It’s not often that an author writes a book that criticizes the people who are most likely to read the book, but James seems to have done that here.
The book is easy to summarize. There are three main characters. Olive, a early, ardent feminist who is wealthy and probably a lesbian. Verena, an innocent, young girl who has a talent for public speaking. Basil Ransom, a ex-Confederate soldier from Mississippi who moves north looking to escape from poverty. Olive takes Verena under her wing and Verena becomes a star lecturer on the hardcore feminist lecture circuit. However, Verena never grows to hate men, like Olive. Basil and Olive fight for Verena. Of course, Basil wins the day.
Before there were pick up artists, dark lords of singles bars and beta men studying the fine points of female psychology, there was Basil Ransom, a man who knew how to conquer and reform a feminist.
That’s depressing when you think about it. One hundred and twenty five years ago next month, the first installment of one of the most perceptive books ever written about the cultural decline and fall of Western women, the Henry James novel The Bostonians, was serialized in a magazine. Thirty-five years before female suffrage and long before the birth control pill was in stock, James saw it all. He foresaw the catastrophic shriveling up of the feminine life force into a strained caricature of masculinity. He knew Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem before they ever drew a breath. He could have written the manifesto for NOW (with more eloquence) and delivered Nancy Pelosi’s first speech as Speaker of the House. He warned the world. And no one listened.
This is exactly correct. Although I’d point out that James also anticipated Mencken’s point that most feminists will drop their beliefs for a brown-eyed handsome man. (Ms Wood’s review is worth reading in its entirety).
The Bostonians was not well received. James mocks reformers, his hero is Carlyle-quoting reactionary from Mississippi, and he flirts with sympathy for the Southern side in the Civil War ("The Abolitionists brought it on, and were not the Abolitionists principally females?" – that could have been written by Moldbug). You can see why the reception was not overly-enthusiastic in literary circles.
Let’s focus on Basil’s politics and, while we’re doing so, let’s note that he’s an alpha. Here he is talking to Olive about politics:
“Don’t you care for human progress?” Miss [Olive] Chancellor went on.
“I don’t know–I never saw any. Are you going to show me some?”
Throughout the book when Olive or Verena engage Basil on politics, he mocks them (usually by smiling or by inserting sentences like the last one here). Another exchange:
[Verena:] “Mr. Ransom, I assure you this is an age of conscience.”
[Basil:] “That’s a part of your cant. It’s an age of unspeakable shams, as Carlyle says.”
“The Turks have a second-rate religion; they are fatalists, and that keeps them down. Besides, their women are not nearly so charming as ours–or as ours would be if this modern pestilence [feminism] were eradicated. Think what a confession you make when you say that women are less and less sought in marriage; what a testimony that is to the pernicious effect on their manners, their person, their nature, of this fatuous agitation.”
“That’s very complimentary to me!” Verena broke in, lightly.
But Ransom was carried over her interruption by the current of his argument. “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.”
“Agreeable to men, of course.”
“To whom else, pray? Dear Miss [Verena] 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.”
Here’s our first description of Basil’s politics:
I shall do them sufficient justice in saying that he was by natural disposition a good deal of a stoic, and that, as the result of a considerable intellectual experience, he was, in social and political matters, a reactionary. I suppose he was very conceited, for he was much addicted to judging his age. He thought it talkative, querulous, hysterical, maudlin, full of false ideas, of unhealthy germs, of extravagant, dissipated habits, for which a great reckoning was in store. He was an immense admirer of the late Thomas Carlyle, and was very suspicious of the encroachments of modern democracy. I know not exactly how these queer heresies had planted themselves, but he had a longish pedigree (it had flowered at one time with English royalists and cavaliers), and he seemed at moments to be inhabited by some transmitted spirit of a robust but narrow ancestor, some broad-faced wig-wearer or sword-bearer, with a more primitive conception of manhood than our modern temperament appears to require, and a programme of human felicity much less varied. He liked his pedigree, he revered his forefathers, and he rather pitied those who might come after him.
Let’s move on to James’ depiction of the reformers.
Here, James is mocking the reformers, one Ms Birdseye, in particular:
She belonged to the Short-Skirts League, as a matter of course; for she belonged to any and every league that had been founded for almost any purpose whatever. This did not prevent her being a confused, entangled, inconsequent, discursive old woman, whose charity began at home and ended nowhere, whose credulity kept pace with it, and who knew less about her fellow-creatures, if possible, after fifty years of humanitary zeal, than on the day she had gone into the field to testify against the iniquity of most arrangements. . . . 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 had suffered in the same way by the relaxation of many European despotisms, for in former years much of the romance of her life had been in smoothing the pillow of exile for banished conspirators. Her refugees had been very precious to her; she was always trying to raise money for some cadaverous Pole, to obtain lessons for some shirtless Italian. There was a legend that an Hungarian had once possessed himself of her affections, and had disappeared after robbing her of everything she possessed. This, however, was very apocryphal, for she had never possessed anything, and it was open to grave doubt that she could have entertained a sentiment so personal. 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.
Here he’s mocking Olive and Verena:
I have intimated that our young friends had a source of fortifying emotion which was distinct from the hours they spent with Beethoven and Bach, or in hearing Miss Birdseye describe Concord as it used to be. This consisted in the wonderful insight they had obtained into the history of feminine anguish. They perused that chapter perpetually and zealously, and they derived from it the purest part of their mission. Olive had pored over it so long, so earnestly, that she was now in complete possession of the subject; it was the one thing in life which she felt she had really mastered. She was able to exhibit it to Verena with the greatest authority and accuracy, to lead her up and down, in and out, through all the darkest and most tortuous passages. We know that she was without belief in her own eloquence, but she was very eloquent when she reminded Verena how the exquisite weakness of women had never been their defence, but had only exposed them to sufferings more acute than masculine grossness can conceive. Their odious partner had trampled upon them from the beginning of time, and their tenderness, their abnegation, had been his opportunity. All the bullied wives, the stricken mothers, the dishonoured, deserted maidens who have lived on the earth and longed to leave it, passed and repassed before her eyes, and the interminable dim procession seemed to stretch out a myriad hands to her. She sat with them at their trembling vigils, listened for the tread, the voice, at which they grew pale and sick, walked with them by the dark waters that offered to wash away misery and shame, took with them, even, when the vision grew intense, the last shuddering leap. She had analysed to an extraordinary fineness their susceptibility, their softness; she knew (or she thought she knew) all the possible tortures of anxiety, of suspense and dread; and she had made up her mind that it was women, in the end, who had paid for everything. In the last resort the whole burden of the human lot came upon them; it pressed upon them far more than on the others, the intolerable load of fate. It was they who sat cramped and chained to receive it; it was they who had done all the waiting and taken all the wounds. The sacrifices, the blood, the tears, the terrors were theirs. Their organism was in itself a challenge to suffering, and men had practised upon it with an impudence that knew no bounds. As they were the weakest most had been wrung from them, and as they were the most generous they had been most deceived. Olive Chancellor would have rested her case, had it been necessary, on those general facts; and her simple and comprehensive contention was that the peculiar wretchedness which had been the very essence of the feminine lot was a monstrous artificial imposition, crying aloud for redress. She was willing to admit that women, too, could be bad; that there were many about the world who were false, immoral, vile. But their errors were as nothing to their sufferings; they had expiated, in advance, an eternity, if need be, of misconduct. Olive poured forth these views to her listening and responsive friend; she presented them again and again, and there was no light in which they did not seem to palpitate with truth. Verena was immensely wrought upon; a subtle fire passed into her; she was not so hungry for revenge as Olive, but at the last, before they went to Europe (I shall take no place to describe the manner in which she threw herself into that project), she quite agreed with her companion that after so many ages of wrong (it would also be after the European journey) men must take their turn, men must pay!
Here is Verena reacting to Basil’s beliefs, once they’re made clear to her, in the climax of the story (yes, the climax is the explanation of his unwavering reactionary beliefs):
As she sat there beside him she thought of some of these things, asked herself whether they were what he was thinking of when he said, for instance, that he was sick of all the modern cant about freedom and had no sympathy with those who wanted an extension of it. What was needed for the good of the world was that people should make a better use of the liberty they possessed. Such declarations as this took Verena’s breath away; she didn’t suppose you could hear any one say such a thing as that in the nineteenth century, even the least advanced. It was of a piece with his denouncing the spread of education; he thought the spread of education a gigantic farce–people stuffing their heads with a lot of empty catchwords that prevented them from doing their work quietly and honestly. You had a right to an education only if you had an intelligence, and if you looked at the matter with any desire to see things as they are you soon perceived that an intelligence was a very rare luxury, the attribute of one person in a hundred. He seemed to take a pretty low view of humanity, anyway. Verena hoped that something really bad had happened to him–not by way of gratifying any resentment he aroused in her nature, but to help herself to forgive him for so much contempt and brutality. She wanted to forgive him, for after they had sat on their bench half an hour and his jesting mood had abated a little, so that he talked with more consideration (as it seemed) and more sincerity, a strange feeling came over her, a perfect willingness not to keep insisting on her own side and a desire not to part from him with a mere accentuation of their differences.
And how does end for our dear feminist? She ends up the happy wife of reactionary! Could there be any other sort of wife for a reactionary? I think not:
[Basil] allowed [Verena], certainly, no illusion on the subject of the fate she should meet as his wife; he flung over it no rosiness of promised ease; he let her know that she should be poor, withdrawn from view, a partner of his struggle, of his severe, hard, unique stoicism. When he spoke of such things as these, and bent his eyes on her, she could not keep the tears from her own; she felt that to throw herself into his life (bare and arid as for the time it was) was the condition of happiness for her . . .