A Biographer's Close Encounters
Written by
Anne Boyd Rioux
July 2013
Written by
Anne Boyd Rioux
July 2013

While researching and writing my biography of the American author Constance Fenimore Woolson, I have had some very profound experiences, something like close encounters, with my subject. When I went to England and Italy, I was specifically in search of her, and at three precise moments I felt very close to her, as if I had come upon her in the real world, and not merely in the pages of her books or in the brittle pages of one of her letters in an archive. Recently, I found her again, at the Met in New York, when I least expected it.


The first time I “found” her was at Tewkesbury Abbey in England. I was touring the church, which Woolson writes about visiting, when I suddenly came upon a plaque honoring the author Dinah Mulock Craik. I realized in a flash that Woolson had had the exact same experience. She also had stumbled upon this plaque and stood in this same spot reading it and reflecting on the author, whom she had admired in her youth.


I, of course, was reflecting on Woolson instead and felt all of a sudden as if I were very near to her. Maybe it was the surroundings, but it felt as if her spirit were present to me. I felt something very physical and emotional, a kind of charge throughout my body and a flush of tears in my eyes. I don’t know how else to describe it. I’m not a religious person, and I don’t believe in spiritual phenomena (but Woolson did!). Call it an emotional connection. But I know what I felt, and it was an incredible experience. Behind me, in the chapel devoted to Mary, I lit a candle for Woolson and wished her well.


The other two times this happened on my trip were more expected. I had the same feeling again when I stood in the narrow street in which she died in Venice. For a few moments I had the street all to myself and I felt very close to her again, but also much sadder as I imagined her lying there all alone in the dark. The last time was when I visited her grave in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. Rather than sadness, I felt complete peace. She could not have chosen a more peaceful place to spend eternity. I was happy for her.


Rome was the last stop on my trip and the perfect way to say goodbye to her. I certainly didn’t expect to find her again once I was back in the U.S. (When I went to Cleveland, her home for the first thirty-three years of her life, I could find her nowhere, so much has the city changed.) But it happened again, when I least expected it, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.


A friend and I had just seen the Civil War in American Art exhibition and made our way into the American wing. In the vast hall of sculptures, I suddenly found myself standing in front of this:


Years ago I had seen another cast of it in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, but I had forgotten the Met owned one as well. Other visitors came up and looked, probably wondering who this beautiful woman was. I knew the second I saw it. It was Lizzie Boott. Woolson was friends with her and her family during the happiest period of her life, when she lived on the hill of Bellosguardo just outside of Florence. When Lizzie died, so did a piece of Woolson. The family she had joined (she was the godmother of Lizzie’s young son) was no more. They left Bellosguardo and Woolson felt all alone again. A year or so after Lizzie died, her husband, Frank Duveneck, made this effigy in marble for her tomb. (A few castings were also made.) Woolson went to see it and thought it perfectly beautiful.


As I stood in front of this exquisite piece of art so full of a husband’s grief, I knew in flash what Woolson had felt as she stood in front of it at Lizzie’s grave. I was frozen in place by the power of her emotions. Tears rose to my eyes. I had found Woolson once again.

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