The Bostonians by Henry James

The BostoniansInformation

Goodreads: The Bostonians
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1885-86


Young Verena Tarrant seems poised to conquer Boston society as a charming speaker on women’s issues and fierce feminist Olive Chancellor is determined to see her all the way.  However, when Mississippian Basil Ransom enters the picture, the feminist and the Southern chauvinist will have to engage in battle to determine who will possess Verena.


The Bostonians may be considered a classic, but I have to suspect that it may have been far more interesting in its time.  No doubt the depictions of Boston society would have been of more pertinence to contemporary readers while the character of Basil Ransom, a Southerner who fought in the Civil War now transplanted to New England, would have touched on the still-raw emotions created by the conflict.  However, even while I recognize elements that have thematic interest, I found myself mostly engaged with the struggle between the feminist Olive Chancellor and the sexist Ransom–a struggle that often seems far too simplistic to give a book about women’s issues the relevance it deserves.

Though the book touches upon various members of the feminist movement, few of them are painted sympathetically and, even when they are, the feeling remains that the author suspects their motives misguided and their efforts sometimes silly.  Meanwhile, Olive Chancellor, as the most prominent member of the women’s rights circle, manages to gain the status of representation for the whole movement, even as she clearly represents the most extreme side.  Addicted to suffering, determined to find men at fault for all wrongs and women for all rights (the bad women of history, she says, must have been so because of men!), and revengeful to the extreme, Olive hates all men personally and passionately.  When her protegee Verena protests that they have met nice men, Olive refuses to admit it–she hates them for being nice.  It must be an act.  There must be something wrong with them because they are men.  Obsessed with this thought, she bars almost all leisure and pleasure from her life and Verena’s, talking and thinking only of the plight of women throughout history.  Verena expresses once the idea that hearing music made her forget, for a moment, about the plight–but this, to Olive, is practically a sin.

Olive’s all-consuming passion to be revenged on men for history makes her claim Verena possessively.  She controls the girl, makes her report all her actions, wants to make the girl swear off marriage.  She is jealous to the point of absurdity and restrictive to the point of madness.  Accordingly, some readers may wish Basil Ransom success in marrying Verena–a rescue must be made!–but he is just as bad.

Henry James depicts Basil as believing women exist solely to be agreeable to men. He thinks himself still chivalrous in the Southern tradition and tells himself that women do have rights–the right to small attentions from a man, such as having him find a woman a seat in a crowded hall.  However, though Basil thinks himself so fearfully attentive and charming, he repeatedly refuses women even these small attentions when it would interfere with his own desires.  Worse still, he proposes to throw history back farther than it already is, subjugating women even more, making politics available only to a certain class, etc.  The book calls him a “conservative,” but, like Olive, he goes much farther than most of his colleagues.  By the end, he appears as simply odious, delighting in hurting Verena simply because it proves his power as a man over her (one suspects he is secretly frightened by her success while he himself languishes in obscurity and poverty).

The struggle between women and men thus almost verges on the ridiculous, except that most readers will know that men and women like Basil and Olive really do exist.  Still, if the battle of the sexes has to be acted out in this book, it seems strange that no middle road is ever provided.  It is almost as if the author does not believe one can exist, cannot see how a truce is ever to be made.

One might hope that Verena Tarrant herself would provide an answer, or at least some sort of relief–the story has a dreadful aspect to it, filled as it is with unlikable characters and repulsive views.  Verena, though light and pretty, unfortunately seems to have little intelligence–or at least no will to wield it.  She yields to the strongest will in the room time and again; one begins to wonder which thoughts are her own and which the thoughts of another.  She herself seems to have trouble distinguishing.

The Bostonians is no doubt an important work (even more so in its day), but I would never call it a pleasurable read.  I remember it most for its unflattering depictions of just about everyone and everything, and its dismal outlook on the relations of men and women.

Krysta 64

5 thoughts on “The Bostonians by Henry James

    • Krysta says:

      Some people don’t mind unsympathetic characters, but when I’m reading for pleasure and I want to shake all the characters, it can be frustrating!


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