The Antiquary and Literary Criticism in the Short Stories of Constance Fenimore Woolson

Article excerpt

Constance Fenimore Woolson, the grandniece of James Fenimore Cooper and a prolific author in her own right, was wandering through Cairo's Gizeh Museum in 1890 when she came upon a giggling, chatting group of "Cairo ladies" who were also exploring its collection of antiquities. Woolson writes of their chatter as a startling sound in the otherwise empty museum, "partly because of the echo, and partly also, I think, on account of the mystic mummy cases which stand on end and look at one so queerly with their oblique eyes." She draws attention to the way the women's conversation fills the silent space of the museum; their behavior is relaxed, and they experience relative freedom without their veils and eunuch attendants. Woolson remarks, "The most modest of men--a missionary, for instance, or an entomologist [sic]--would, I suppose, have put them to flight" (Mentone, Cairo and Corfu 174). (1) Because no men are present, she is able to observe the "Cairo ladies" more freely than she otherwise would.

Soon thereafter, while the women are relaxing in the nearby museum garden, their eunuch attendants burst upon the scene and quickly veil them. Woolson remarks,

  [T]here was no real resistance; there was only a good
  deal of laughter.

  I dare say that there was more laughter still (under
  the veils) when the cause of all this haste appeared,
  coming slowly up the stairs. It was a small man of
  sixty-five or seventy, one of my own countrymen, attired
  in a linen duster and a travel-worn high hat; his
  silver-haired head was bent over his guide-book,
  and he wore blue spectacles. I don't think he saw
  anything but blue antiquities, safely made of stone.
  (178)

Woolson's description of the man, who is older, "small" and "travel-worn" in appearance, and too focused on his book and the antiquities to notice the women, marks him as an antiquary, typically imagined as an older gentleman who takes an almost obsessive interest in antiquities. He interrupts the women's stolen moment of pleasure and, in spite of his less-than-masculine appearance and implied lack of virility, seems to restore patriarchal order in a space that had been given over temporarily to the women's relative ease and liberty. Their muffled laughter remains, however, as a sign that they find him a figure of ridicule rather than a true sign of male authority.

This seemingly casual and humorous travel anecdote illuminates the critical connections Woolson had been making between antiquarianism and women's art in her short stories before 1890. These stories often turn thematically on the struggle by Woolson and other women writers to be acknowledged as artists in the literary establishment during a time when women's writing was often assigned second-class status. In the Cairo museum, the author notices how an institutional space dedicated to the great works and dusty civilizations of the past can be filled intriguingly by the voices of women, who must veil and silence themselves in the presence of the male antiquarian. Their laughter at the obvious absurdity of the situation, though, cannot be completely silenced.

In her stories, Woolson equates contemporary literary and artistic criticism with the often-lampooned pastime of antiquarianism, revealing the absurdity of critical intrusion and misinterpretation in a literary establishment that, like the museum, would seemingly be improved if it could be filled with women's voices. Treasures, artifacts, and discoveries linked to her women characters are unearthed, interpreted, and assigned value, often by an antiquary-figure who intrudes just as arbitrarily as had the old man in her Cairo anecdote. Antiquarian misinterpretation consigns Woolson's women characters to artistic oblivion as their great works are undervalued and passed over. Worse, such misinterpretation can stunt the growth of an aspiring woman artist. Woolson presents the interpretive relationship between the male antiquary and women's art according to what she saw as the tendency of myopic critics to misinterpret, overlook, or undervalue her own art as well as that of other aspiring women artists. …