Anne Boyd Rioux on
“‘Miss Grief’” by
Constance Fenimore Woolson
When Constance Fenimore Woolson wrote “‘Miss Grief,’” shortly after her arrival in Europe in late 1879, she was, unlike her eponymous character, already known as one of America’s preeminent short story writers. She published regularly in Harper’s, Scribner’s, Appletons’, and the Atlantic Monthly. (“‘Miss Grief’” was first published in Lippincott’s in May 1880 and chosen by Scribner’s for volume four of its Stories by American Authors, published in 1884.) “‘Miss Grief’” is Woolson’s first story set in Europe (in a Rome she had not yet visited), and it marks her transition from a much-hailed writer who had opened up the literary regions of the Great Lakes and the Reconstruction South to a writer tackling the international themes most closely associated with Henry James. She would soon meet the writer who had not yet gained the status of “The Master,” and “‘Miss Grief’” reflects the anxieties she felt about seeking the recognition of the male literary elite he represented.
What is most remarkable about “‘Miss Grief’” is not simply its semi-autobiographical context, however, but also its deft use of perspective. Told from the point of view of a successful male writer (who bears some surface resemblance to James, whom Woolson knew then only by reputation), it describes the persistent attempts of an aspiring female writer to meet him and gain his attention for her work. We as readers must decide for ourselves which of the two we identify or empathize with, and our allegiance may change over the course of the story. Ultimately, however, our perception is limited by the narrator (we never learn the woman writer’s full story, for instance), yet Woolson has a way of letting us see more than he does. This was one of her great strengths as a writer: undercutting her self-assured narrators for readers attentive to her subtle irony.
Another remarkable element for this late-nineteenth-century story is its controlled rage. At a time when direct expressions of women’s anger were taboo (and many would agree they still are), Woolson shows how such intense feelings inevitably emerge under the force of tremendous pressure and often through side channels. The layers of feeling are subtle and require careful attention to excavate, making reading and re-reading “‘Miss Grief’” a rewarding experience.
Although the story has been read primarily as an index to Woolson’s own feelings of neglect as a woman writer, it is much more than that. It showcases the conflicting views of her time about what made literature valuable, staging the tensions between polish and power in the forms of a male and female writer, respectively. It touches on still-sensitive questions about how gender informs perspective, literary value, and success. Besides that, it is a delight to read.
“Excerpted from Miss Grief and Other Stories by Constance Fenimore Woolson, edited by Anne Boyd Rioux. Copyright © 2016 by Anne Boyd Rioux. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.”
“A conceited fool” is a not uncommon expression. Now, I know that I am not a fool, but I also know that I am conceited. But, candidly, can it be helped if one happens to be young, well and strong, passably good-looking, with some money that one has inherited and more that one has earned—in all, enough to make life comfortable—and if upon this foundation rests also the pleasant superstructure of a literary success? The success is deserved, I think: certainly it was not lightly gained. Yet even with this I fully appreciate its rarity. Thus, I find myself very well entertained in life: I have all I wish in the way of society, and a deep, though of course carefully concealed, satisfaction in my own little fame; which fame I foster by a gentle system of non-interference. I know that I am spoken of as “that quiet young fellow who writes those delightful little studies of society, you know”; and I live up to that definition.
A year ago I was in Rome, and enjoying life particularly. I had a large number of my acquaintances there, both American and English, and no day passed without its invitation. Of course I understood it: it is seldom that you find a literary man who is good-tempered, well-dressed, sufficiently provided with money, and amiably obedient to all the rules and requirements of “society.” “When found, make a note of it”; and the note was generally an invitation.
One evening, upon returning to my lodgings, my man Simpson informed me that a person had called in the afternoon, and upon learning that I was absent had left not a card, but her name—“Miss Grief.” The title lingered—Miss Grief! “Grief has not so far visited me here,” I said to myself, dismissing Simpson and seeking my little balcony for a final smoke, “and she shall not now. I shall take care to be ‘not at home’ to her if she continues to call.” And then I fell to thinking of Isabel Abercrombie, in whose society I had spent that and many evenings: they were golden thoughts.
The next day there was an excursion; it was late when I reached my rooms, and again Simpson informed me that Miss Grief had called.
“Is she coming continuously?” I said, half to myself.
“Yes, sir: she mentioned that she should call again.”
“How does she look?”
“Well, sir, a lady, but not so prosperous as she was, I should say,” answered Simpson, discreetly.
“A maid with her, sir.”
But once outside in my little high-up balcony with my cigar, I again forgot Miss Grief and whatever she might represent. Who would not forget in that moonlight, with Isabel Abercrombie’s face to remember?
The stranger came a third time, and I was absent; then she let two days pass, and began again. It grew to be a regular dialogue between Simpson and myself when I came in at night: “Grief to-day?”
“Happy the man,” I thought, “who can keep her confined to a particular hour!”
But I should not have treated my visitor so cavalierly if I had not felt sure that she was eccentric and unconventional—qualities extremely tiresome in a woman no longer young or attractive. If she were not eccentric she would not have persisted in coming to my door day after day in this silent way, without stating her errand, leaving a note, or presenting her credentials in any shape. I made up my mind that she had something to sell—a bit of carving or some intaglio supposed to be antique. It was known that I had a fancy for oddities. I said to myself, “She has read or heard of my ‘Old Gold’ story, or else ‘The Buried God,’ and she thinks me an idealizing ignoramus upon whom she can impose. Her sepulchral name is at least not Italian; probably she is a sharp country-woman of mine, turning, by means of the present æsthetic craze, an honest penny when she can.”
She had called seven times during a period of two weeks without seeing me, when one day I happened to be at home in the afternoon, owing to a pouring rain and a fit of doubt concerning Miss Abercrombie. For I had constructed a careful theory of that young lady’s characteristics in my own mind, and she had lived up to it delightfully until the previous evening, when with one word she had blown it to atoms and taken flight, leaving me standing, as it were, on a desolate shore, with nothing but a handful of mistaken inductions wherewith to console myself. I do not know a more exasperating frame of mind, at least for a constructor of theories. I could not write, and so I took up a French novel (I model myself a little on Balzac). I had been turning over its pages but a few moments when Simpson knocked, and, entering softly, said, with just a shadow of a smile on his well-trained face, “Miss Grief.” I briefly consigned Miss Grief to all the Furies, and then, as he still lingered—perhaps not knowing where they resided—I asked where the visitor was.
“Outside, sir—in the hall. I told her I would see if you were at home.”
“She must be unpleasantly wet if she had no carriage.”
“No carriage, sir: they always come on foot. I think she is a little damp, sir.”
“Well, let her in; but I don’t want the maid. I may as well see her now, I suppose, and end the affair.”
I did not put down my book. My visitor should have a hearing, but not much more: she had sacrificed her womanly claims by her persistent attacks upon my door. Presently Simpson ushered her in. “Miss Grief,” he said, and then went out, closing the curtain behind him.
A woman—yes, a lady—but shabby, unattractive, and more than middle-aged.
I rose, bowed slightly, and then dropped into my chair again, still keeping the book in my hand. “Miss Grief?” I said interrogatively as I indicated a seat with my eyebrows.
“Not Grief,” she answered—“Crief: my name is Crief.”
She sat down, and I saw that she held a small flat box.
“Not carving, then,” I thought—“probably old lace, something that belonged to Tullia or Lucrezia Borgia.” But as she did not speak I found myself obliged to begin: “You have been here, I think, once or twice before?”
“Seven times; this is the eighth.”
“I am often out; indeed, I may say that I am never in,” I remarked carelessly.
“Yes; you have many friends.”
“—Who will perhaps buy old lace,” I mentally added. But this time I too remained silent; why should I trouble myself to draw her out? She had sought me; let her advance her idea, whatever it was, now that entrance was gained.
But Miss Grief (I preferred to call her so) did not look as though she could advance anything; her black gown, damp with rain, seemed to retreat fearfully to her thin self, while her thin self retreated as far as possible from me, from the chair, from everything. Her eyes were cast down; an old-fashioned lace veil with a heavy border shaded her face. She looked at the floor, and I looked at her.
I grew a little impatient, but I made up my mind that I would continue silent and see how long a time she would consider necessary to give due effect to her little pantomime. Comedy? Or was it tragedy? I suppose full five minutes passed thus in our double silence; and that is a long time when two persons are sitting opposite each other alone in a small still room.
At last my visitor, without raising her eyes, said slowly, “You are very happy, are you not, with youth, health, friends, riches, fame?”
It was a singular beginning. Her voice was clear, low, and very sweet as she thus enumerated my advantages one by one in a list. I was attracted by it, but repelled by her words, which seemed to me flattery both dull and bold.
“Thanks,” I said, “for your kindness, but I fear it is undeserved. I seldom discuss myself even when with my friends.”
“I am your friend,” replied Miss Grief. Then, after a moment, she added slowly, “I have read every word you have written.”
I curled the edges of my book indifferently; I am not a fop, I hope, but—others have said the same.
“What is more, I know much of it by heart,” continued my visitor. “Wait: I will show you”; and then, without pause, she began to repeat something of mine word for word, just as I had written it. On she went, and I—listened. I intended interrupting her after a moment, but I did not, because she was reciting so well, and also because I felt a desire gaining upon me to see what she would make of a certain conversation which I knew was coming—a conversation between two of my characters which was, to say the least, sphinx-like, and somewhat incandescent as well. What won me a little, too, was the fact that the scene she was reciting (it was hardly more than that, though called a story) was secretly my favorite among all the sketches from my pen which a gracious public has received with favor. I never said so, but it was; and I had always felt a wondering annoyance that the aforesaid public, while kindly praising beyond their worth other attempts of mine, had never noticed the higher purpose of this little shaft, aimed not at the balconies and lighted windows of society, but straight up toward the distant stars. So she went on, and presently reached the conversation: my two people began to talk. She had raised her eyes now, and was looking at me soberly as she gave the words of the woman, quiet, gentle, cold, and the replies of the man, bitter, hot, and scathing. Her very voice changed, and took, though always sweetly, the different tones required, while no point of meaning, however small, no breath of delicate emphasis which I had meant, but which the dull types could not give, escaped an appreciative and full, almost overfull, recognition which startled me. For she had understood me—understood me almost better than I had understood myself. It seemed to me that while I had labored to interpret, partially, a psychological riddle, she, coming after, had comprehended its bearings better than I had, though confining herself strictly to my own words and emphasis. The scene ended (and it ended rather suddenly), she dropped her eyes, and moved her hand nervously to and fro over the box she held; her gloves were old and shabby, her hands small.
I was secretly much surprised by what I had heard, but my ill-humor was deep-seated that day, and I still felt sure, besides, that the box contained something which I was expected to buy.
“You recite remarkably well,” I said carelessly, “and I am much flattered also by your appreciation of my attempt. But it is not, I presume, to that alone that I owe the pleasure of this visit?”
“Yes,” she answered, still looking down, “it is, for if you had not written that scene I should not have sought you. Your other sketches are interiors—exquisitely painted and delicately finished, but of small scope. This is a sketch in a few bold, masterly lines—work of entirely different spirit and purpose.”
I was nettled by her insight. “You have bestowed so much of your kind attention upon me that I feel your debtor,” I said, conventionally. “It may be that there is something I can do for you—connected, possibly, with that little box?”
It was impertinent, but it was true; for she answered, “Yes.”
I smiled, but her eyes were cast down and she did not see the smile.
“What I have to show you is a manuscript,” she said after a pause which I did not break; “it is a drama. I thought that perhaps you would read it.”
“An authoress! This is worse than old lace,” I said to myself in dismay.—Then, aloud, “My opinion would be worth nothing, Miss Crief.”
“Not in a business way, I know. But it might be—an assistance personally.” Her voice had sunk to a whisper; outside, the rain was pouring steadily down. She was a very depressing object to me as she sat there with her box.
“I hardly think I have the time at present—” I began.
She had raised her eyes and was looking at me; then, when I paused, she rose and came suddenly toward my chair. “Yes, you will read it,” she said with her hand on my arm—“you will read it. Look at this room; look at yourself; look at all you have. Then look at me, and have pity.”
I had risen, for she held my arm, and her damp skirt was brushing my knees.
Her large dark eyes looked intently into mine as she went on; “I have no shame in asking. Why should I have? It is my last endeavor; but a calm and well-considered one. If you refuse I shall go away, knowing that Fate has willed it so. And I shall be content.”
“She is mad,” I thought. But she did not look so, and she had spoken quietly, even gently.—“Sit down,” I said, moving away from her. I felt as if I had been magnetized; but it was only the nearness of her eyes to mine, and their intensity. I drew forward a chair, but she remained standing.
“I cannot,” she said in the same sweet, gentle tone, “unless you promise.”
“Very well, I promise; only sit down.”
As I took her arm to lead her to the chair I perceived that she was trembling, but her face continued unmoved.
“You do not, of course, wish me to look at your manuscript now?” I said, temporizing; “it would be much better to leave it. Give me your address, and I will return it to you with my written opinion; though, I repeat, the latter will be of no use to you. It is the opinion of an editor or publisher that you want.”
“It shall be as you please. And I will go in a moment,” said Miss Grief, pressing her palms together, as if trying to control the tremor that had seized her slight frame.
She looked so pallid that I thought of offering her a glass of wine; then I remembered that if I did it might be a bait to bring her there again, and this I was desirous to prevent. She rose while the thought was passing through my mind. Her pasteboard box lay on the chair she had first occupied; she took it, wrote an address on the cover, laid it down, and then, bowing with a little air of formality, drew her black shawl round her shoulders and turned toward the door.
I followed, after touching the bell. “You will hear from me by letter,” I said.
Simpson opened the door, and I caught a glimpse of the maid, who was waiting in the anteroom. She was an old woman, shorter than her mistress, equally thin, and dressed like her in rusty black. As the door opened she turned toward it a pair of small, dim blue eyes with a look of furtive suspense. Simpson dropped the curtain, shutting me into the inner room; he had no intention of allowing me to accompany my visitor further. But I had the curiosity to go to a bay--window in an angle from whence I could command the street-door, and presently I saw them issue forth in the rain and walk away side by side, the mistress, being the taller, holding the umbrella: probably there was not much difference in rank between persons so poor and forlorn as these.
It grew dark. I was invited out for the evening, and I knew that if I should go I should meet Miss Abercrombie. I said to myself that I would not go. I got out my paper for writing, I made my preparations for a quiet evening at home with myself; but it was of no use. It all ended slavishly in my going. At the last allowable moment I presented myself, and—as a punishment for my vacillation, I suppose—I never passed a more disagreeable evening. I drove homeward in a murky temper; it was foggy without, and very foggy within. What Isabel really was, now that she had broken through my -elaborately-built theories, I was not able to decide. There was, to tell the truth, a certain young Englishman—But that is apart from this story.
I reached home, went up to my rooms, and had a supper. It was to console myself; I am obliged to console myself scientifically once in a while. I was walking up and down afterward, smoking and feeling somewhat better, when my eye fell upon the pasteboard box. I took it up; on the cover was written an address which showed that my visitor must have walked a long distance in order to see me: “A. Crief.”—“A Grief,” I thought; “and so she is. I positively believe she has brought all this trouble upon me: she has the evil eye.” I took out the manuscript and looked at it. It was in the form of a little volume, and clearly written; on the cover was the word “Armor” in German text, and, underneath, a pen-and-ink sketch of a helmet, breastplate, and shield.
“Grief certainly needs armor,” I said to myself, sitting down by the table and turning over the pages. “I may as well look over the thing now; I could not be in a worse mood.” And then I began to read.
Early the next morning Simpson took a note from me to the given address, returning with the following reply: “No; I prefer to come to you; at four; A. Crief.” These words, with their three semicolons, were written in pencil upon a piece of coarse printing-paper, but the handwriting was as clear and delicate as that of the manuscript in ink.
“What sort of a place was it, Simpson?”
“Very poor, sir, but I did not go all the way up. The elder person came down, sir, took the note, and requested me to wait where I was.”
“You had no chance, then, to make inquiries?” I said, knowing full well that he had emptied the entire neighborhood of any information it might possess concerning these two lodgers.
“Well, sir, you know how these foreigners will talk, whether one wants to hear or not. But it seems that these two persons have been there but a few weeks; they live alone, and are uncommonly silent and reserved. The people round there call them something that signifies ‘the Madames American, thin and dumb.’ ”
At four the “Madames American” arrived; it was raining again, and they came on foot under their old umbrella. The maid waited in the anteroom, and Miss Grief was ushered into my bachelor’s parlor. I had thought that I should meet her with great deference; but she looked so forlorn that my deference changed to pity. It was the woman that impressed me then, more than the writer—the fragile, nerveless body more than the inspired mind. For it was inspired: I had sat up half the night over her drama, and had felt thrilled through and through more than once by its earnestness, passion, and power.
No one could have been more surprised than I was to find myself thus enthusiastic. I thought I had outgrown that sort of thing. And one would have supposed, too (I myself should have supposed so the day before), that the faults of the drama, which were many and prominent, would have chilled any liking I might have felt, I being a writer myself, and therefore critical; for writers are as apt to make much of the “how,” rather than the “what,” as painters, who, it is well known, prefer an exquisitely rendered representation of a commonplace theme to an imperfectly executed picture of even the most striking subject. But in this case, on the contrary, the scattered rays of splendor in Miss Grief’s drama had made me forget the dark spots, which were numerous and disfiguring; or, rather, the splendor had made me anxious to have the spots removed. And this also was a philanthropic state very unusual with me. Regarding unsuccessful writers, my motto had been “Væ victis!”
My visitor took a seat and folded her hands; I could see, in spite of her quiet manner, that she was in breathless suspense. It seemed so pitiful that she should be trembling there before me—a woman so much older than I was, a woman who possessed the divine spark of genius, which I was by no means sure (in spite of my success) had been granted to me—that I felt as if I ought to go down on my knees before her, and entreat her to take her proper place of supremacy at once. But there! one does not go down on one’s knees, combustively, as it were, before a woman over fifty, plain in feature, thin, dejected, and ill-dressed. I contented myself with taking her hands (in their miserable old gloves) in mine, while I said cordially, “Miss Crief, your drama seems to me full of original power. It has roused my enthusiasm: I sat up half the night reading it.”
The hands I held shook, but something (perhaps a shame for having evaded the knees business) made me tighten my hold and bestow upon her also a reassuring smile. She looked at me for a moment, and then, suddenly and noiselessly, tears rose and rolled down her cheeks. I dropped her hands and retreated. I had not thought her tearful: on the contrary, her voice and face had seemed rigidly controlled. But now here she was bending herself over the side of the chair with her head resting on her arms, not sobbing aloud, but her whole frame shaken by the strength of her emotion. I rushed for a glass of wine; I pressed her to take it. I did not quite know what to do, but, putting myself in her place, I decided to praise the drama; and praise it I did. I do not know when I have used so many adjectives. She raised her head and began to wipe her eyes.
“Do take the wine,” I said, interrupting myself in my cataract of language.
“I dare not,” she answered; then added humbly, “that is, unless you have a biscuit here or a bit of bread.”
I found some biscuit; she ate two, and then slowly drank the wine, while I resumed my verbal Niagara. Under its -influence—and that of the wine too, perhaps—she began to show new life. It was not that she looked radiant—she could not—but simply that she looked warm. I now perceived what had been the principal discomfort of her appearance heretofore: it was that she had looked all the time as if suffering from cold.
At last I could think of nothing more to say, and stopped. I really admired the drama, but I thought I had exerted myself sufficiently as an anti-hysteric, and that adjectives enough, for the present at least, had been administered. She had put down her empty wine-glass, and was resting her hands on the broad cushioned arms of her chair with, for a thin person, a sort of expanded content.
“You must pardon my tears,” she said, smiling; “it was the revulsion of feeling. My life was at a low ebb: if your sentence had been against me it would have been my end.”
“Yes, the end of my life; I should have destroyed myself.”
“Then you would have been a weak as well as wicked woman,” I said in a tone of disgust. I do hate sensationalism.
“Oh no, you know nothing about it. I should have destroyed only this poor worn tenement of clay. But I can well understand how you would look upon it. Regarding the desirableness of life the prince and the beggar may have different opinions.—We will say no more of it, but talk of the drama instead.” As she spoke the word “drama” a triumphant brightness came into her eyes.
I took the manuscript from a drawer and sat down beside her. “I suppose you know that there are faults,” I said, expecting ready acquiescence.
“I was not aware that there were any,” was her gentle reply.
Here was a beginning! After all my interest in her—and, I may say under the circumstances, my kindness—she received me in this way! However, my belief in her genius was too sincere to be altered by her whimsies; so I persevered. “Let us go over it together,” I said. “Shall I read it to you, or will you read it to me?”
“I will not read it, but recite it.”
“That will never do; you will recite it so well that we shall see only the good points, and what we have to concern ourselves with now is the bad ones.”
“I will recite it,” she repeated.
“Now, Miss Crief,” I said bluntly, “for what purpose did you come to me? Certainly not merely to recite: I am no stage-manager. In plain English, was it not your idea that I might help you in obtaining a publisher?”
“Yes, yes,” she answered, looking at me apprehensively, all her old manner returning.
I followed up my advantage, opened the little paper volume and began. I first took the drama line by line, and spoke of the faults of expression and structure; then I turned back and touched upon two or three glaring impossibilities in the plot. “Your absorbed interest in the motive of the whole no doubt made you forget these blemishes,” I said apologetically.
But, to my surprise, I found that she did not see the blemishes—that she appreciated nothing I had said, comprehended nothing. Such unaccountable obtuseness puzzled me. I began again, going over the whole with even greater minuteness and care. I worked hard: the perspiration stood in beads upon my forehead as I struggled with her—what shall I call it—obstinacy? But it was not exactly obstinacy. She simply could not see the faults of her own work, any more than a blind man can see the smoke that dims a patch of blue sky. When I had finished my task the second time she still remained as gently impassive as before. I leaned back in my chair exhausted, and looked at her.
Even then she did not seem to comprehend (whether she agreed with it or not) what I must be thinking. “It is such a heaven to me that you like it!” she murmured dreamily, breaking the silence. Then, with more animation, “And now you will let me recite it?”
I was too weary to oppose her; she threw aside her shawl and bonnet, and, standing in the centre of the room, began.
And she carried me along with her: all the strong passages were doubly strong when spoken, and the faults, which seemed nothing to her, were made by her earnestness to seem nothing to me, at least for that moment. When it was ended she stood looking at me with a triumphant smile.
“Yes,” I said, “I like it, and you see that I do. But I like it because my taste is peculiar. To me originality and force are everything—perhaps because I have them not to any marked degree myself—but the world at large will not overlook as I do your absolutely barbarous shortcomings on account of them. Will you trust me to go over the drama and correct it at my pleasure?” This was a vast deal for me to offer; I was surprised at myself.
“No,” she answered softly, still smiling. “There shall not be so much as a comma altered.” Then she sat down and fell into a reverie as though she were alone.
“Have you written anything else?” I said after a while, when I had become tired of the silence.
“Can I see it? Or is it them?”
“It is them. Yes, you can see all.”
“I will call upon you for the purpose.”
“No, you must not,” she said, coming back to the present nervously. “I prefer to come to you.”
At this moment Simpson entered to light the room, and busied himself rather longer than was necessary over the task. When he finally went out I saw that my visitor’s manner had sunk into its former depression: the presence of the servant seemed to have chilled her.
“When did you say I might come?” I repeated, ignoring her refusal.
“I did not say it. It would be impossible.”
“Well, then, when will you come here?” There was, I fear, a trace of fatigue in my tone.
“At your good pleasure, sir,” she answered humbly.
My chivalry was touched by this: after all, she was a woman. “Come to-morrow,” I said. “By the way, come and dine with me then; why not?” I was curious to see what she would reply.
“Why not, indeed? Yes, I will come. I am forty-three: I might have been your mother.”
This was not quite true, as I am over thirty: but I look young, while she—Well, I had thought her over fifty. “I can hardly call you ‘mother,’ but we might compromise upon ‘aunt,’ ” I said, laughing. “Aunt what?”
“My name is Aaronna,” she gravely answered. “My father was much disappointed that I was not a boy, and gave me as nearly as possible the name he had prepared—Aaron.”
“Then come and dine with me to-morrow, and bring with you the other manuscripts, Aaronna,” I said, amused at the quaint sound of the name. On the whole, I did not like “aunt.”
“I will come,” she answered.
It was twilight and still raining, but she refused all offers of escort or carriage, departing with her maid, as she had come, under the brown umbrella. The next day we had the dinner. Simpson was astonished—and more than astonished, grieved—when I told him that he was to dine with the maid; but he could not complain in words, since my own guest, the mistress, was hardly more attractive. When our preparations were complete I could not help laughing: the two prim little tables, one in the parlor and one in the anteroom, and Simpson disapprovingly going back and forth between them, were irresistible.
I greeted my guest hilariously when she arrived, and, fortunately, her manner was not quite so depressed as usual: I could never have accorded myself with a tearful mood. I had thought that perhaps she would make, for the occasion, some change in her attire; I have never known a woman who had not some scrap of finery, however small, in reserve for that unexpected occasion of which she is ever dreaming. But no: Miss Grief wore the same black gown, unadorned and unaltered. I was glad that there was no rain that day, so that the skirt did not at least look so damp and rheumatic.
She ate quietly, almost furtively, yet with a good appetite, and she did not refuse the wine. Then, when the meal was over and Simpson had removed the dishes, I asked for the new manuscripts. She gave me an old green copybook filled with short poems, and a prose sketch by itself; I lit a cigar and sat down at my desk to look them over.
“Perhaps you will try a cigarette?” I suggested, more for amusement than anything else, for there was not a shade of Bohemianism about her; her whole appearance was puritanical.
“I have not yet succeeded in learning to smoke.”
“You have tried?” I said, turning round.
“Yes: Serena and I tried, but we did not succeed.”
“Serena is your maid?”
“She lives with me.”
I was seized with inward laughter, and began hastily to look over her manuscripts with my back toward her, so that she might not see it. A vision had risen before me of those two forlorn women, alone in their room with locked doors, patiently trying to acquire the smoker’s art.
But my attention was soon absorbed by the papers before me. Such a fantastic collection of words, lines, and epithets I had never before seen, or even in dreams imagined. In truth, they were like the work of dreams: they were Kubla Khan, only more so. Here and there was radiance like the flash of a diamond, but each poem, almost each verse and line, was marred by some fault or lack which seemed wilful perversity, like the work of an evil sprite. It was like a case of jeweller’s wares set before you, with each ring unfinished, each bracelet too large or too small for its purpose, each breastpin without its fastening, each necklace purposely broken. I turned the pages, marvelling. When about half an hour had passed, and I was leaning back for a moment to light another cigar, I glanced toward my visitor. She was behind me, in an easy-chair before my small fire, and she was—fast asleep! In the relaxation of her unconsciousness I was struck anew by the poverty her appearance expressed; her feet were visible, and I saw the miserable worn old shoes which hitherto she had kept concealed.
After looking at her for a moment I returned to my task and took up the prose story; in prose she must be more reasonable. She was less fantastic perhaps, but hardly more reasonable. The story was that of a profligate and commonplace man forced by two of his friends, in order not to break the heart of a dying girl who loves him, to live up to a high imaginary ideal of himself which her pure but mistaken mind has formed. He has a handsome face and sweet voice, and repeats what they tell him. Her long, slow decline and happy death, and his own inward ennui and profound weariness of the rôle he has to play, made the vivid points of the story. So far, well enough, but here was the trouble: through the whole narrative moved another character, a physician of tender heart and exquisite mercy, who practised murder as a fine art, and was regarded (by the author) as a second Messiah! This was monstrous. I read it through twice, and threw it down; then, fatigued, I turned round and leaned back, waiting for her to wake. I could see her profile against the dark hue of the easy-chair.
Presently she seemed to feel my gaze, for she stirred, then opened her eyes. “I have been asleep,” she said, rising hurriedly.
“No harm in that, Aaronna.”
But she was deeply embarrassed and troubled, much more so than the occasion required; so much so, indeed, that I turned the conversation back upon the manuscripts as a diversion. “I cannot stand that doctor of yours,” I said, indicating the prose story; “no one would. You must cut him out.”
Her self-possession returned as if by magic. “Certainly not,” she answered haughtily.
“Oh, if you do not care—I had labored under the impression that you were anxious these things should find a purchaser.”
“I am, I am,” she said, her manner changing to deep humility with wonderful rapidity. With such alternations of feeling as this sweeping over her like great waves, no wonder she was old before her time.
“Then you must take out that doctor.”
“I am willing, but do not know how,” she answered, pressing her hands together helplessly. “In my mind he belongs to the story so closely that he cannot be separated from it.”
Here Simpson entered, bringing a note for me: it was a line from Mrs. Abercrombie inviting me for that evening—an unexpected gathering, and therefore likely to be all the more agreeable. My heart bounded in spite of me; I forgot Miss Grief and her manuscripts for the moment as completely as though they had never existed. But, bodily, being still in the same room with her, her speech brought me back to the present.
“You have had good news?” she said.
“Oh no, nothing especial—merely an invitation.”
“But good news also,” she repeated. “And now, as for me, I must go.”
Not supposing that she would stay much later in any case, I had that morning ordered a carriage to come for her at about that hour. I told her this. She made no reply beyond putting on her bonnet and shawl.
“You will hear from me soon,” I said; “I shall do all I can for you.”
She had reached the door, but before opening it she stopped, turned and extended her hand. “You are good,” she said: “I give you thanks. Do not think me ungrateful or envious. It is only that you are young, and I am so—so old.” Then she opened the door and passed through the anteroom without pause, her maid accompanying her and Simpson with gladness lighting the way. They were gone. I dressed hastily and went out—to continue my studies in psychology.
Time passed; I was busy, amused and perhaps a little excited (sometimes psychology is exciting). But, though much occupied with my own affairs, I did not altogether neglect my self-imposed task regarding Miss Grief. I began by sending her prose story to a friend, the editor of a monthly magazine, with a letter making a strong plea for its admittance. It should have a chance first on its own merits. Then I forwarded the drama to a publisher, also an acquaintance, a man with a taste for phantasms and a soul above mere common popularity, as his own coffers knew to their cost. This done, I waited with conscience clear.
Four weeks passed. During this waiting period I heard nothing from Miss Grief. At last one morning came a letter from my editor. “The story has force, but I cannot stand that doctor,” he wrote. “Let her cut him out, and I might print it.” Just what I myself had said. The package lay there on my table, travel-worn and grimed; a returned manuscript is, I think, the most melancholy object on earth. I decided to wait, before writing to Aaronna, until the second letter was received. A week later it came. “Armor” was declined. The publisher had been “impressed” by the power displayed in certain passages, but the “impossibilities of the plot” rendered it “unavailable for publication”—in fact, would “bury it in ridicule” if brought before the public, a public “lamentably” fond of amusement, “seeking it, undaunted, even in the cannon’s mouth.” I doubt if he knew himself what he meant. But one thing, at any rate, was clear: “Armor” was declined.
Now, I am, as I have remarked before, a little obstinate. I was determined that Miss Grief’s work should be received. I would alter and improve it myself, without letting her know: the end justified the means. Surely the sieve of my own good taste, whose mesh had been pronounced so fine and delicate, would serve for two. I began; and utterly failed.
I set to work first upon “Armor.” I amended, altered, left out, put in, pieced, condensed, lengthened; I did my best, and all to no avail. I could not succeed in completing anything that satisfied me, or that approached, in truth, Miss Grief’s own work just as it stood. I suppose I went over that manuscript twenty times: I covered sheets of paper with my copies. But the obstinate drama refused to be corrected; as it was it must stand or fall.
Wearied and annoyed, I threw it aside and took up the prose story: that would be easier. But, to my surprise, I found that that apparently gentle “doctor” would not out: he was so closely interwoven with every part of the tale that to take him out was like taking out one especial figure in a carpet: that is, impossible, unless you unravel the whole. At last I did unravel the whole, and then the story was no longer good, or Aaronna’s: it was weak, and mine. All this took time, for of course I had much to do in connection with my own life and tasks. But, though slowly and at my leisure, I really did try my best as regarded Miss Grief, and without success. I was forced at last to make up my mind that either my own powers were not equal to the task, or else that her perversities were as essential a part of her work as her inspirations, and not to be separated from it. Once during this period I showed two of the short poems to Isabel, withholding of course the writer’s name. “They were written by a woman,” I explained.
“Her mind must have been disordered, poor thing!” Isabel said in her gentle way when she returned them—“at least, judging by these. They are hopelessly mixed and vague.”
Now, they were not vague so much as vast. But I knew that I could not make Isabel comprehend it, and (so complex a creature is man) I do not know that I wanted her to comprehend it. These were the only ones in the whole collection that I would have shown her, and I was rather glad that she did not like even these. Not that poor Aaronna’s poems were evil: they were simply unrestrained, large, vast, like the skies or the wind. Isabel was bounded on all sides, like a violet in a garden-bed. And I liked her so.
One afternoon, about the time when I was beginning to see that I could not “improve” Miss Grief, I came upon the maid. I was driving, and she had stopped on the crossing to let the carriage pass. I recognized her at a glance (by her general forlornness), and called to the driver to stop: “How is Miss Grief?” I said. “I have been intending to write to her for some time.”
“And your note, when it comes,” answered the old woman on the crosswalk fiercely, “she shall not see.”
“I say she shall not see it. Your patronizing face shows that you have no good news, and you shall not rack and stab her any more on this earth, please God, while I have authority.”
“Who has racked or stabbed her, Serena?”
“Serena, indeed! Rubbish! I’m no Serena: I’m her aunt. And as to who has racked and stabbed her, I say you, you—YOU literary men!” She had put her old head inside my carriage, and flung out these words at me in a shrill, menacing tone. “But she shall die in peace in spite of you,” she continued. “Vampires! you take her ideas and fatten on them, and leave her to starve. You know you do—you who have had her poor manuscripts these months and months!”
“Is she ill?” I asked in real concern, gathering that much at least from the incoherent tirade.
“She is dying,” answered the desolate old creature, her voice softening and her dim eyes filling with tears.
“Oh, I trust not. Perhaps something can be done. Can I help you in any way?”
“In all ways if you would,” she said, breaking down and beginning to sob weakly, with her head resting on the sill of the carriage-window. “Oh, what have we not been through together, we two! Piece by piece I have sold all.”
I am good-hearted enough, but I do not like to have old women weeping across my carriage-door. I suggested, therefore, that she should come inside and let me take her home. Her shabby old skirt was soon beside me, and, following her directions, the driver turned toward one of the most wretched quarters of the city, the abode of poverty, crowded and unclean. Here, in a large bare chamber up many flights of stairs, I found Miss Grief.
As I entered I was startled: I thought she was dead. There seemed no life present until she opened her eyes, and even then they rested upon us vaguely, as though she did not know who we were. But as I approached a light came into them: she recognized me, and this sudden revivification, this return of the soul to the almost deserted body, was the most wonderful thing I ever saw. “You have good news of the drama?” she whispered as I bent over her: “tell me. I know you have good news.”
What was I to answer? Pray, what would you have answered, puritan?
“Yes, I have good news, Aaronna,” I said. “The drama will appear.” (And who knows? Perhaps it will in some other world.)
She smiled, and her now brilliant eyes did not leave my face.
“He knows I’m your aunt: I told him,” said the old woman, coming to the bedside.
“Did you?” whispered Miss Grief, still gazing at me with a smile. “Then please, dear Aunt Martha, give me something to eat.”
Aunt Martha hurried across the room, and I followed her. “It’s the first time she’s asked for food in weeks,” she said in a husky tone.
She opened a cupboard-door vaguely, but I could see nothing within. “What have you for her?” I asked with some impatience, though in a low voice.
“Please God, nothing!” answered the poor old woman, hiding her reply and her tears behind the broad cupboard-door. “I was going out to get a little something when I met you.”
“Good Heavens! is it money you need? Here, take this and send; or go yourself in the carriage waiting below.”
She hurried out breathless, and I went back to the bedside, much disturbed by what I had seen and heard. But Miss Grief’s eyes were full of life, and as I sat down beside her she whispered earnestly, “Tell me.”
And I did tell her—a romance invented for the occasion. I venture to say that none of my published sketches could compare with it. As for the lie involved, it will stand among my few good deeds, I know, at the judgment-bar.
And she was satisfied. “I have never known what it was,” she whispered, “to be fully happy until now.” She closed her eyes, and when the lids fell I again thought that she had passed away. But no, there was still pulsation in her small, thin wrist. As she perceived my touch she smiled. “Yes, I am happy,” she said again, though without audible sound.
The old aunt returned; food was prepared, and she took some. I myself went out after wine that should be rich and pure. She rallied a little, but I did not leave her: her eyes dwelt upon me and compelled me to stay, or rather my conscience compelled me. It was a damp night, and I had a little fire made. The wine, fruit, flowers, and candles I had ordered made the bare place for the time being bright and fragrant. Aunt Martha dozed in her chair from sheer fatigue—she had watched many nights—but Miss Grief was awake, and I sat beside her.
“I make you my executor,” she murmured, “as to the drama. But my other manuscripts place, when I am gone, under my head, and let them be buried with me. They are not many—those you have and these. See!”
I followed her gesture, and saw under her pillows the edges of two more copybooks like the one I had. “Do not look at them—my poor dead children!” she said tenderly. “Let them depart with me—unread, as I have been.”
Later she whispered, “Did you wonder why I came to you? It was the contrast. You were young—strong—rich—praised—loved—successful: all that I was not. I wanted to look at you—and imagine how it would feel. You had success—but I had the greater power. Tell me, did I not have it?”
“It is all in the past now. But I am satisfied.”
After another pause she said with a faint smile, “Do you remember when I fell asleep in your parlor? It was the good and rich food. It was so long since I had had food like that!”
I took her hand and held it, conscience-stricken, but now she hardly seemed to perceive my touch. “And the smoking?” she whispered. “Do you remember how you laughed? I saw it. But I had heard that smoking soothed—that one was no longer tired and hungry—with a cigar.”
In little whispers of this sort, separated by long rests and pauses, the night passed. Once she asked if her aunt was asleep, and when I answered in the affirmative she said, “Help her to return home—to America: the drama will pay for it. I ought never to have brought her away.”
I promised, and she resumed her bright-eyed silence.
I think she did not speak again. Toward morning the change came, and soon after sunrise, with her old aunt kneeling by her side, she passed away.
All was arranged as she had wished. Her manuscripts, covered with violets, formed her pillow. No one followed her to the grave save her aunt and myself; I thought she would prefer it so. Her name was not “Crief,” after all, but “Moncrief;” I saw it written out by Aunt Martha for the coffin-plate, as follows: “Aaronna Moncrief, aged forty-three years, two months, and eight days.”
I never knew more of her history than is written here. If there was more that I might have learned, it remained unlearned, for I did not ask.
And the drama? I keep it here in this locked case. I could have had it published at my own expense; but I think that now she knows its faults herself, perhaps, and would not like it.
I keep it; and, once in a while, I read it over—not as a memento mori exactly, but rather as a memento of my own good fortune, for which I should continually give thanks. The want of one grain made all her work void, and that one grain was given to me. She, with the greater power, failed—I, with the less, succeeded. But no praise is due to me for that. When I die “Armor” is to be destroyed unread: not even Isabel is to see it. For women will misunderstand each other; and, dear and precious to me as my sweet wife is, I could not bear that she or any one should cast so much as a thought of scorn upon the memory of the writer, upon my poor dead, “unavailable,” unaccepted “Miss Grief.”
Photo by Jennifer Zdon
Anne Boyd Rioux is a professor at the University of New Orleans and the author/editor of four books, including Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist and Miss Grief and Other Stories, both published by W. W. Norton. She is the recipient of two National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships, one for Public Scholarship. Rioux also writes reviews and essays for general and academic audiences, specializing in biography and women writers. Her current project is Reading Little Women, which will celebrate and reevaluate the classic novel for its 150th anniversary in 2018. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter as well as at her website: anneboydrioux.com/