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The Bostonians (Penguin Classics) Paperback – March 1, 2001
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“As devastating in its wit as it is sharp in its social critique of sexual politics. No writer in America had dared the subject before. No one has done it so well since.” —The New Republic
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Top customer reviews
I would not recommend this edition for Kindle readers because the notes are positioned at the end of the text, and any consultation of the notes entails disruption to the reading experience.
Having read some of the reviews on the site, I'm beginning to get a deeper impression of the story (e.g. the egotistical aspect of the protagonists, the satirical nature of post-civil war middle/upper class life in northern America and the two dimensional aspect of poor Miss Tarrant). Although as readers, we were so unaware of both Olive and Basil's lives outside of this central struggle that I'm not sure how much we could determine the level of their egotisms [if that's the plural]. With regard to the satirical nature of the story, I LONGED for a stronger connection with the temporal roots of the time. This was post-civil war. A southerner gentleman (and from what we gather, somewhat poor in stature) infiltrates the upper class social scenes of both New York and Boston. This aspect of Ransom's character was never fully realised for me and (I think) was a missed opportunity for James.
Another aspect I found bewildering was Birdseye's character (the matriarch [or perhaps elder] of the coven of feminists) who we only experience through the perspective of the other characters in the novel. With regard to Birdseye, James began brilliantly. His ability to reach, psychologically and socially, in to this character's past in order to conjure a character so full of complexity, duplicity and falsehood, was just wonderful. In my published version of the book - the description of Birdseye begins on p.23 - at the beginning of chapter 4 when Birdseye reaches out to Ransom and gives him a “delicate, dirty, democratic little hand”. James goes on (wonderfully) and ends with this final observation of Birdseye's life “Since the Civil War much of her occupation was gone; for before that her best hours had been spent in fancying that she was helping some southern slave to escape. It would have been a nice question whether, in her heart of hearts, for the sake of this excitement, she did not sometimes wish the blacks back in bondage.... she was in love, even in those days, only with causes, and she languished only for emancipations. But they had been the happiest days, for when causes were embodied in foreigners (what else were the Africans?), they were certainly more appealing.”
Well, here is the embodiment of egotism - her character of course - provides this mirror or future prophesy for Ransom/Chancellor in her misguided beliefs (particularly of Ransom's future involvement with the feminist movement). But what I found disappointing was that there wasn't any more of these deep entreaties into the souls of the other characters! I had bookmarked this insightful piece of writing (quite early on in the novel) and was looking forward to reading similar pieces about, for example, Ransom – he has such an interesting back story that we never find out about - particularly his southern roots; and so many of the other characters – Olive’s cause for her attacks of anxiety, her compulsion to associate so passionately with Miss Tarant). Alas, the whole novel read and to no avail - there wasn't a single other 'portrait' painted. (Will I need to pick up another James in order to find a gem of sophisticated portraiture?)
One character I would have LOVED to find out more about was Chancellor's (secondary) antagonist - Mrs Farrinder, who was perhaps one of the most two dimensional antagonists I have witnessed in a novel! A shame, because her huffing storming out of the theatre in those dying moments of the narrative would have been so much sweeter had we known who she was (AND who her HUSBAND was!).
The only other aspect I found perplexing was the lack of connection with the feminist ideal. Here Henry James wrote a novel about the feminist movement, but forgot to write anything about the plight of feminism! (I understand the satirical aspect of James' stereotypes - particularly in Olive Chancellor and her destructive nature and the decidedly masculinist undertone/actions/emotions of the coven of feminists - an irony that was perhaps a bit too obvious and stinging) but there was no connection with the formalised political struggle for emancipation facing women. This wouldn't be such a problem for me if I hadn't read on the back of the book this little quote from James himself "I wished to write a very American tale... I asked myself what was the most salient ... point in our social life. The answer was: the situation of women, the decline of the sentiment of sex, the agitation in their behalf". Well, James, I'm sorry to say, you missed that one. Whilst the characters themselves interact with this concept of a 'battle of wills' amongst the male and female populations of upper-middle class America, the focus was too broad, two dimensional and almost comical. This was particularly evident in:
- Ransom and Chancellor's stereotypical Male v Female [you say potato I say potata] struggle.
Chancellor’s delusional attachment to a stereotypically feminine, desperate to please, paper thin [narratively speaking] Varena
Chancellor’s efforts to detract from another successful feminist [or perhaps even destroy her] – another tried and true femine narrative,
and the very obvious compunction by James to ensure a complete lack of any recognition of Doctor Prance’s achievements in life by any of the main characters
In this way, there were no true insights in to the plight of women at the time. They were all over-exaggerated comical portrayals with no clear substance (to me at least). Moreover, there lacked any connection with the formalised feminist movement which at this time was BOOMING in Boston and New York and the women in this story - as feminists - come off looking pretty nasty and atrocious. This isn't the impression I get from the macro-historical perspective of the time in which some of the greatest female agitators for emancipation were emerging - but perhaps (I concede), at the micro party level, these inner political machinations may have indeed been ticking away. I don't know enough about the localised history and human nature would attest to this sort of political infighting.
So, in all, I did enjoy the book. It was delicate, pretty and sweet. It was also complex (but could have been more so). It had the sombre satirical undertones of a clever book (and toward the end, particularly the last line of the story; a beautiful element of pathos). But for me, I wanted more from the characters. I wanted to understand more about how these characters were interacting with the world around them - the political, the social, AND the ethereal (which was never really touched upon except in the beginning with the exchange between Varena and her father and their 'spiritual bond' which was ultimately debunked).
Just like little Varena Tarrant, "now I am glad" that I took the time to read this book.
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."
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