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Elizabeth Maguire is one of several authors (notably Colm Toibin’s The Master) to explore the friendship between the writers Henry James and Constance Fenimore Woolson. Although both writers traveled the world and were unconventional, many people thought Constance was in love with Henry. Maguire’s novel suggests that the truth may have been a little different.
The fictional Constance had earned enough money that she was able to sail to Europe to write fiction overseas. She doggedly pursues meeting Henry James, who was at first resistant but gradually took a shine to Constance. He nicknamed her Fenimore, after her great-uncle James Fenimore Cooper. At first, Constance was a doting pupil. But, gradually, they came to confide in each other about their writing and encourage each other when they were feeling discouraged. At moments of great despair, such as after his father died, Henry would pour out his soul to her. And yet, when Constance discovers one of Henry’s secrets and makes the mistake of confronting him, Henry ultimately uses it against her. (The real Henry James was allegedly bisexual.)
Henry is an omnipresent shadow in Constance’s life, but he is certainly not only the only figure. Constance enjoys the comfort of several gentlemen friends, primarily Clarence King when geography and fate don’t keep the duo apart. She also becomes close with Alice James and her companion, Katherine. It is Alice who sees through Constance, and, rather than being disarmed, she comes to treasure her friendship with Alice. Constance also clearly dotes on her niece during the rare times she sees her, such as during a trip to Egypt.
Throughout the story, Constance becomes deaf and periodically experiences migraines that “are a knife in my head”–and she takes great pains to conceal both facts from Henry. Although her friend Dr. Baldwin is helpful, Constance’s writing takes her to many places where doctors aren’t sympathetic. One professional fits Constance with artificial eardrums, an inadequate precursor to hearing aids. Another doctor gets her addicted to laudanum.
Maguire is adept at vividly explaining this pain without romanticizing it. She takes her time telling Constance’s story. With dispassionate lyricism, the author traces Constance’s evolution from a hungry writer with a fierce independent streak to a woman who feels betrayed by her health and her friendship with Henry. But Constance is not a tragic figure, and up through the last page, she is in charge of her destiny. It is only the interpretation of Constance’s life that is murky.
At first glance, The Open Door is a departure from Maguire’s first novel, a romance/mystery about a publishing executive. But Maguire was a publisher who worked with authors who wrote historical non-fiction. Maguire had told her agent, Betsy Lerner, of her interest in the Woolson-James friendship but put the project aside when The Master was published. She started working on The Open Door in 2006 but died of ovarian cancer before the book was completed. Luckily, Maguire’s partner, Karen, found the entire manuscript in her computer, with only a few missing details that Other Press filled in. This “devotion to the integrity of The Open Door and careful shepherding of it was a gift,” Lerner wrote in Publisher’s Weekly. Readers are indeed fortunate for this gift.
THE OPEN DOOR
Hardcover, $23.95, 236 pgs