The Old Five
Constance Fenimore Woolson

THE OLD FIVE by Constance Fenimore Woolson

A schoolmistress in a small mining town on the shore of Lake Superior battles with her emotions. While she affects the sophistication of the upper classes, she struggles to contain her passion for a local miner. At an abandoned mine known as the Old Five, circumstances force her to make a choice.  Go to the tale

   B a c k g r o u n d

  • Story Setting: Dead River, south of Lake Superior
  • Story Date: The 1860's
  • Publication Date: 1876
  • Constance Woolson: 1840-1894

  •    T h e    S t o r y
    (The links bookmark the tale.)

  • The beginning of the tale
  • Miss Farno and schoolmistress meet
  • Young Polly is caught listening in
  • Polly leaves presents for Miss Farno
  • The two women meet Robert Kenrick
  • The two women discuss Polly
  • Kenrick shelters them in a storm
  • Kenrick accompanies them to the Old Five
  • Kenrick is buried in a rock slide
  • Polly and schoolmistress free Kenrick
  • Polly risks her life
  • Six days later. One year later.

  •    T h e    T h e m e s
    (The links bookmark theme-related passages in the color-coded version of the tale.)

  • The Schoolmistress: 1
  • Romance: 1

  •    R e l a t e d    S i t e s

  • The Old Five (facsimile of original journal)

  • Constance Fenimore Woolson

  • The Constance Fenimore Woolson Society

  • Society for the Study of American Women Writers (1871-1900)

  •    I n t r o d u c t i o n

       "The Old Five" is set in Dead River, a mining town in the wilds of the Great Lakes region. Though the reader might expect this area to be tame compared to the western territories, we are assured in the story's opening that the southern shores of Lake Superior were full of the same raw, uncivilized energy and uncivilized inhabitants as the west.

       In this untamed world Constance Fenimore Woolson places three women from different social stations: Miss Farno, a sophisticated young New Yorker who is bored, isolated, and looking for some company and a bit of adventure; Catherine, a schoolmistress who believes she towers above the townspeople in learning and culture but feels inadequate in the presence of the New York sophisticate; and Polly, a plain looking, plain spoken 17 year old who lacks education and follows her instincts and emotions. Woolson weaves the three women's lives together in this tale, revealing their true natures in the climax of the story.

       Though the New York bred Miss Farno is the main character in "The Old Five," Catherine the schoolmistress plays a major role and is the reason this story is included in "School Tales." Through her, we get a glimpse at the type of women who became schoolmistresses and who saw it as their task to educate and civilize the wilder reaches of the country in the second half of the 19th century. We never actually see her anywhere near her schoolhouse, but we get a sense of her teacherly side by observing her with 17 year old Polly, who is both her pupil and her charge.

    Even when Polly is not present, however, Catherine is typical of the schoolmistresses we tend to see in 19th century fiction written after the 1850's, though with the interesting individual traits we can expect from an author of Woolson's quality. Typically, Catherine holds herself above the residents of the area, both in her knowledge and her appearance, and she takes her teaching seriously. She also possesses what tends to be the typical "weakness" of these fictional schoolmistresses -- an emotional side and a sensuality she attempts to suppress but cannot conquer. Because she is young, single, and away from the protection of her family (it's safe to assume that she moved to Dead River to be the schoolmistress, since no family connections are mentioned), she is both eligible and vulnerable in the area of romance.

       By centering the story on the interrelationships of the three women, Woolson hasn't created a romantic triangle so much as a social ladder. On the bottom rung is the 17 year old Polly who knows her place in society and has no desire to change it. At the top of the ladder is the sophisticated Miss Farno, though she is in a bit of danger of slipping down a few rungs if she does not marry well. Between these two is the schoolmistress, who is not as "common" as the common people of the town, but is clearly not from the highest rungs of society. She appears to have a lower to middle class background and a rudimentary education that she constantly flaunts and tries to augment. What separates her from the typical schoolmistress in tales of this type are her aspirations to attain the heights of Miss Farno and her dread of falling to Polly's level. These two emotions drive her admiration for Miss Farno, which borders on adoration, and her distaste for Polly, which borders on contempt. These same emotions fuel the story's central plot line that revolves around her suppressed but undeniable emotions for a rough but educated miner.

       Constance Fenimore Woolson was born in 1840 and grew up in the Cleveland, Ohio, area. In the first part of her literary career, she wrote about frontier life she witnessed in this region, which forms the setting for "The Old Five." She was known for the realism of her fiction and her use of the "local color" style, whose purpose was to capture the specific flavor of a region. "The Old Five" is representative of this style. In the 1870's, after moving to Florida, she began setting her fiction in the South after the Civil War. Later she moved to Europe where she spent the rest of her life and set her later fiction.