Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist, provides a rich and detailed, well, portrait, of Woolson, placing her life and work in historical and literary context. It serves not only as an excellent biography in its own right, but as an introduction to an interesting but frustratingly forgotten writer ... This new biography cannot be charged with the typical criticisms of academic writing: it's accessible, engaging, and wonderfully written. Frequently mixing her own prose with excerpts from letters, Woolson's fiction, and other documents, Rioux provides a well-rounded portrait of Woolson ... this biography is enthralling and significant: read it, and help begin to give Woolson the posthumous recognition she no doubt deserves.
If there's any area that Rioux skimps on, it's Woolson's writing itself. Where many literary biographies are cluttered with excerpts and analysis, Rioux's stays lean and digestible; but it remains to be seen whether Woolson's literary reputation will be restored alongside her historical one.
Rioux is adept at finding and interpreting Woolson’s account of her own highs and lows and those of others in her family, without forcing a contemporary diagnosis on her subjects. ... The painstakingly detailed account of Woolson’s final days is a remarkable, moving testament to the power of determined research and elegant writing.
Rioux is an excellent scholar who has assessed her sources shrewdly. She gets in trouble, though, when she tries to fill gaps with that bane of all biographers, 'must have been,' which can be translated as, 'I don’t know, but let’s pretend that I do.' Even so, Rioux’s biography is the place to start before you make your way to Woolson’s work.
[Rioux] resurrects her subject as a pioneering author who chose a literary career over the more conventional options of marriage and motherhood, a choice made in spite of the debilitating depressions that plagued her and her family ... Appreciating Woolson as more than the smitten confidante of Henry James is laudable, though Rioux might also have considered James’s negative effect on Woolson’s later, flatter work.
Anne Boyd Rioux’s well-researched and highly readable Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist offers a fresh reappraisal of Woolson’s life and writing, but it is only half successful in freeing its subject from James’s literary orbit.
Warmly sympathetic evaluations of Woolson’s fiction may spark reprintings and rereadings, but at the very least, this gentle portrait of a woman who struggled to be true to herself as an artist adds much-needed nuance to American cultural and social history.
[It was] a dangerous business it is to pit Woolson against James—a quarrel Harper’s started in 1887 and that Rioux misguidedly re-ignites in Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist. Her comparisons between Woolson and James are this otherwise scrupulous book’s weakest passages.
A servicable biography that tracks Woolson's movements from birth to death ... we are told these things but unfortunately we do not feel their import because Woolson does not come alive in the pages of this book ... Nor, sorry to say, does Rioux offer anything in the way of a satisfactory criticism of Woolson's work.