Saturday, May 30, 2015

Mesmeric Maleness in The Bostonians

What was Henry James thinking in his novel about women's suffrage?

Henry James lived in the closet, a Victorian "bachelor" transplanted from the US to Britain. I don't know much about either him or his work, but was somewhat mystified by his novel, The Bostonians. This review is spoilers all the way down, so quit now if you don't want to know the plot.

It is a triangle at heart, with one vertex named Olive Chancellor, a rich, young Boston woman dedicated heart and soul to the liberation of all women. James's prose is wonderfully evocative in the first half of the book, describing her joyless, earnest, spinster life, and particularly her hatred of men- individually, corporately, comprehensively. Her long-lost cousin Basil Ransom forms another vertex. He is not from Boston, but rather from a South that is still prostrate after being crushed by the Civil War, and setting up shop in New York as a lawyer, to very little success. He is apparently handsome and well-spoken, indeed well-mannered, but given to the most retrograde opinions, especially when it comes to women. When he comes to Boston for the first meeting of their lives, he meets the last vertex of the plot, the lovely Verena Terrant.

Verena is slightly younger than Olive, pretty, and the daughter of relatively low-class parents of whom the father is a mesmeric healer. He has passed his gift in some degree to his daughter, who is a captivating public speaker and is introduced to both Olive and Basil at a public meeting of the local women's movement sponsored by a friend of Olive's, and speaks briefly about women's rights and oppression. Verena is instantly recognized as a sensation, and Olive spends the first half of the book taking her under her wing as a protoge, to speak all the things she herself is not talented enough to say, at least in public.

The second half of the book describes an excruciating compaign by Basil, who has been equally captivated, though in an entirely different way, to win Verena's heart and shut her mouth. He jokes and mocks in a light-hearted way, but when they finally have a serious discussion, Verena is shocked and repulsed by his antediluvian attitudes. Verena is consistently portrayed as exceedingly bright and quick-witted, ready with sharp, though never bad-tempered, repartee.

So it is mystifying in the extreme that James engineers the plot to have Verena fall hopelessly in love with Basil, especially when there was another suitor much better suited, so to speak- rich, handsome, sympatico, supportive, and a wonderful pianist to boot! Olive had previously extracted a promise from Verena that she would never marry, so as to keep the sisterhood unsullied, but this is a promise that one knows immediately is as doomed as it is inappropriate, since Verena is cut from far more colorful cloth than Olive.

Nevertheless, James requires that Verena's brain falls out of her head to have us believe the ending, where Basil scoops her up from the spectacular proscenium where Olive has arranged to have Verena give the feminist manifesto to the assembled throngs of Boston's high society. Basil whisks her away to a married life- full, as James promises at the end, of tears. James makes out Basil as some kind of enchanting reptile:

Verena writes to Basil from her Cape Cod cottage, where he had invited himself in unannounced and proceeded to court Verena for several weeks:
"In the course of the day Ransom received a note of five lines from Verena, the purport of which was to tell him that he must not expect to see her again for the present; she wished to be very quiet and think things over. She added the recommendation that he should leave the neighborhood for three or four days; there were plenty of strange old places to see in that part of the country. Ransom meditated deeply on this missive, and perceived that he should be guilty of very bad taste in not immediately absenting himself. He knew that to Olive Chancellor's vision his conduct already wore that stain, and it was useless, therefore, for him to consider how he could displease her either less or more. But he wished to convey to Verena the impression that he would do anything in the wide world to gratify her except give her up, and as he packed his valise he had in idea that he was both behaving beautifully and showing the finest diplomatic sense. To go away proved to himself how secure he felt, what a conviction he had that however she might turn and twist in his grasp he held her fast. the emotion she had expressed as he stood there before poor Miss Birdseye was only one of her instinctive contortions; he had taken due note of that- said to himself that a good many more would probably occur before she would be quiet. A woman that listens is lost, as the old proverb says ..."

The Bostonians was not well-received in its day, nor since, I think, and no wonder. Here is the novelist, however skilled in his language, making marionettes of his characters instead of following their development based on their given, or even plausible, natures. George Eliot and Leo Tolstoy come to mind as authors who were far more organic in their creations and their willingness to properly mould their characters and then follow them, come hell or high water, to more believeable, as well as artistically deep and edifying, conclusions.

Then there are the sexual issues involved. Olive is commonly understood to be a lesbian, but I would disagree. Hatred of men is not by any means confined to lesbians, or characteristic of them. Olive is consumed by her ideas, and by do-good-ism, and while I may have missed something, there is no overt note of lesbianism in the book. The closest one comes is in the final scenes when Olive loses Verena in a cataclysm of public and private humiliation. Which is all understandable enough on the terms given, without making the additional inference of sexual involvement between the two, in any form whatsoever.

On the other hand, Basil's magnetism is wholly unaccountable. He is repulsive equally to Verena, to Olive, and to the reader. The courtship is posed as a brutal contest of will, which Basil wins, apparently due to being male, confident, and conservative, with no high opinion of women. Verena, on the other hand, tends to have a submissive character, first to her parents, who are lightly sketched in the book, and then to Olive. Her fall for Basil might be taken as a sort of opposites attract kind of story, or as a defect in her character whose double edge cuts Olive so grievously. Even so, given Verena's high consciousness, her conquest seems in the end an insult to women in general, which hopefully was not James's aim.

James communicates none of his own ideas on the suffrage question directly, treating each side with cruel derision, including Basil's. He makes of another character, Olive's sister Mrs. Luna, an eye-fluttering, female wile-throwing ogre. But he also presents the feminists as dedicated and effective in a public, political sense, which belies Basil's conviction that they have no place in public. He dreams of having the public's ear for his own views, and exhults when one of his articles is accepted by a obscure crank magazine, while Verena and Olive actually do have the public's ear and are busy organizing a lengthy campaign for empowerment. One which took a century and more to come to pass, but which James of all people should have appreciated somewhat better than he shows here.

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