Synopses & Reviews
“The story is the journey, not the destination. Or so the philosopher’s say. But this is my story, and it has a beginning, a middle, and an end….”
The Open Door is a luminous and profoundly moving novel inspired by the life of Constance Fenimore Woolson, one of the most widely-read and respected American authors of the nineteenth century. Exploring themes of passion, life, death, friendship, and art, the novel is a vivid evocation of the complex forces behind literary creation.
After years of supporting her mother and a hapless brother through her writing, Constance finds herself in early middle age “hungry, ravenous to see and live as much as possible.” She sails for Europe with a letter of introduction to Henry James, the writer she admires above all others. Constance is intoxicated by Europe, Italy in particular, and she and James eventually meet in Florence. James is delighted by this highly intelligent, independent woman (whom he dubs “Fenimore” as a sign of his esteem) and makes her his confidante. For her part, Constance finds with James “the unequalled joy of never running out of things to say.”
Constance’s courageous, open nature is odds with James’s more secretive one and inevitably leads to friction, transgression, and revenge both private and public. Elegantly conceived and life-affirming, The Open Door is an unforgettable portrait of a remarkable woman who lived with passion and refused to accept the narrowing of her world.
About the Author
Elizabeth Maguire (1958-2006) was born in New York City and had a distinguished twenty-five year career as an editor and publisher. She nurtured numerous prize-winning books and was especially known as a champion of African-American nonfiction and for her deep commitment to African-American writers. Maguire published one novel, Thinner, Blonder, Whiter (2003), during her lifetime. She had just completed her second novel, The Open Door, at the time of her death from ovarian cancer.
Reading Group Guide
1. After meeting Henry James, Woolson says he made her "his project." At the gallery he tries to make her see as he saw. Woolson says, "In this he was like most men." Would that be a true statement today? What was her first impression of James?
2. Henry James asked Woolson where she considered home to be. Her response: "That's a good question Mr. James. I have lived in many places. . . .But for someone who is not attached to anything but her work, like myself, home is where the imagination flowers. Where the writing can be done." She wanted to say, "Home is where I can make a friend, a soul mate, out of someone like you." What do you think of her definition of "home"? How does it compare to yours?
3. In chapter three Woolson shares her thoughts -"Nothing annoys a man more than a woman's success at something he wants to do himself." Discuss Henry James's jealousy over Woolson's success. How did this affect their friendship? How did her relationship with James feed Woolson's writing?
4. Epictetus is referred to by Woolson throughout the novel. What role does Epictetus play in the story?
5. In chapter four Woolson describes James's reaction to his mother's death. "It was difficult to tell what shocked him more: the loss, or the force with which the loss hit him. He was like a man who is hit by a train, who keeps talking about the train being two minutes earlier than scheduled instead of his severed limb." What do you think about this description? How did the loss of his mother affect James and his relationship to Woolson?
6. "There is a kind of woman who insists on loving a man who lacks all the qualities universally considered agreeable in a gentleman. Among my sex, I am that kind of woman." Discuss Woolson's relationship with Clarence King. What did King and Woolson give to each other? Woolson says "Harry was a passion of the mind; King was quite simply, a passion." Compare the two men and her relationships with them.
7. Discuss the views of doctors in the late 19th century, particularly towards women. How was Dr. Baldwin different? Have doctors changed much today?
8. What kind of relationship did Woolson have with her brother Charley? How did she react to his death?
9. After the suicide of Henry Adams' wife, Clover, Woolson tells Alice James, "I know those dark spirits myself. I inherited them from my own father." Alice says to Woolson that the writing must lessen the hold. Woolson responds, "So far it does. But will it always? I would rather stop living, without warning, than try to live when courage had failed me." Is this a prelude to her own suicide?
10. In chapter seven, during a conversation about Henry James between Woolson and Lizzie, Woolson says, "Very social people are the loneliest of all, I think." What are your thoughts on that statement?
11. The theme of friendship and betrayal runs throughout The Open Door. Discuss the friendships between the characters and how they differ. Which ones are healthy? Woolson and James keep many secrets from each other. Are they truly friends or do they selfishly use each other for their own means? How does their friendship influence their writing? At one point James asked Woolson to marry him. Why? Why does she refuse?
12. What changes occur that make Woolson say "Suddenly, the friendship I had sought out with Harry felt like a yoke to me"? How does she react? Have you ever experienced a similar change in a friendship? How did you handle it?
13. How does Woolson's knowledge of Henry James's homosexuality change their relationship? Does the author give us any hints of his sexuality earlier in the novel? When?
14. Woolson says to her sister Clara when they first arrive in England, "Large groups fill me with despair. I would gladly give up twenty dinner parties for one real conversation with a friend." What does this say to you about Woolson? Later, James's sister Alice compares Constance to herself, stating they are both angry women. Woolson seems baffled by the statement. Do you see Woolson as an angry woman? How would you describe her?
15. What is Woolson's reaction to the diagnosis that she is terminally ill? Earlier, Woolson says her work always provides a way out from the demons. Why can't it continue to keep them at bay? How does King's final letter to her play into her death? How do you feel about how Henry James dealt with Woolson's death?
16. Elizabeth Maguire begins chapter one with Woolson reflecting on "the story" and "her story", and mentions her great-uncle James Fenimore Cooper's writing philosophy that "you should keep the reader guessing about what happens next." Did the author keep you guessing? Does this story have "a beginning, middle, and an end"? What parts of Constance Fenimore Woolson's story parallel your own? Has your own story "kept you guessing" what will be next?