Constance Fenimore Woolson’s “Miss Grief” can be read as a comment on the literary position of American women writers near the end of the 19th century. The story contrasts the literary abilities, reputations, and social and economic circumstances of two writers—the unnamed male narrator, who is a social and literary success, and Aaronna Moncrief, the Miss Grief of the title, who lacks social position and literary recognition but probably has greater genius.
A shift in tenses in the story reveals the egoism of the narrator. The first and the last two paragraphs are in present tense while the body of the story is in past, taking the readers back a year to Rome and to the narrator’s four meetings with Moncrief. Their meetings reveal much about the two: what the narrator considers to be the proper position of women, what the two writers value in life, and what they think of themselves, of each other, and of their own and the other’s literary abilities. The narrator is deeply impressed by Moncrief’s art, tries and fails to get it published and to improve it, and watches at her bedside as she dies. Yet despite this experience, the first paragraph of the story reveals a shallow, self-satisfied man, presumably not at all moved by the death of Moncrief or by the part he played in the last months of her life. He makes of the situation a story that he mistakenly believes puts him in a favorable light. Although he begins by claiming he is no fool, near the end of the story he is foolish enough to believe that Moncrief would not want her play published or foolish enough to belief that his audience would accept that view after hearing his story.
“Miss Grief” is appropriately narrated by a male, the voice of power at the time. It is crucial, though, to recognize him as an unreliable narrator. He misunderstands and misrepresents Aaronna Moncrief through much of the story. The narrator’s errors in judgment reveal his naïveté, chauvinism, and egoism. He cannot imagine Moncrief’s practical reason for wanting to learn to smoke, he loves Ethelind Abercrombie’s limitations and wants to keep her confined, he assumes he has both the right and the ability to improve Moncrief’s manuscripts. Moncrief’s character also requires interpretation. She, at times, wants to create a story about herself to the narrator. For example, she allows him to believe that her aunt, Martha, is her maid named Serena. And despite her twice agreeing with the narrator that she approached him for help in publishing her works, she yearns more for recognition than for publication. Readers must judge the story by considering the positions, desires, motives, characters, and actions of the two writers and by evaluating what they say. The story shows a movement by Woolson away from regional American stories toward psychological realism, a technique favored by Henry James.
A number of critics read “Miss Grief,” which was published just weeks after Woolson met James, in the light of the Woolson–Henry James relationship. While clearly neither the narrator and James nor Moncrief and Woolson is a literal parallel, the biographical information is enlightening. The real and fictional authors meet abroad, each woman seeking the introduction. Anne E. Boyd notes that “the characters and subject matter make clear that [“Miss Grief”] was written in anticipation of meeting the great writer [James]” (191). Rayburn S. Moore lists a number of similarities between the narrator and James, such as each having a modest inheritance and each taking Balzac as a model (156). Although unlike Moncrief, Woolson was a popular and respected writer by 1880, her concerns about not being accepted in the highest rank of authors and about the literary situation for American women generally in the 1880s may have shaped Aaronna Moncrief. In her article on “Miss Grief,” Linda Grasso discusses the writing situation for women in the last two decades of the 19th century: “Many ‘new women’ writers . . . found that their newly-defined artistic endeavors were thwarted by two related sources: male colleagues who resented the threat of encroachment on their exclusive preserve, and a male-dominated publishing industry.” Both concerns may play a role in “Miss Grief.”
Aaronna Moncrief hints at the issue of gender discrimination when she explains that her “father was much disappointed that I was not a boy, and gave me as nearly as possible the name he had prepared— Aaron” (445). Later in the story, Moncrief’s aunt, Martha, accuses “literary men” of being “Vampires! . . . tak[ing Moncrief’s] ideas and fatten[ing] on them, and leav[ing] her to starve” (449). Boyd believes this accusation may refer to male writers’ (particularly Henry James, whose Daisy Miller: A Study was published in 1878) having more success with a women’s subject, such as the American woman, since at the time the publishing industry favored males (194–195). Considering the “Vampires!” reference strictly in the context of “Miss Grief,” readers may wonder whether Woolson wants us to consider whether the narrator has taken any ideas from Moncrief’s work to use as his own. Readers have no access to Moncrief’s writing, but the narrator does present a plot summary of one of her stories. In it “a dying girl” is lied to on her deathbed by “a handsome face and a sweet voice” (447). The narrator emphasizes his own lie to Moncrief as she is dying. The parallel calls into question the narrator’s version of why he hides her work. Does he intend to appropriate the work as he seems to have taken charge of Moncrief, calling her “my poor dead, ‘unavailable,’ unaccepted ‘Miss Grief’ ”? (451). Does the narrator keep Moncrief’s art hidden because he fears the public might have one day preferred her work over his?
Boyd, Anne E. Writing for Immortality: Women and the Emergence of High Literary Culture in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004 (see esp. 190–198).
Grasso, Linda. “ ‘Thwarted Life, Mighty Hunger, Unfinished Work’: The Legacy of Nineteenth-Century Women Writing in America.” American Transcendental Quarterly 8, no. 2 (June 1, 1994): 97–118.
Moore, Rayburn S. Constance Fenimore Woolson. Boston: Twayne, 1963.
Woolson, Constance Fenimore. “Miss Grief.” 1880. 6th ed. Vol. C. In The Norton Anthology of American Literature, edited by Ronald Gottesman and Arnold Krupat. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003.