Sunday, 16 November 2014

The Other Woman

When I was writing a previous post, I came across the name of Julia Constance Fletcher, the American writer for whom Alfred Sassoon is said to have left Theresa.  For some reason, she has never been on my radar previously, and I started to wonder about her.  There was a limited amount of information on-line, but here's what I've established so far.

Fletcher was born in 1853, making her about eight years older than Alfred, which puts paid to any theory that he left Theresa for a younger woman; Theresa was the same age as Constance.  Under her pseudonym, "George Fleming", Fletcher was a prolific writer, turning out such gems as The Head of Medusa (1880) and  A Nile Novel.

The more I find out about Constance, the more interesting a character she seems.  Much of her attraction, I would suggest, is the result of her unusual upbringing.  Her father, James Cooley Fletcher (1823-1901), was himself the son of a prominent Indiana citizen, the banker Calvin Fletcher.  Fletcher Junior moved in literary circles; he was a close friend of the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, and also knew Henry James.

In about 1850, James Fletcher married Henriette Malan, daughter of a Swiss clergyman.  He had met her in Europe, but spent some years working as a missionary in South America.  Being a Presbyterian minister did not prevent James from showing off, and in 1866 he constructed Hawkswood, a mock “castle” (in my opinion, suspiciously similar to the Addams Family house) on the banks of the River Merrimac.  By this time, however, Henriette had left him for Eugene Benson, a painter, and the couple had moved to Italy, taking with them Henriette’s two children by Fletcher, Constance and her brother Edward.  Constance eventually settled in Venice.

Her father continued his career, marrying twice more after his divorce from Henriette and enjoying a successful career as a diplomat as well as writing about his experiences in South America.

Constance herself had several dalliances, including one with Oscar Wilde, who, while still an studying at Oxford, dedicated his 1878 prize-winning poem "Ravenna" to "my friend George Fleming".  Her novel of the same year, Mirage, is semi-autobiographical, reflecting her experiences in Wilde’s company.  Henry James was one of her visitors in Venice; although a friend of her father, he was close enough in age to have been attracted to her.

A later novel, Andromeda, published in 1885, was secretly subsidised by none other than Alfred Sassoon, but the nature of his relationship with Fletcher at this point is unclear.  Siegfried was not yet born, and it seems Theresa did not find out about Alfred's infidelity until they took a holiday in Venice in 1888 and she actually met Fletcher - or perhaps not even then.  Alfred finally moved out of the family home in 1891, but did not move in with Fletcher, who had no shortage of other admirers.  He remained in Britain.

Gertrude Stein met Fletcher in Italy in 1911, long after Alfred's death, and one of Stein's least-known works, A Portrait of Constance Fletcher, was published in 1922.   Don't bother reading it if all you want is to find out more about Fletcher, because it contains no biographical data.  Only if you are a fan of Stein, or at least familiar with her style, is it likely to mean something to you.

I feel certain there are people reading this who know much more about Julia Constance Fletcher than I do - I have only scratched the surface, and have not even had the dedication to read any of her novels in the course of my brief research.  If anyone would like to fill us all in on her life in more detail, please feel free to do so in the Comments box!
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