on March 12, 1999
Though James is certainly not known for his sense of humor, he displays a keen sense of satire in this novel. The two senses are not identical--many readers expect satire to make them laugh out loud, and those readers will be disappointed in this book. James' satire is more likely to make readers feel uncomfortable. He repeatedly mocks the two main characters and their struggle to control a young woman who hardly seems worth the effort that these two egoists put into her pursuit. James allows Olive Chancellor and Basil Ransom (whose names evoke the satiricomic tradition in which he is writing) to take themselves seriously while allowing the readers to see them as stereotypes. While satire depends on such stereotypes, James' fiction typically delves into the psychological. At times, he is able to keep this balance, but often the tension is too great and the characters seem to fall flat. Verena Tarrant--the object of Olive and Basil's affection--is virtually absent psychologically (as others have noted), but her lack of character is built into the novel. She begins as her father's possession, and the novel hinges on whether Olive or Basil get to own her next. While the novel is certainly not without faults, it is interesting to watch a novelist as self-conscious as James attempt to write a novel of this type. While he wasn't destined to become a comic genius, this novel is a step toward the psychological, satirical and comic success he was to have in a novel such as "The Ambassadors."
on November 15, 2000
This is the high point of the Henry James middle period. I don't think any book so perfectly captures the spirit of a city than The Bostonians does. It's obvious that James is critical of the people of Boston, and has great fun with a great era (spirituality, free love, communal living, feminism, and seances in the post-Civil War America), yet at the same time, I think this is a great description (and a truthful one) of the home of the eban and the cod. The battle between Olive Chancellor and Basil Ransom for the soul of the very confused spiritualist speaker Verena Tarrant (Ah, those Jamesian names again!)is not only powerfully doen, but I think this book has much more humor in it than Portrait of a Lady does. (Although, this does not diminish either work in the least.) I could speak all day about this book, and given a chance I will. But I urge you to take a chance on it. I was Massachusetts born and raised..but out in the Western end of the state, and we tend to feel Bostonians sometimes think a bit too well of themselves. Apparently, over 100 years ago, things were the same. There is so much more to this book, read it, and realize that we, at the beginning of a new millenium, are hardly as progressive or as innovative as we like to think we are.
Of course, the greatest irony of this book comes not within its pages, but when you visit the grave of the James family. Henry James ashes were interred in the ground on the family plot, and now and forever, the family plot looks not upon the city of New York, or the expanses of Europe, but rather, Henry James, for all eternity, is facing th city of Boston. e
on May 2, 2001
The astonishing thing about this book -- and a lot of Henry James's writing -- is his insight into the problems of women. This book deals with the problem of independence and freedom. Most of us, let's admit it, love the idea of being swept off our feet by some competent, assertive male. It's a real turn-on. If you don't believe it, check out how many successful professional women secretly read historical romances by the boxload. The problem comes the next morning when he starts to take control, bit by bit, of your entire life. In this book you have Olive, who is not, I think, a lesbian but someone who is very lonely and doesn't trust men and Verena, who likes men just fine, but is, for the moment anyway, under the spell of Olive and her feminist ideology. Are these our only options? Verena Makes her choice, but James notes that the tears she sheds may not, unhappily, be her last.
on October 26, 2004
The women's rights movement is a big part of American history, so it's interesting that Henry James used it as the subject of his 1886 novel "The Bostonians." While it's widely considered a satire, it doesn't really ridicule the movement, and the characters are too understated to risk judgment as caricatures. (To say James is a master of understatement is an understatement.) Rather, the novel appears to use the movement as a device to weave male-female relationships into a Balzacian comedy of society. Compared to most of his more popular novels, it is quite lighthearted.
The central heroine is the voluptuous Verena Tarrant, an inspirational public speaker with the voice of an angel and the charm of a Homeric siren. Her uniquely sheltered upbringing as the daughter of a fraudulent and avaricious "mesmeric healer" has freed her from a normal education and exposed her to anybody who wants to take advantage of her ingenuousness. One night at the home of an elderly progressive activist named Miss Birdseye, she delivers a mellifluous speech that grabs the attention of the scheming feminist Olive Chancellor and her cousin Basil Ransom, a Mississippi lawyer who has settled in New York to begin a practice and has just come to Boston to visit his relatives.
Olive quickly befriends Verena with the intention of putting her oratorical skills to work for the women's movement, acting as her mentor and coaching her in the rationale for gender equality. Men, including her own father, see Verena as a goldmine: A wealthy Harvard student named Henry Burrage offers to be her lecture agent, and a journalist named Matthias Pardon reports on her professional engagements, helping her to become a celebrity who commands large audiences. Basil, a conservative gentleman, naturally thinks Verena's speeches are radical nonsense; he resents the "feminization" of male society that he fears the emancipation of women would effect. Like Burrage, he would like to marry her, but he would first like to get the silly ideas out of her head placed there by Olive. Furthermore, his attraction to Verena is disheartening to Olive's widowed sister Adeline Luna, who is somewhat infatuated with him and sympathetic to his traditionalist views.
It almost goes without saying that the novel is not about the political aspect of women's rights; James is obviously not interested in that. The conflict he establishes is the selfish battle for control over Verena--whether her career in the hands of Olive and her handlers will submit to Basil's love for her. In general I find James's prose style to be too purposefully obstructive and uninviting, but here I was able to put aside my reservations and concentrate on the story at hand because I sensed the end would be rewarding, and indeed I liked the way the last sentence of the novel forgoes convention and leaves the principal question of Verena's happiness open and unresolved. For what it's worth, James also conjures great descriptions of street scenes of Boston and New York, giving genuine verbal snapshots of what these cities must have looked like at the time. He will never be one of my favorite writers, but I concede that he is one of my favorite disagreeable writers.
on September 2, 2015
Look, Henry James is a genius, one of the most important writers in the English Language, and I've enjoyed other examples of his work very much.
Not this one: it's set in the early days of the Women's Suffrage movement, and James frankly favored the wrong-- and losing-- side. He sets up his suffragettes as clueless and too innocent to be taken seriously. They are more like talking dogs than human beings-- clever but incapable of genuine discernment. Paraphrasing here, but he has one of his male characters-- a veteran from the Confederate side of the Civil War-- tell a female character that 'A woman's highest purpose is to make a good man happy'. And no, this wasn't a straw man set up to knocked down, it seems to have very much been James' attitude towards women.
I'd say this novel still has value for students of James or of feminism, and some might enjoy the hints of a same sex attraction between the lead women (though they are both far too virginal to actually consummate the act, the old phrase 'Boston Marriage' makes me wonder why else he set his novel there). For most of us it's like reading a pro-slavery novel: no matter how well crafted or exquisite his use of language, his attitudes rob a modern reader of any pleasure we may have otherwise found here.
on April 5, 2008
Pitting a battle for the affection of a young maiden (Verena Tarrant), a sententious middle aged woman of Boston (Olive Chancellor) seeks to outwit her stultifying southern lawyer temerarious cousin (Basil Ransom). Watching in the crowd are a wealthy sister to Olive (Mrs. Luna) and a worldly philanthropist (Miss Birdseye).
The fight is not personal - but is about everything. Suffrage rights for women are the constant theme espoused throughout this tightly written novel which deeply delves into the complicated characters of each of the above-referenced characters who account for the vast majority of the printed pages,
Olive is the movement's champion, Verena its voice, and Miss Birdseye, its benefactor - emotionally and financially. Fighting the joint forces admirably seeking to have "their cause" become realty, southern educated Mississippian Ransom says, "Do you really take the ground that your sex has been without influence? Influence? Why, you have led us all by the nose to where we are now. Wherever we are, its all you." His fight is not to the movement, but to opine when drawn into the parlor room for response.
The discourse of this book reads easily - an amazing feat as it was written 120+ years ago. And, the in depth philosophical thoughts marvelously outline many of the characters' values. "The world was full of evil, but she was glad to have been born before it had been swept away, while it was still there to face, to give one a task and reward."
The three people of concern are Basil, Olive and Verena. Like so many books of this time, the young man simply becomes entranced by this mysterious woman - a devilishly coy but powerful beauty. A "Zuleika Dobson" of the 19th century. And, the young woman bearing so much weight on her shoulders must ask, "Did she ask herself why she should give up her life to save a sex which, after all, didn't wish to be saved, and which rejected the truth even after it had bathed them with its auroral light and they had pretended to be fed and fortified?" Basil or Olive? Which friend can provide happiness? Could both? Would neither? Would Verena be too pusillanimous to fight these forces which strained her professional and personal life?
Ultimately, this book asks more questions than it answers. As to the monumentally honorable and valiant effort for Suffrage, we ask: Is it soiled by Olive's financial and covert payment (payoff?) to Verena's parents? As to the Suffrage's representaive of retort, we ask: Are Basil's honest intentions overcome by his impervious refusal to accept women as equals?
This book's modern dialogue of a very avant garde issue in the 1880's makes the issues and statements seem as poignant today as they were when written. That amazingly difficult success is what makes this an identifiable and undeniable classic piece of English literature.
on November 12, 2007
In this outing, as with other of Henry James's novels, the reader will continually be bowled over by this author's knack for language, his absolute comfort at moving conceptual mountains (and plot) with precise bursts of verbal dynamite.
That said, James's zeal for describing his characters' psychological phenomena with scientific precision, can sometimes cause his books to bog down. James is sometimes simply incomprehensible -- he will be developing a thought, or a line of psychological action on the part of a character, and suddenly he will lose you in a welter of subordinate clauses and pronouns that seem to have become dis-lodged from their referents. This is a problem particularly in later James (which I would gloss as about 1885 onwards).
"The Bostonians" was written in 1885, so it is "early late" James, if such a designation may be used. The language is just beginning to move towards that absolute obscurantism which would become his primary mode of expression for "The Turn of the Screw" and "The Wings of the Dove", and away from the relative simplicity and relaxed wit of "The American".
Aside from the means of expression, James has probably never been cleverer about his portrayals of character. Depending upon your own opinions regarding feminism -- James's own are not made clear within the four corners of this book -- you will find Verena's self-created dilemma between her sense of duty to Olive (and her cause) and her feelings for Ransom to be comic, tragic, or an admixture of both. It is to James's eternal credit that he leaves such a question so open.
"The Bostonians" is like an old wine; you have to savor it, to mull over it a bit, pursing your lips at its complexities, sucking your teeth at its bitterness, smiling at last, with satisfaction over what you have just swallowed.
on October 13, 2015
Not my favorite Henry James novel. The time is around 1890 and the setting is Boston's Beacon Street in Back Bay. A young woman in her teens has a gift for public speaking. She is enticed, recruited, enlisted (whatever) by another slightly older young woman to be involved in the woman's suffrage movement. The two become bonded; the older woman possessive of the younger; they live together in the older's Back Bay dwelling. A third cousin of the older woman arrives for a visit. He is from Mississippi and the Civil War has consumed his family's wealth. He is enamored of the younger woman. They fall in love, but can he pry her away from his cousin? This book is a slow, tedious tale not nearly as entertaining as "Portrait of a Lady."
on November 17, 2000
James after 1898 was too subtle, too often employing apposition to add layers like coats of paint to each observation. Works like The Ambassadors (1903) rely on the reader's powers of synthesis, which can be in turns exhilarating or frustrating. The Bostonians (1885) is an extremely straightforward, dramatic, cruel, hilarious, political, compassionate love story and one of the best novels by anyone. Olive Chancellor is tragic: with so much love behind her cold, horrified stares. Basil Ransom is magnetic, but an educated idiot savant whose passion and will are nothing other than natural talent. Verena Tarrant has nothing but natural talent--she is an organism that throbs with passion like a finely tuned Geiger counter. Whether the private turmoil of sex and marriage finally draw her from the political sisterhood, and what happens to queer women like Olive, are high-stakes, human questions that James presents with sheer drama and almost unbelievable insight.
on June 14, 2012
The Bostonians won't complete a beach reading ensemble of Vince Flynn, Sandra Brown or Julia Garwood but it will surely agitate our sensibilities regarding male and female relationships.
The Bostonians introduces to us Basil Ransom, a handsome and cultured Southern gentleman who fought in the Confederacy during the Civil War. He comes to Boston to see his cousin , Olive Chancellor, an entrenched women's rights activist. Olive has a young protegee whom she adores, the beautiful and sweet Verena Tarrant. When Basil meets the young and innocent beauty , he is enchanted. Thus the war begins between both Basil and Olive.
Basil believes that Verena's beauty is meant for a man but Olive has other goals for Verena.
This 19th Century novel is verbose a la James but no less wordy than an Anthony Trollope novel.
We must remember that James inspired another important literary figure who wrote about women and their positions in society, the inexpressible Edith Wharton.
The Bostonians was not welcomed by many when it was published and it is even less popular today.
James is not afraid to give an educated, eloquent and cultured voice to Basil Ransom. He is a man's man and will not give quarter to Olive Chancellor simply because she despises him as a man.
But the question always remains: what are a woman's gifts for: for her husband and her family or for society? As Basil Ransom says when asked what women are for:
"There are a thousand ways in which any woman, all women , married or single, may find occupation. They may find it in making society agreeable.... dear Miss Tarrant, what is most agreeable to women is to be agreeable to men! That is a truth as old as the human race, and don't let Olive Chancellor persuade you that she and Mrs. Farrinder have invented any that can take its place , or that is more profound, more durable."