I’ve read some really gory and awful books (The Naked Lunch and I Was Dora Suarez being amongst the worst), but I’ve rarely read a book as upsetting as this Henry James book I just finished: The Bostonians. Nor have I read a character who I hated as much as its male lead: Basil Ransom. He’s unbelievably awful! Like a Mr. Darcy but with no sense of integrity. The thing that made Pride and Prejudice so wonderful was that Darcy’s love for Elizabeth vitiated his bad qualities and allowed the good in him to win out. But The Bostonians presents a truer and less romantic picture of a man whose love–and he is, unquestionably, in love–does not redeem him.
The book centers around three characters: Olive Chanceller, a fierce young Bostonian who is really into feminist causes; Verrena Tarrant, an ingenue who falls into Olive’s orbit; and Basil Ransom, Olive’s cousin from Mississippi. Verrena is more open-hearted and vibrant and innocent than Olive, but she’s also blessed with tremendous skill as an orator: she’s able to make people feel the rightness of her cause in a way that Olive can’t. And Olive, overawed, more or less falls in love with her (the book demands a queer reading) and pays off Verrena’s father so that he sends his daughter to live with Olive as her mentee.
Basil, meanwhile, is an unrepentent chauvinist. He believes that a woman’s greatest joy is to make men happy. But he’s also in love with Verrena. But rather than bend an inch in his beliefs, he spends the entire book trying to convince her to give up her beliefs in order to be with him and (SPOILER ALERT)…………..
At the end of the book, Verrena leaves behind a crowded concert hall, packed with Bostonians who want to her, and goes with Ransom. It’s awful.
But it’s also very true. Even in 2016, the prevailing attitude of the day, amongst women, is that their aims in life should be subordinate to their husband’s. It might not be phrased that way–they might not even consciously think about it that way–but whenever there is a compromise in a relationship that must be made, it’s more often the woman who makes it. And that’s in a time when the equality of the sexes is an accepted truth. So how much more true must it have been in 1884? Henry James portrays it vividly: the relief at not having to be a hero; the relief of going with the conventional wisdom. It’s a relief that’s made all the more powerful when love enters the picture, and when everything in your heart starts to tell you that this person is the most important human being on the planet.
What makes the novel more uncomfortable is that you’re never sure how Henry James views these proceedings. This novel is more dry and distant than any other of his that I’ve read. And all the characters come in for mockery. In the beginning, the feminists seem to take the worst part of it. They’re portrayed as shrewish, loud, self-obsessed, and ineffectual, while Basil has the cynic’s usual advantage: you can’t successfully mock him, because he’s the first to mock himself.
As the book goes on, the feminists are portrayed in a kinder light. There’s one, Ms. Birdsall, in particular–an aged former Abolitionist–who shines out as a particularly gentle and courageous soul. Not a saint, exactly, since she at times seems ridiculous–particularly when it comes to the shine she’s taken to Basil–but she also seems good. And there’s Dr. Prance, a female medical doctor who is not a feminist–she cares too much for her work to be swayed too much by causes–but whose life is a testament to the power that women have.
And yet still…you’re never quite sure where Henry James stands. The book would be an easier thing to take if it was one hundred percent a satire: if Henry James was saying, look at this thing that happens–a woman abandoning her beliefs for the sake of a man–and look at how terrible a thing it is. But he never comes out and says anything like that. So instead all we’re left with is, “Look at this thing that happens…”