Henry James’s “The Bostonians”

If you are a fan of Henry James, you probably peruse his elegant sentences in your study or office where husband, cats, dogs, in-laws, friends, and political canvassers are unlikely to interrupt you.  While reading The Bostonians, NEVER open the door to well-meaning Democratic presidential canvassers, because they’ll talk your ear off just as verbosely as James’s political enthusiasts do in The Bostonians

The Bostonians, published in 1886,  is a strange, intricate, often playful narrative about a tussle of love and politics between the sexes, set appropriately after the Civil War.  Though this novel is not his his subtlest, it is very enjoyable.

In this partly satiric novel, an emotional tug-of-war is fought between post-Civil War progressives and conservatives. Naturally, the well-educated New Englanders are the best-organized.  The Bostonian abolitionists have triumphed, and now they are fighting for women’s suffrage.

The Bostonians is also a twisted love story,  in which two suitors contend for the affections of Verena Tarrant, a young woman who is an up-and-coming lecturer for the Women’s Movement.  Olive Chancellor, a wealthy, neurotic spinster in Boston, becomes obsessed with Verena, to the point that she pays off Verena’s unsuitable parents so she and Verena can live together undisturbed.  She insists she is training Verena—but her sexual feelings are obvious to the reader.  Whether Verena returns them is unclear—it seems unlikely—but their friendship is not only close but characterized by hysteria and sexual jealousy.   At one point, Olive tries to procure a promise that Verena will never leave her for a man.  Realizing she has gone too far, Olive does has the sense to withdraw this request.

Olive’s rival is her cousin, Basil Ransom,  who lost his estate in Mississippi during the Civil War.  He is an unsuccessful lawyer in New York City and an arch-conservative writer whose right-wing essays have  not been published.  He believes women belong in the home, that only the most intelligent should be educated, and and that masculinity is undermined by the rise of the suffrage movement.  

Some critics read this novel as a satire of the women’s movement, and it is true that Olive is not James’s cup of tea, nor anyone else’s.  On the other hand, he is sympathetic to an aged abolitionist-turned-feminist, Miss Birdseye, who has given everything she has to various causes, and to Dr. Prance, who is so absorbed by her medical studies that she ignores all politics.  In her view, there are few differences between men and women.  

Verena is the character we all love.  She is charming, kind, talented, and very smart.  She does not want to hurt Olive, who has taught her so much; the two are genuinely close friends.  But Olive’s tantrums whenever a man approaches, especially Basil, with whom Verena falls in love, are unmanageable.  Verena is willing to sacrifice everything for Olive, or thinks she is.  Fortunately, Henry James will not be cruel to Verena–but he undercuts the traditional “happy ending.”  We reluctantly realize that neither the hysterical Olive nor the domineering Basil are likely to make Verena  happy.

The unfavorable portrait of  lesbians does seem to be common in 19th- and 20th-century literature.  In D. H. Lawrence’s The Fox, two women, Banford and March, struggle to run a farm on their own, but a fox keeps stealing their chickens.  When a soldier (another fox) shows up and begins to work for them,  March, the more “masculine” woman, is threatened.  (I haven’t read this in years, so I’m not quite sure if the women are lesbians or if it’s only latent.)  I can’t think of any other anti-lesbian novels at the moment, but I’m sure I’ve read some.

The Bostonians is beautifully-written, sometimes comical, other times frustrating and horrifying.  I can’t pretend I agree with James’s politics, but then what are they?  He’s not entirely on either political side in The Bostonians.  Whatever he believed, this is a classic.