Though The Bostonians is set in New England, it was written by someone who had already chosen to live abroad for nearly six years, and after the death of his parents in 1882 would not set foot in his native country again for twenty more.
Returning to America in the early Eighties, James felt estranged and depressed. He was repelled rather than attracted by post–Civil War prosperity and commercial expansion, and thought Boston both ugly and noisy. He was also struck by the domination of society by women; he spoke of a “deluge of petticoats.” There was some basis for this impression; the heavy casualties of the Civil War and the departure of many men for the Western territories had produced a population imbalance in the East; and women, for the first time, were moving into the professions.
In his Notebooks, James planned The Bostonians as “a very American tale, a tale very characteristic of our social conditions.” He asked himself “what was the most salient and peculiar point in our social life.” The answer was “the situation of women, the decline of the sentiment of sex, the agitation on their behalf.”
In the new movement for women’s rights to vote and for equality in education, James saw the subject for a novel set in the city which for decades had been a center for reform. On the simplest level, The Bostonians is a romance: the story of Olive Chancellor and Verena Tarrant, two intensely committed young women’s rights activists, and Olive’s cousin, the antifeminist Southerner Basil Ransom, who comes between them.
As might have been expected of a book with such a controversial subject, The Bostonians had a mixed reception when it was published in 1886. Henry James considered it has best work to date, and his friend William Dean Howells called it “one of the greatest books you have written.” Yet the reviews were all unfavorable, and the novel was nearly forgotten for over fifty years.
In the conservative 1940s and Fifties The Bostonians was rediscovered by critics who saw James’s portrait of Olive Chancellor and her fellow reformers as admirably satirical and disparaging. Some, like Lionel Trilling, were full of praise for the handsome, ambitious, deeply conservative hero, and quite content that the book should end with his near abduction of the beautiful young feminist Verena. More recently, feminist critics such as Judith Fetterly have concentrated on the defects of Verena’s suitor, and seen her attraction to him either as a regrettable erotic enthrallment, or as a martyr’s wish to experience firsthand the “sufferings of women” of which she has spoken so movingly.
At the beginning of The Bostonians the city itself seems to suffer not only from commercial ugliness but from “the decline of the sentiment of sex” which James wrote of in his Notebooks. It is barren and solitary; the landscape visible from Olive Chancellor’s window is described as “empty,” “lonely,” “anomalous,” “cold,” and “brackish,” adjectives that seem to apply equally to Olive’s spinster…
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Copyright © 1991 by Alison Lurie