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 existence.
Indoors things are not much better. Olive’s parlor, though evidently that of a cultured person, is compared to a corridor, and her friend Miss Birds-eye’s to “an enormous street-car”; the suggestion is that these are not cozy homes, but places one passes through on the way to somewhere else. Later on, when Verena comes to live with Olive Chancellor, the view from her house has become even more unpleasant:
The western windows of Olive’s drawing room, looking over the water, took in the red sunsets of winter; the long, low bridge that crawled, on its staggering posts, across the Charles; the casual patches of ice and snow; the desolate suburban horizons, peeled and made bald by the rigour of the season; the general hard, cold void of the prospect…. There was something inexorable in the poverty of the scene, shameful in the meanness of its details, which gave a collective impression of boards and tin and frozen earth, sheds and rotting pipes, railway lines striding flat across a thoroughfare of puddles….
Verena thinks the view “lovely,” but the implication is that her life with Olive, who would like Verena to promise never to marry, will also be desolate, hard, cold, void, and perhaps even shameful.
New York, where Basil Ransom lives and tries to practice law, is less bleak but hardly more attractive. Outside Ransom’s shabby boarding house is a smelly grocery and a “relaxed and disjointed roadway, enlivened at the curbstone with an occasional ash-barrel or with gas-lamps drooping from the perpendicular,” and there is a mechanical demon even more sinister than the crawling and staggering bridge over the Charles River:
the fantastic skeleton of the Elevated Railway, overhanging the transverse longitudinal street, which it darkened and smothered with the immeasurable spinal column and myriad clutching paws of an antediluvian monster.
But in The Bostonians it is not only cities that are ugly and depressing. Even in full summer the New England countryside appears stunted and barren, at least in Basil Ransom’s eyes:
The shadows grew long in the stony pastures and the slanting light gilded the straggling, shabby woods…there was nothing in the country…that seemed susceptible of maturity: nothing but the apples in the little tough, dense orchards, which gave a suggestion of fruition here and there.
In the Cape Cod village where Olive and Verena go for a vacation with two other unmarried feminists, the ancient reformer Miss Birdseye and the sexless Dr. Prance, the houses are “low, rusty, crooked, distended,…with dry, cracked faces and the dim eyes of small-paned, stiffly-sliding windows.” The cottage Olive has rented is separated from the bay by a “small, lonely garden” and the littered remains of a shipyard.
A skewed vision of the landscape in which he sets his story is not James’s only method of stacking the deck against the reformers. All of them are in some way flawed. Mrs. Farrinder, “the great apostle of the emancipation of women,” is a large, cold, smooth, self-important person with an insignificant husband. Mrs. Tarrant, Verena’s mother, is an overweight, beaten down, socially ambitious frump who has joined her disreputable husband in fraudulent séances and a dubious free-love community; her only claim to respectability is that she is the daughter of a famous male abolitionist. Dr. Prance is “spare, dry, hard, without a curve, an inflection, or a grace” though lively and intelligent. She is perhaps too intelligent for the point James wanted to make, for at the end of the book, quite illogically, we learn that she is no longer in favor of women’s rights.
Miss Birdseye, the former abolitionist who has been “in love…only with causes” all her life, is described by James at the start of the novel as a dim, comic character: “a confused, entangled, inconsequent, discursive old woman.” As the story progresses, however, James warms toward her, seeing her as the last representative of New England transcendentalism. “She was heroic, she was sublime, the whole moral history of Boston was reflected in her displaced spectacles.” Yet his admiration is valedictory and incomplete. Miss Birdseye’s eyesight is weak metaphorically as well as actually, he implies: she cannot see clearly, or discriminate between the noble causes of her youth and the foolish ones of the present day, and her decline in the final chapters signals the end of “the heroic age of New England life.”
James’s most subtle, tragic, and devastating portrait of the contemporary feminist is Olive Chancellor, with “her light-green eyes, her pointed features, and nervous manner,” who is “unmarried by every implication of her being,” and deeply hostile to men. Olive is a serious young woman of independent means, an intellectual who reads Goethe and listens raptly to Beethoven. Her greatest wish is to devote all her energy to the feminist cause; but in fact she has great difficulty in liking most of the people who support it. Though it offends her sensibilities, Olive—like many reformers today—must deal with celebrity-crazed journalists, greedy lecture agents, and society patrons for whom Verena’s remarkable talent as an inspirational “speaker” is merely an occasion for an expensive party.
Olive, who has something of the nervous temperament of James’s invalid sister, Alice, is also afflicted with a New England conscience. She is given to constant self-doubt and questioning of her own motives; almost the first thing we learn about her is that she is “subject to fits of tragic shyness, during which she was unable to meet even her own eyes in the mirror.”
If all this were not enough, James has chosen as his central character and public spokeswoman for feminism a heroine who is essentially and ironically totally unliberated. Verena Tarrant is a reformer only by accident of birth. On her first public appearance, under the mesmeric influence of her father—a shady character who would today probably be making his living as a New Age healer—she repeats the advanced opinions about women’s rights that she has heard at home. One reason her gift for public speaking is valuable to the movement is that she not only presents herself as, but actually is, “feminine” in the most conservative sense of the word. “I am only a girl, a simple American girl,” she tells her audience, “and of course I haven’t seen much, and there is a great deal of life that I don’t know anything about.”
In spite of this disclaimer, Verena is a charismatic figure; at once inspired and ignorant, a late and ambiguous descendant of famous New England preachers from Jonathan Edwards to Ralph Waldo Emerson. This, James seems to imply, is what the great tradition had come to.
Though Verena is innocent herself, she is the cause of very questionable behavior in others. As James tells us, she “had always done everything that people asked.” “What was a part of her essence was the extraordinary generosity with which she would expose herself, give herself away, turn herself inside out, for the satisfaction of a person who made demands on her.” She is also somewhat masochistic: James informs us that “it was in her nature to be easily submissive, to like being overborne.” It is this self-denying wish to please, perhaps even more than her youth, beauty, and extraordinary talent as an orator, that makes her so attractive to both men and women.
James’s fiction, of course, is full of innocent American girls who come to a bad end. Often it is their best qualitities that bring about their destruction, by attracting exactly the wrong sort of men: Isabel Archer’s wealth and wish to do something great in life, or Daisy Miller’s eagerness for experience and naive disregard of convention. Verena’s beauty, generosity, and histrionic gifts have the same effect.
The central conflict in The Bostonians is over who will have possession of Verena. Because she is both naive and passive, her own wishes have little to do with the outcome. Early in the novel she is literally sold by her father to Olive Chancellor for “a very considerable amount”—a transaction which Verena accepts without difficulty: “She had no worldly pride, no traditions of independence, no ideas of what was done and what was not done.”
Olive’s appropriation of Verena, from the start, is compared to a kidnapping:
Olive had taken her up, in the literal sense of the phrase, like a bird of the air, had spread an extraordinary pair of wings, and carried her through the dizzying void of space. Verena liked it, for the most part;…she felt that she was seized, and she gave herself up.
Mr. Tarrant’s, Olive’s, and Basil Ransom’s influence over Verena are all spoken of as a “charm” or a “spell.” The mythical or magical overtones are no accident; The Bostonians can easily be read as a fairy tale. The closest parallel is to the story of Rapunzel, with Verena as the heroine given up by her parents to a witch in exchange for green stuff (not money in the original story, but a leafy vegetable known as rapunzel in German and rampion in English). Her name itself suggests green things—veridian, verdure—and her masses of brilliant hair, like Rapunzel’s, are an important feature of her appearance. Verena is also rescued by a prince from a distant country (in The Bostonians, the deep South), with the metaphoric name of Ransom.
But Basil Ransom is no fairy-tale hero. His feeling for Verena is not so much love as a wish to dominate and overpower, perhaps even to destroy. (“So long as he made her do what he wanted he didn’t care much how he did it.”) Ransom’s political views, including his attitude toward women, are deeply reactionary—“about three hundred years behind the age,” according to an editor who has rejected one of his articles. Where Olive reads Goethe and dreams of the future, he reads Carlyle and reveres the past.
Ransom is convinced that women are “essentially inferior to men, and infinitely tiresome when they declined to accept the lot which men had made for them.” They were, he believes, created to make the other sex happy:
that was the way he liked them—not to think too much, not to feel any responsibility for the government of the world…. If they would only be private and passive!…
“For public, civic uses,” he tells Verena, women are “perfectly weak and second-rate.” There are hints that as a Southerner Ransom thinks of the world in terms of superior and inferior, even of master and slave.
Basil Ransom is also very ambitious, with an “immense desire for success.” Unfortunately, he himself is a failure. His family has lost its property and slaves in the war, and he is unable to publish his reactionary articles or make a living as a lawyer in New York: “He had had none but small jobs, and he had made a mess of more than one of them.” So discouraged is he by his prospects that at one point he thinks seriously of marrying Olive Chancellor’s rich, frivolous sister, Mrs. Luna, who is eager to acquire an aristocratic and decorative husband; in effect, to buy him as Olive has bought Verena. He excuses the transaction by asking himself if it is not in fact his duty to marry Mrs. Luna, so that he will have the leisure to express his political views and the money to publish them.
Verena, on the other hand, is a tremendous success in her career. She is already aware of this at the beginning of the book; the first words we hear her speak are: “I had a magnificent audience last spring in St. Louis.” It has been suggested that one of the reasons Ransom wants, as he puts it, “to take possession of Verena Tarrant” is envious spite; he wants to own her in order to, as he says, “shut her up.”
Basil Ransom’s courtship of Verena has also been seen as an act of political revenge against Olive Chancellor and all she stands for, including the New England abolitionists whom many Southerners thought responsible for the Civil War. From this point of view his campaign is a kind of terrorism. Judith Will has noted that Ransom’s first exclamation on learning of Olive’s political opinions is “Oh, murder!”—a phrase he repeats twice more: once when he hears Verena practicing the speech she intends to give in Boston, and finally just before he goes to the Music Hall to prevent this performance. Later, as he waits there, he feels as if he had “made up his mind, for reasons of his own, to discharge a pistol at the king or president.” And when he succeeds in tearing Verena away from her friends, her family, and the huge audience waiting to hear her speak, it almost seems as if a murder of some sort has taken place.
The Bostonians can also be read as a political allegory, a more subtle and sour version of the many postwar novels in which the main theme was the need for reconciliation between North and South. Often, in these tales, the radical, democratic views and long winters of the North were contrasted with the aristocratic society, lush climate, and sensual warmth of the South, and their political reunion was echoed in a romantic bonding of two former opponents.
In this reading, Ransom’s kinship to Olive is metaphorically appropriate: like North and South they are closely related but become bitter enemies. His abduction of Verena and the destruction of her career is the South’s revenge for the ravages of the Northern armies, as well as a symbolic marriage. Appropriately, the central scene of the book takes place when Verena and Basil Ransom visit Harvard’s Memorial Hall. Ransom is moved by the inscriptions commemorating Harvard students who died in the war: “They touched him with respect,…he forgot, now, the whole question of sides and parties….” Verena is also moved; moreover, she almost immediately betrays Olive Chancellor (“I tell her everything”) by promising to conceal this meeting.
But whereas most post–Civil War romances ended happily, the final scene of The Bostonians is ominous. Ransom’s mere appearance at the Music Hall is enough to make Verena unable to give her speech. Backstage her parents, Olive, her lecture agent, and the attendant journalists are nearly in hysterics; outside the audience begins to roar and stamp. James’s description suggests that they are a mob waiting for its victim; even that the Music Hall is a kind of Roman Colosseum, where Verena is to be thrown to the lions. Instead, it is Olive who goes out to meet the angry crowd as if “offering herself to be trampled to death and torn to pieces” while Ransom drags Verena away in tears. In the famous last sentence of the book, James remarks: “It is to be feared that with the union, so far from brilliant, into which she was about to enter, these were not the last she was destined to shed.”
Men and women cannot easily be reconciled as equals, nor can North and South. James’s conclusion is pessimistic, but it is one that history over the next hundred years was in large part to justify.
Copyright © 1991 by Alison Lurie