Anne – Constance Fenimore Woolson

woolsonAnne (cover picture from here) is a first novel that suffers from the curse of many first novels – cramming in enough plot for several full-length books. It begins as a regional novel about a girl growing up in a remote part of the United States. She then goes to New York to complete her education & enters society with the reluctant help of a miserly great aunt, falls unsuitably in love, nurses during the Civil War & the book ends as a mystery novel. For all that, I enjoyed it very much. It’s beautifully written, the rural scenes are very evocative & Anne is an engaging character whose moral & ethical struggles are very involving.
Anne Douglas lives on Mackinac Island in Michigan with her father, William, & four half-siblings, the children of her father’s second marriage to a young Frenchwoman. William Douglas had been an Army surgeon who married Alida Clanssen to the disapproval of her wealthy family. After her death, he began to doubt his abilities as a doctor & left the Army, refusing to practice at all. He was made Postmaster to the small island community, dominated by the regiment at the Fort, until his many mistakes led to his appointment as Superintendent of roads, a post where nothing was expected of him. His second marriage to Angélique Lafontaine, a mixed race French girl caused consternation, especially in the heart of Miss Lois Hinsdale, who had cared for Anne since she was a baby & cherished hopes concerning William.
Angélique’s death left Anne to care for her family with the help of Miss Lois & the Catholic priest, Pére Michaux, who takes care of the religious education of the younger children. Only a child herself, Anne struggled to make ends meet in the face of her father’s indifference. Her only friend was Erastus Pronando, a young man whose father had also fallen out with his family & spent years on expeditions with fur hunters. Rast is an orphan, brought up by the chaplain, Dr Gaston, at the Fort, & will have to make his own way in the world.
William Douglas’s death brings the financial fortunes of his family to a crisis point. Rast & Anne become engaged, & he leaves to make his fortune. Anne writes to her great-aunt, Katherine Vanhorn, in New York, asking if she will help her complete her education so that she may become a teacher & support her siblings. Miss Vanhorn agrees under very strict conditions. Anne must expect no notice from her great aunt & have no expectations. She has never forgiven her niece, Alida, for her marriage & is determined to allow Anne no favours. At the school where she is learning a few accomplishments, Anne meets Helen Lorrington, a young, rich widow, who becomes a friend. Helen soon convinces Miss Vanhorn to allow Anne to go to Caryl’s, a resort town, for the summer, where she meets a new circle of wealthy, idle people. There, over a summer of dances, walks & botanizing expeditions with her great aunt, she falls in love with Ward Heathcote. However, Helen is also in love with Ward & they have been informally engaged for a long time. Miss Vanhorn favours another suitor for Anne, Gregory Dexter, a rich man who is allowed to believe by the gossips of the party that Anne will be Miss Vanhorn’s heir.
When Anne realises that she has fallen in love with Ward & he declares he is in love with her, she realises she must leave. She is engaged to Rast & Helen is in love with Ward & considers herself engaged to him.  Her great aunt has disowned her after she refused Dexter’s proposal so Anne goes to stay with Mademoiselle Pitre, the teacher Anne had gone to when her grand aunt cut off her allowance. Mademoiselle goes West every year to teach & agrees to take Anne with her.  Anne has no idea that Ward Heathcote is desperately trying to find her & the complications of their story are exacerbated by her flight & later, by the beginning of the Civil War as Ward joins the Union Army & Anne finds herself nursing.
I’m not going to reveal any more of the plot. I found the book unputdownable at this point & the twists & turns of the plot are worthy of a thriller. Anne is Constance Fenimore Woolson’s first novel & she was determined to write a book as unlike the popular novels of the day as she could imagine. She had been known for short stories, often with a regional background, & wanted her first novel to be full of incident & strong, memorable characters. In this, she succeeded. Anne’s journey to adulthood is full of challenges which she meets with courage & imagination. There are some coincidences in the plot (maybe too many) but few clichés & many genuine surprises for the reader. The early sections, set on the island, are a tribute to Woolson’s own youth on Mackinac Island & I was surprised when the scene shifted to New York & the island faded from the story until the very end. In Anne Boyd Rioux’s recent biography of Woolson, she describes the writing of the novel & Woolson’s intention  to create a heroine that readers would care about. She certainly succeeds in that. Some parts of the plot are a little melodramatic & some characters leave the scene, never to return or only through the medium of letters or newspaper announcements. However, she handles a large cast with skill &, as well as the melodrama & high emotion, there is a lot of humour in the story & the tension in the final section leaves the reader truly anxious about the denouement. Anne was a success, serialized in Harper’s Magazine simultaneously in the United States & England (following Henry James’ Washington Square). Her publishers doubled her fee & offered her a contract to publish Anne in book form.
I’m looking forward to reading more of Woolson’s work. I have a volume of her short stories & the biography on the tbr shelves & hope to get to them soon. It would be wonderful to have a new edition of Anne. I hope the resurrection of Woolson’s reputation continues & more of her work finds its way back into print.