Escape to What? Challenges of Time Abroad

July 3, 2024 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

Dear Friends: 

It’s been a minute, as they say, since I last wrote. And I have traveled a few miles since then, including home from Italy to the Missouri Ozarks—a stark change. But life is full of joys and challenges wherever we are. (More of that below.) In the past weeks, several of you have become new subscribers—thank you, and welcome! To all of you, whether recent or more seasoned, if you like what you read here, please take time to share the post or to let me know. It helps a lot. If you’re reading on Substack, remember to “like” it there. It will help others find the newsletter on Substack. 

In mid-May I wrote about Laura Towne Merrick, a nineteenth-century Philadelphian drawn to Italy “like a magnet.” She lived the last years of her life abroad, as did the subject of this month’s newsletter, Constance Fenimore Woolson. Woolson takes center stage here, as I share parts of the travels I made in May with a group of intrepid “Woolites,” admirers of this nineteenth-century author.  

If you know nothing of this phenomenal writer, who has been overshadowed by her famous friend Henry James, or if you don’t like literature from way back then, have no fear. This month’s All Things Italy offers several opportunities for you. First, you’ll see some references to lesser-visited sites in Venice, Florence, Rome, and the Sorrento area—should you have travel on your mind. You’ll also gain an idea of the types of small group trips I have been organizing since 2013. (Let me know if you want to be on a list for notification about future ones or if you want help organizing your Italy travels. I’m happy to help with both.)  And finally, you likely will learn something new about Woolson, which may push you to pick up one or two of her short stories.  

The journey of the Woolites in May and the lives of Woolson and Merrick raise the question of what people are looking for when they go abroad. Even more, though, they put some realities in front of us. Going abroad is not always the Great Escape people imagine. Spoiler: Woolson died in Venice after jumping from a window in the palazzo she rented on the Grand Canal. Fortunately, none of us following in her footsteps had such a jolting experience. Yet through our explorations of Woolson’s life in Italy (she had many glorious years of productive writing in Florence and Venice), we, too, met unexpected challenges as well as joys. 

This trip, co-led by Woolson biographer Anne Boyd Rioux and myself, had a goal of deepening travelers’ understanding of this woman’s life abroad. We were fortunate to have among us Sharon Dean, an editor of Woolson’s letters, and several who have published books and articles on Woolson’s numerous writings. They contributed to the conversations and insights we shared. In addition to the intensity and joys of bringing together a bunch of women with a common interest, this carefully-crafted small group trip reinforced the struggles of being abroad. A rainy tour on the Grand Canal, followed by Venice’s infamous acqua alta, which flooded a trattoria where we dined, marked (marred?) our time in that historic city. In Rome, taxi strikes and tired legs reminded us that we were not at home, where cars and easy chairs might have consoled us.  

Anne and I, smiling in Venice despite the rain—and before the acqua alta. Photo: Sharon Bylenga

Time abroad is tough,* but so is the life of a writer. Woolson wrestled with both. She faced at least a double dose of challenges, which culminated in that late-night/early morning leap. (If you want to know more about these, read Anne’s biography of Woolson, Portrait of a Lady Novelist. Beyond that, see a recent issue of Anne’s newsletter, “Two Years Ago I Quit My Life,” in which she refers to some of the struggles she has faced since heading abroad to devote herself to full time writing. 

[*I’ll follow up on this topic of “challenges with life abroad” in a future issue, where I interview contemporary expats for their insights. Stay tuned!]

Before reading some of the highlights of the trip Anne and I organized, here are a few facts about Woolson’s life and writing and my heartfelt connections with them. 

Woolson & Some Personal History 

I first heard Woolson’s name in 2010, while preparing to teach a class on US authors in Italy. “Who,” I asked, when a professor friend suggested I read the short story, “A Florentine Experiment,” which draws from that relationship with James. I had no idea then that fourteen years later, I’d be leading a group of travelers in her footsteps. But I read the story and was hooked. Since then, connections with the Woolites and the Constance Fenimore Woolson Society have enriched my understanding and fed my love of this woman’s life and work.  Several of these—in addition to a love of Italy—connect me to her.  

First, she was born in 1840 in Claremont, NH—a town not too far from where my husband grew up and through which we have often passed.  Then, after Woolson’s family moved west to the new and booming frontier town of Cleveland, their vacations took her out of the city into the rural areas she loved. In addition to the Great Lakes (especially the area around Mackinac, Michigan), her family sometimes went south to vacation among the religious community settled at Zoar, Ohio. (My first visit to the historic Zoar settlement,  where I gave a talk on the Shakers, was for a Communal Studies Association conference. I knew nothing about Woolson then. Since that first visit, I have returned twice—both times with an emphasis on Woolson.)  

The natural beauty of these rural areas and the relationship between them and urban development became a subject of Woolson’s first published writings. She had won a writing prize in high school, but her first sketch on Zoar, called “The Happy Valley,” appeared in Harper’s in 1870. The Zoar stories “Soloman” in the Atlantic in 1873 and “Wilhelmina,” also in the Atlantic, in 1875, are among the more than eighty works of poetry, non-fiction and fiction she produced just during these first five years of her rising career. All were published in prominent venues.  

This copy of an 1887 issue of Harper’s, featuring Woolson on the cover, is Venice’s Biblioteca Marciana, which our group visited. Photo: Sharon Bylenga

After 1875, Woolson traveled to and lived in St. Augustine, Florida, and throughout the southern states, as well as in Washington, DC, and New York. Following her mother’s death in 1879, she sailed for Europe and continued writing travel sketches and fiction. In Italy Woolson spent a short time in Rome, where she later was buried, and she spent much of the winter and early spring of 1882 in Sorrento. But she lived longer in Florence and in Venice, where she died in 1894.  

Woolson’s proliferate writing—doubling the number of publications from those first five years—continued throughout her life. One of her novels, Horace Chase, along with two collections of Italian stories, were published posthumously.  (See a chronological bibliography of her works, many available online, here.)

The cultures Woolson experienced in the southern US and abroad would factor into her work, much as what is now the northern Midwest had. Regardless of setting, many of these pieces explore the themes of mother-son relationships, women inside and outside of marriage, female authorship, and being an outsider when living within any community. Woolson lived a rather nomadic life, although she always seemed to hunger for and reveal a sense of place in her writings. Woolson’s fiction is poignantly realistic—although she wrote in a period when many women writers were dubbed “sentimental” or “romantic.” Rereading Woolson’s Italian fiction and letters in preparation for the trip, I came to appreciate more deeply the dark realism of her writing about the challenges of living abroad. My favorites are “The Front Yard” and “A Transplanted Boy,” although neither of these stories is set in a place we Woolites visited. 

Off the Beaten Track? 

A few days ago a friend asked whether we included the popular tourist sites in our tour. As Anne and I crafted our itinerary, we knew many in our group would have already visited the super popular sites, such as Venice’s Basilica of San Marco, and we knew we could not go everywhere. Instead, we highlighted lesser-visited Woolson-affiliated spots, such as her homes in Venice and Florence, libraries with her materials, and the cemetery where she was buried in Rome. This decision also helped us make the best use of our time by avoiding major crowds and lines.  

Yet we also assisted travelers who had not seen the more popular places in getting to them.  We advised that they visit them during free time. In Florence it was the Uffizzi Galleries, the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (known popularly as the “Duomo”), and Michelangelo’s David in the Accademia. In Rome we suggested the Vatican Museums, although our group visited the popular Pantheon and the Colosseum, as Woolson and as almost every other nineteenth-century visitor from the US did.  

To bring our visits to life, we read or heard read bits and pieces from Woolson’s writings—her letters, diaries, travel sketches and fiction. It was these words that pushed us deeper into both her loves and the challenges of life abroad. 

Venice: Woolson and the Water 

As we explored Venice we remembered how much she loved water. No wonder she chose this city for the final years of her life! It wasn’t so much the large community of expats settled in palazzi along the Grand Canal. She always loathed the inane surface conversations of social events. Rather, it was the wonders of the waters (along with the wealth of history and art in the heart of the city). The canals and lagoons wending through the city of islands charmed her. 

In the days before motorized vaporetti and water taxis that shuttle people along the canals and to further islands, Woolson traveled by gondola. She wrote of the many islands she visited, including St. Georgio, the Giudecca, Murano, Burano, Sacca Sessola, St. Michele,  Sant’Erasmo, and the Lido. She, like many other privileged expats, had her own gondolier, Angelo, available to take her where and when she wanted. Woolson loved to float in her water world—perhaps reminiscent of her younger years when she spent time on the Great Lakes and the waters of Florida.  To follow in Woolson’s steps, we took a (now-touristy) gondola ride.

Our group’s two gondolas Credit: Sharon Bylenga

We also visited St. Georgio island. There the monastery’s bell tower offers a fantastic view of the area and its many islands. We anticipated a trip to the island of the Lido and its St. Niccolò and Malamocco. A forecast of torrential rain shifted our plans.  Instead, we focused on the art of some off-the-beaten path buildings Woolson loved. At the gothic Church of Madonna dell’Orto, we admired some of Tintoretto’s paintings and tomb.  At the School of San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, we saw Vittore Carpaccio’s bright paintings. Among Woolson’s favorites, The Vision of St. Augustine, prominently features a dog. Perhaps it attracted Woolson, whose beloved pet Tello (short for Othello), featured in her letters and notes as affectionately as did her gondolier.     

A partial view of Carpaccio’s Vision of St. Augustine

The predicted torrential rains did arrive. They were a reminder that even the best laid plans can go awry. Fortunately, we laughed our way through the rainy Grand Canal tour and the later acqua alta, despite wet shoes and wet clothing. Anne and I were glad that we had advised the group to be flexible. Being prepared for deviations from the expected is essential to time abroad.  

To ground our time in Venice, our small group interacted with two resident experts, Professor Rosella Mamoli and author Betty Carioli, who know Woolson’s life and work. With Mamoli, we saw some of Woolson’s books and papers in the special collections at the national library, the Biblioteca Marciana, and learned more about it and its founding in the 15th century from Professor Monica Donaglio. 

Florence: Woolson Inside and Outside the City   

As much as outings on the water were important to Woolson in Venice, escaping the city’s stones was also important to her in Florence and Rome. During our group time we took outings to the hilltop village of Fiesole, to see the Roman and Etruscan ruins Woolson enjoyed, and to the hilltop neighborhood of Bellosguardo, where Woolson lived among other expats. Henry James, and earlier Nathaniel Hawthorne, were attracted to the views and the cooler climate in this lush region of green.   

View of Florence from Bellosguardo Credit: Sharon Bylenga
Tower of Villa Montaiuto, featured in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Marble Faun and where he lived while writing the novel
Woolson’s home during her favorite period in Bellosguardo, outside Florence

Within the city itself, we saw several first editions of Woolson’s novels and Italian stories at the Gabinetto Vieusseux, a library where she held a membership during several years. The now-public library is housed partially in the Palazzo Strozzi, a building Woolson visited and admired. In addition we strolled along the Arno River, where Woolson lived on the block of the Lungarno Guicciardini, when she first arrived in Florence. And we visited the nearby Casa Guidi, where poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning lived and wrote during the last years of her life.  

Also within the city, we visited places Woolson visited and wrote about: the museum of the church and cloisters of San Marco, the Medici Chapels, and the church of Santa Maria Novella. At each of these Anne shared with us the commentary Woolson wrote of them: about Fra Angelico’s paintings in the first, Michelangelo’s Night and Day in the second, and the numerous Renaissance frescoes and cloisters in the last.  

As we tired from walking and visiting, we came to terms with aspects of Woolson’s expat life. For example, when she first arrived in Florence, visiting many sites with James, she found herself too distracted to write much. But we also felt the discipline of her usually intense schedule: writing in the morning and early afternoon, followed by long walks in later afternoon and evening. Woolson’s experiences abroad were no escape from the realities of mental and physical labors. 

Rome: Woolson’s Final Resting Place 

In Rome we considered the narrow streets behind the Pantheon, which Woolson featured in her “Street of the Hyacinth.” And we reflected on her sketch of inside the famous domed structure, where she saw Princess Margherita mourning in front of her father-in-law’s tomb. (Victor Emmanuel II, unified Italy’s first king, died in 1878, just a few years before Woolson arrived in Rome in 1881).  Although we do not have the exact address of Woolson’s lodging in Rome, we roamed around and up the Spanish Steps, an area populated by other expats. Some of us visited the Doria Pamphilj galleries, where Woolson admired Velásquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, while others made their way to the Vatican Museums. The taxi strike and getting about in the heat almost did us in. Tourism is tiring. 

Velásquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X

But a night’s rest rejuvenated us for the highlights of our second day in the Eternal City. At the American Academy of Rome (AAR), we saw the collection of books Woolson passed along to her sister Clara and niece Clare Benedict. The books were acquired only recently by the AAR. Before, they were left for public access at the Cimitero Acattolico (Non-Catholic Cemetery), where the Benedicts and Woolson were buried.

Our visit to the cemetery after the AAR kept us immersed in quiet spaces. We were outside the noisy and crowded historic city center, which Woolson would have appreciated.

Woolson’s grave in Rome’s Cimitero Acattolico Credit: Sharon Bylenga

Others interred in this locale include the famous poets Percy Shelley and John Keats, sculptor William Wetmore Story’s wife, and the first US minister plenipotentiary to Italy, George Perkins Marsh.  

The trip offered an four day extra option—casually called “the after party.” It included an extra night in Rome, with an excursion outside the city walls, into what Woolson knew as the “campagna,” or countryside. For that we visited the catacombs of St. Agnes and the mausoleum of Constantia, half-sister of the Emperor Constantine. The quiet of the complex, its basilica, and gardens fed our hunger to escape the city chaos. The weariness that comes with travel reminded us only slightly of what ongoing expat life must have been for Woolson and others who choose or have chosen to live abroad. 

Sorrento & Surroundings 

The “after party” also included a visit to the Sorrento peninsula, where Woolson wintered in 1882. Her stories “A Pink Villa” and “Neptune’s Shore” feature its landscape and historic sites.  While these tales depict some locals, they feature expats and their struggles more prominently—common to Woolson’s fiction. Our lodgings here were a literary site, the Villa Crawford in the coastal town of Sant’Agnello, adjacent to Sorrento. The villa was home to Bostonian expat novelist Francis Marion Crawford, whom Woolson mentioned in one of her letters. He lived in the area in hopes of improving his poor health. (Crawford died in the villa in 1909.)  

Villa Crawford on the Sorrento Peninsula

From here excursions over the rugged terrain to Pompeii and Paestum brought to mind the challenges Woolson and other nineteenth-century travelers faced as they journeyed without cars to these two sites. In Paestum, as Anne shared from Woolson’s writings about the Temple of Neptune, we offered our guide new information from the perspective of a nineteenth-century Grand Tour traveler. We lunched at a local cheese farm, appreciating Woolson’s love for the natural world and excursions that took her out of urban centers. 

Temple of Neptune, Paestum, with our guide Silvia Braggio Credit: Sharon Bylenga
My favorite fresco from Paestum’s Tomb of the Diver, about 500 BCE

Of course, I couldn’t leave the Sorrento peninsula without a sea swim. In Venice and on the Bay of Naples, our group debated. Did Woolson swim? Or did she just enjoy floating in boats, wading, and splashing about. If she didn’t swim, it would be one of several ways that my life differs from hers. Nonetheless, looking out over the water toward Vesuvius, I understood how she was drawn to this magnetic peninsula, its deep history, and the waters that surround it.  

Waterfront below Sant’Agnello, with a view of Vesuvius over the Bay of Naples

I left Sorrento (and Italy soon after) with the usual hopes—to be back soon and often. I remain a lover of “all things Italy” and enjoy sharing some of those things with you. Thanks for reading along—if you’ve made it this far. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions. Post them in the comments, or send a message by reply.

Until next month,


Other Trips: What’s Next? 

By the time our group reached Florence, Anne and I were already talking about “the next trip.” Thanks to several of you who reached out on social media back then to let us know you’re interested.  No details have been set; it remains on the horizon. . . . 

Meanwhile, as I met with a friend this week to talk about travels, she asked whether I do food tours. (She knows I’ve written about utopian foodways.) I had to give her the honest answer: no, not yet. However, there are many out there who do, and about which I’ve heard great things.   

  • Author Pamela Toler raves about a food tour of Sicily she took with Zingerman’s Deli. You can read what she wrote as about that trip here. (And subscribe to her newsletter to read more of her humorous and accurate insights on history, of course.)       
  • Food writer Elizabeth Minchilli just released her newest food tours of Puglia and Sicily for 2025. See more here
  • And this week, Italy Writers on Substack featured food writer Domenica Marchetti, who also offers food tours. (I own her Rustic Italian recipe collection.)

I have not yet made plans for curating a small group trip (in 2025). However, I am building a list of people who have expressed interest. Send me a note if you want to be added! To see some details about past trips, look here, here, and here. Have a theme that interests you? Send them along. I’m open to suggestions and to curating a new adventure. 

Engaging Italy is still Available 

If you’re interested in women writers and expat life, you may be interested in the project which instigated this newsletter. My book Engaging Italy: American Women’s Utopian Visions and Transnational Networks refers to Woolson and her dark stories. It also discusses other nineteenth-century US women who faced challenges as they lived abroad. It is available from SUNY Press here. Also, I’m available to give talks connected to the book. Send me a message, and we’ll see what we can work out. 

And, if you’re on Substack, don’t forget to “like” what you read so that others can find All Things Italy! 

Etta Madden