Review of “The Bostonians” by Henry James

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.

As Laura Wood puts it:

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 . . .


6 Responses to Review of “The Bostonians” by Henry James

  1. sdaedalus says:

    This is really good, thanks.

  2. Isegoria says:

    You’ve piqued my interest. Reading that a young Olive Chancellor appears in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has piqued it further.

  3. Andrew says:

    wow, queuing this one up!

  4. Sir, You have achieved what I thought was impossible. You have kindled my interest in a Henry James novel.

  5. drush76 says:

    Thank you for killing my interest in reading James’ novel. I now realize that if I had read this novel, I would have burned it as fast as possible. Or vomit over it.

  6. joydeck says:

    Verena does end up the happy wife of reactionary, but there is so much more.

    She sheds tears in anticipation of serving, like Miss Birdseye before her, the poor and needy blacks in the racist and sexist South – tears of love and compassion. She marries both for love and to struggle with the needy and oppressed – the blacks.

    We are left wondering whether Basil, through Verena’s peculiar influence and her selfless service to the oppressed, will someday be born again to play a leading role in the human rights movement, just as muddleheaded Miss Birdseye foresaw. Will Verena’s father’s faith in her be vindicated?

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