came to Rome to explore and experience as much as she could of Virgil’s city. The professor replied that my request was granted! (I am still amazed to this day that I was given permission to climb the column.) I was lucky that a handful of the Rome Prize Fellows and the Director of the AAR also came along. This was especially insightful as many of them knew in detail about the history of Trajan and his Column. Trajan’s Column is a Roman triumphal column that commemorates Roman emperor Trajan’s victory in the Dacian Wars. The outside of the column is intricately carved telling the stories of his battles and honoring his victories. Others knowledgeable about architecture in Trajan’s Forum, where the column was built, were also part of the group. I was the lone novelist!

The day of the climb was a bit cloudy. If it had rained then the whole thing would have to be called off, I think because the steps would be slippery. We all arrived at the Forum entrance. The gate had to be unlocked. Then we walked by a grove of pillars and broken pieces of ancient stones laying about on our way to Trajan’s Column. The professor had two helpers with her. One to go up ahead of us and one to stay behind at the base. The door to the Column was then unlocked. Before we ascended the professor cautioned us that sometimes people feel claustrophobic inside, or that after walking the spiral staircase to the top in darkness that sometimes people get dizzy at the top as they step into the light. And sometimes these dizzy people fall backwards. Having had brain surgery two plus years before this adventure, I was still a bit unsteady at moments. So, I was worried for a second. Just in that moment we started to go into the open door of the Column. The Director asked me if I wanted to go first and I said “no”,with visions of myself falling backwards and causing a domino affect with all the other AAR participants. A woman in the group stepped forward and said she could go first as she had children?! Then, I went next as I wanted to get up there as fast as I could and I didn’t want to go last. This woman reached her hand back and took my hand as we started to climb the marble stairs. This was funny to me on many fronts, but I know she was trying to calm and comfort me. When we had entered the chamber at the base, one smelled dirt and stone and that musty odor common to most places that have been closed up. But it was also very austere and clean. What a thrill though to be inside. Emperor Trajan’s remains were once buried in the chamber area to the left as you enter. His ashes were placed in a golden urn. Too bad it is not still there and its whereabouts are unknown.

The inside of the column is is made up of 19 blocks of marble out of which the staircase was carved. You can’t feel the shift from block to block. It is an amazing feat of craftsmanship and design. There are 43 windows that are slits from the outside, but each one widens and is a downward fan of light as you walk by, illuminating your pathway to the top. I am happy to report that I had no trouble climbing 184 steps to the platform above. It was exhilarating. I held onto the wall as I took my steps but it was not unnerving or dizzying at all. On the walls on either side before you stepped onto the platform, visitors throughout the ages had left their marks. Early graffiti in its finest form! Someone asked me if Fenimore would have carved her initials in the marble wall. Though I hoped to locate her initials and looked carefully, I did not find them. I wanted to leave my initials.

At the top you could see all over Rome. It was a spectacular view and only a bit nerve-racking if you looked downward. We all took photographs of the view and ourselves. We all realized this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And then it was time to descend. It didn’t seem to take long at all. I spent a bit more time looking around the column, trying to decipher some the circular stories of Emperor Trajan. Then the door of the column was locked up. And we headed to the gate, which was closed and secured. For a moment we all stood around and chatted. I was spellbound and so wanted to know for sure if Fenimore had climbed the column in the spring of 1881. But that was research yet to be done as well as trying again to get into Villa Madama.


For the Love of Fenimore #2

February 14, 2018

I have been researching Constance Fenimore Woolson since I was in graduate school. I came to her by way of Henry James and his novella The Aspern Papers. Though I have finished the novel I set out to write about her, the research is ongoing and my love of the topic, the person I have come to know, has not diminished. Just recently I discovered a letter Fenimore had written to a teacher from her Cleveland Female Seminary days. A few weeks ago I had hoped to get this blog post out by January 31, the anniversary of her burial. So I missed that date, but in delaying I found a wonderful letter. That has often been the case with my research about Fenimore.

On a clear and unseasonably warm day at the end of January in 1894, Constance Fenimore Woolson was laid to rest at The Protestant Cemetery in Rome, a popular location for the non-Catholics in the area. Reverend Nevin of St Paul’s Episcopal Church gave the funeral service. I wonder what he thought about the whole affair. Talk of Fenimore’s death in the newspapers and among the foreigners centered on influenza, instability, and suicide. He had known her, but how well? Oddly enough, his records have disappeared, but that’s another story yet to be written. The Reverend knew Col. John Hay, who was related to Fenimore by way of her nephew’s sister-in-law, and who was based in Rome. Fenimore and Col. Hay were also friends, writing to one another about their literary endeavors. Luckily, Col. Hay and his wife Clara were able to secure a plot on short notice, which wasn’t an easy task, and arranged for flowers and other funerary details. They were also in contact with her relatives in America and her cousin Grace, who was in Munich at the time of her death. Reverend Nevin had also corresponded with Grace, shepherding her from the train station to the funeral site. Grace had arrived from Venice with Fenimore’s body and was frazzled from the journey and the weight of responsibility. So frazzled that she left her purse on the train and it was never found. The Reverend had also been in contact with Henry James who was supposedly one of Fenimore’s close friends, a ‘confrere’ as Mr. James had inscribed to her in a book of poems by Shelley. By coincidence or fate, Shelley’s grave was in the row just above hers. At the last moment Mr. James was unable to attend the funeral since he fell apart from the thought of her manner of death. When I read all the reasons he put forth explaining why he was unable to show up, it makes me wonder not only about their friendship but also about his mental state. I have read his letters after he heard of her passing. He struggled with the notion of her tragic and violent death. But he was distraught because I think he didn’t see any of it coming, calling it morbid melancholia and suggesting that her mind was deranged. And maybe that was indicative of the time period, when the word suicide was part of the conversation. In some letters I noticed he would write friends and family and say he knew little about the reasons for her demise, distancing himself a bit and trying to illicit information from them. The writer at work!

I often think about her funeral day, who was in attendance and who was missing. Grace Carter was there as well as the Hays. Mr. Greenough who had made a bust of Fenimore while she lived in Florence made an appearance with a lady friend. Most of the others only knew her slightly. Her sister and niece were an ocean away. Her favorite nephew was in Ohio. Her best friend during her last months in Venice, Edith Bronson, was in England. Her childhood friend Arabella Washburn, whom Fenimore had just recently written was in Connecticut. Francis Boott, her devoted composer-friend was in Boston. And Mr. James was in shock and too unstable in London to manage the trip to Rome. It was reported that two ladies who attended seem to know Fenimore, but were not familiar to anyone else. At the end of the service the two ladies were observed taking a flower from each of the funeral wreaths and wrapping them in their handkerchiefs.

I have visited Fenimore’s grave three times. It is a peaceful resting place. Birds chirp above the stone markers and the cypress trees sway in the wind. The pyramid of Cestius looms close by. The Hays had violets planted on top of her grave, which I wish I had seen. Violets, the flower of choice for graves meant constancy, faithfulness, and modesty. When I was there the ivy was growing over the coping where her name is written out in full—Constance Fenimore Woolson—with the date of 1894 below it. Mustard colored roses blossomed inside the edge of the grave.

Some people don’t like to call her Fenimore, though I have called her that from the beginning. It feels familiar to me. They think it takes away from her worth, or relegates her to being less than her namesake and not the woman writer for which she deserves to be honored. Her great uncle was the well-regarded author James Fenimore Cooper. Having his middle name, I think, may have been a burden at times, but it also opened a door or two. I do wonder if Fenimore was more troubled by who she was as a writer. She said that she liked writing fiction because that is when you take off the mask and can reveal so much through a character. With the mask on in real life, it is hard to see or know what lives or lurks behind a face. So was she Connie, as her family called her? Or was she Fenimore, as Mr. James and others referred to her, sometimes behind her back? Or was she Miss Woolson, as they wrote in the newspapers?

In the letter she penned to her former teacher she writes. “It gives me great pleasure, dear Miss Merrill, that you like my stories. I have tried to make them truthful pictures of real life—as I see it. I have not found real life easy; I have not found it beautiful; but I have often found it heroic. For my own part, I have come to think that the greatest virtue of all is courage!”*

*Constance Fenimore Woolson letter, Rare Books and Manuscripts, Indiana State Library


October 1, 2015 #1

Researching Constance Fenimore Woolson

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 (1840-1894). 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.