Poet, novelist, memoirist. The exact year of Woolsey’s birth is not known–estimates vary from 1895 to 1900–but what is certain is that she was born and raised on Breeze Hill Plantation just outside of Aiken, South Carolina. The daughter of Charleston socialite Elizabeth Gammell and New York banker William Walton Woolsey, Gamel Woolsey–in adulthood she adopted as her first name a shortened version of her mother’s maiden name–spent what she later recalled as an idyllic childhood on the rural property that her father had purchased and that is still occupied by a branch of the family.
After the death of her husband in 1910, Woolsey’s mother packed up her two daughters and returned to Charleston where both girls attended Ashley Hall, an exclusive school for young ladies. As a member of Charleston society, Woolsey savored the often glittering social opportunities available to young women of her circle but also bristled at the restrictive gender roles imposed by the social conventions of that time. Very early, she sought escape through creative pursuits, acting in student dramatic productions and leading the editorial staff of the school literary magazine.
A diagnosis of tuberculosis in 1917–her father had suffered from the same condition and had moved to Aiken because of its reputation as a health resort–cut short the path that her family had set for her, which included an eventual marriage to a young man of her social station, and freed Woolsey to pursue her artistic inclinations. Accordingly, after a recuperative period in a sanitarium, she set out for New York City, found a place in Greenwich Village, and actively pursued a career as a poet.
All the while, men pursued her. First came a marriage to New Zealand journalist Rex Hunter–although they never officially divorced, the couple separated within four years of tying the knot–and then a long transatlantic affair with British writer Llewelyn Powys, who was himself married at the time to American writer Alyse Gregory–the latter fretted over her husband’s affection for Woolsey but supported his quest to have a child by the younger woman–and, finally, a forty-year relationship with writer Gerald Brenan. Woolsey’s delicate beauty and innate sensitivity aroused in her male admirers a desire to protect her from the larger world.
In England, while slowly extricating herself from the Powys entanglement and slowly awakening to the possibility of a life with Brenan, Woolsey published one book of poems entitled Middle Earth in 1931. A year later, in 1932, she confronted the aborted publication of her first novel One Way of Love–it was eventually released posthumously in 1987. Fearing legal problems because of the book’s rather straightforward depiction of a young woman’s determination to find a lover to match her dreams, the publisher Victor Gollancz changed his mind at the last minute. The book, which incorporates largely autobiographical material in a poetic style, focuses on the fate of Mariana, a southern girl who moves to the big city where she is immersed in a bohemian world of writers and artists and where she faces a number of challenges, including an unwanted pregnancy, in her quest to find romantic fulfillment.
Woolsey and Brenan moved to Spain in 1935; and except for a period during World War II when they were forced to return to England, Woolsey lived in Andalusia until her death in 1968. Her first-hand account of the Spanish Civil War, published in England as Death’s Other Kingdom in 1939 and in America as Malaga Burning in 1998, is probably the most important of her works published during her lifetime. It is an eyewitness record of the early years of the war by a foreign resident whose life and the lives of the natives of the coastal city of Malaga are forever changed by the bloody conflict.
Her other book inspired by her adopted country is a collection of popular folk tales that she translated into English; first published in 1944, Spanish Fairy Stories was reissued in an expanded edition with illustrations by Anglo-Spanish artist Armengol in 1946.
As with her first novel, however, most of Woolsey’s works have seen the light of day after her death. Her poetry was issued in a number of volumes by Kenneth Hopkins and the Warren House Press in the United Kingdom: Twenty-Eight Sonnets (1977), The Last Leaf Falls (1978), Middle Earth (reprint, 1979), The Seeds of Demeter (1980), The Weight of Human Hours (1980), and Collected Poems (1984). The very best of these poems are either nostalgic–“All That the Child Remembers Now” and “On Breeze Hill Plantation” hearken back to her formative years in Aiken– or echo some of the themes of her adult fiction–“For the Flesh” captures the urgency of physical love.
Much of this poetic sensibility is also evident in her long lost novel Patterns on the Sand, which she wrote in England in 1947 but withdrew from submission when it suffered rejection by just one publisher. Rediscovered in manuscript form in a library in Texas in 2000, the novel is set in the South Carolina lowcountry during the period that Woolsey herself was reaching early adulthood in Charleston. The book finally found a publisher in 2012 when Sundial Press in the United Kingdom released a hardcover edition, a project spurred in part by the author’s posthumous induction into the South Carolina Academy of Authors in 2011.
Mack, Tom. Circling the Savannah. Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2008.
Ozieblo, Barbara. Introduction. Patterns on the Sand. By Gamel Woolsey. Sherborne, U.K.: The Sundial Press, 2012.