The Open Door

Written by Elizabeth Maguire
Review by James Hawking

Constance Fenimore Woolson, the grandniece of James Fenimore Cooper, was a popular novelist and travel writer in the latter half of the 19th century. The core of this historically accurate novel concerns her relationship with Henry James, the master whom she travels to Europe to meet. At first James avoids his lady admirer, but he eventually yields to her flattering attentions. They become intellectual companions, even though he is dismissive of her writings and envious of her earnings. When he reviews her work in Harper’s, he calls her an “excellent example of the way the door stands open between the personal life of American women and the immeasurable world of print,” and fails to acknowledge her talent or that of any woman writing. Doctors treating her middle-aged maladies show her no more respect. Woolson remains resolutely independent, but she is ahead of her time in openly enjoying her sexuality, although not with James—for reasons that become obvious.

While dying of ovarian cancer, Maguire, a well-known publisher, wrote and revised this book, which shows how decisions as to what constitutes serious literature are made by men with little regard to the taste and achievements of women. From its opening, with images of Mackinac Island’s magical waters, to its tragic end in the canals of Venice, this book a worthy tribute to an unfairly dismissed writer.