Tuesday, January 12, 2021

4. The Bostonians

The Bostonians. Henry James. 1886. 460 pages. [Source: Bought]

First sentence: “Olive will come down in about ten minutes; she told me to tell you that. About ten; that is exactly like Olive. Neither five nor fifteen, and yet not ten exactly, but either nine or eleven. She didn’t tell me to say she was glad to see you, because she doesn’t know whether she is or not, and she wouldn’t for the world expose herself to telling a fib. She is very honest, is Olive Chancellor; she is full of rectitude. Nobody tells fibs in Boston; I don’t know what to make of them all. Well, I am very glad to see you, at any rate.”

Premise/plot: Does The Bostonians have a plot??? It isn't so much about a destination as the journey. So this is a 'problem' novel of sorts. Many of the characters are active in the women's rights movement. (Remember this one was published in 1886.) 

It's told from multiple view points: Basil Ransom, Olive Chancellor, and Verena Tarrant; it introduces a handful of other characters as well. (My favorite side character is Doctor Prance.)

So it opens with Basil Ransom paying a visit on Olive Chancellor. She's running late and so he is conversing with her widowed sister Adeline Luna. (She seems REALLY into him throughout the whole book. He seems to be the stereotypical Southern flirt; he can't help flirting with any/every woman.) Olive and Basil CLASH. And not in a Pride and Prejudice way where readers get the idea that the two are destined to live happily ever after together. But the evening isn't a total failure because he ends up going to a larger event where the feminists are talking/rallying. He sees Verena Tarrant, and if he was a cartoon character, his eyes would turn into hearts and pop out of his eyes. Unfortunately, he's not the only one who's fallen for Verena. Olive also has major heart eyes for Verena. So much so that she practically begs Verena to move in with her permanently. 

The rest of the book is about (if the book actually has a plot) Olive trying desperately to hold onto Verena and mold her into the person she wants her to be. A world-changing, man-hating public speaker that is so committed to the doctrines of feminism or women's rights that there isn't even a teeny tiny space left in her heart for a man--any man. 

Basil comes and goes out of the story. He never forgets Verena. But he is rarely openly seeking or wooing Verena. He does maintain a rather close friendship (when it's convenient to him) with Mrs. Luna (Olive's sister). 

Will Verena escape Olive's manipulations and marry? Or will she become a world-famous spokeswoman for a radical movement? 

My thoughts: I didn't really like any of the characters--at least any of the main characters. I really didn't feel like readers got a true idea of who Verena actually was. Probably because James didn't bother developing her as such--her very own person. Verena was the coveted prize between two stronger characters: Olive and Basil. Basil doesn't come across as a woman-hater--one who would keep women down for the sake of keeping women down. He does come across as someone smitten by a beautiful young woman. He doesn't believe in the cause, but he's not angry and aggressive about it. He's a fairly laid back character. 

My favorite character was Doctor Prance, a woman doctor, who doesn't believe in the CAUSE either but for her own reasons. She's only in perhaps three or four scenes of the book--but she's a scene stealer when she is there. I really found myself drawn to her character. 

I didn't like the characters or the story, but there is something about James' writing that kept me hooked. 


  • “Do you mean to say your sister’s a roaring radical?” “A radical? She’s a female Jacobin—she’s a nihilist. Whatever is, is wrong, and all that sort of thing. If you are going to dine with her, you had better know it.”
  • Many things were strange to Basil Ransom; Boston especially was strewn with surprises, and he was a man who liked to understand. Mrs. Luna was drawing on her gloves; Ransom had never seen any that were so long; they reminded him of stockings, and he wondered how she managed without garters above the elbow.
  • “Oh, it isn’t the city; it’s just Olive Chancellor. She would reform the solar system if she could get hold of it. She’ll reform you, if you don’t look out. That’s the way I found her when I returned from Europe.”
  • It was the usual things of life that filled her with silent rage; which was natural enough, inasmuch as, to her vision, almost everything that was usual was iniquitous.
  • Olive had a fear of everything, but her greatest fear was of being afraid. She wished immensely to be generous, and how could one be generous unless one ran a risk?
  • “If, as you say, there is to be a discussion, there will be different sides, and of course one can’t sympathise with both.” “Yes, but every one will, in his way—or in her way—plead the cause of the new truths. If you don’t care for them, you won’t go with us.” 
  • “Don’t you believe, then, in the coming of a better day—in its being possible to do something for the human race?” 
  • “Well, Miss Olive,” he answered, putting on again his big hat, which he had been holding in his lap, “what strikes me most is that the human race has got to bear its troubles.” 
  • “Oh, the position of women!” Basil Ransom exclaimed. “The position of women is to make fools of men. I would change my position for yours any day,” he went on. “That’s what I said to myself as I sat there in your elegant home.” 
  • “Well, did she convince you?” Ransom inquired. “Convince me of what, sir?” “That women are so superior to men.” “Oh, deary me!” said Doctor Prance, with a little impatient sigh; “I guess I know more about women than she does.” “And that isn’t your opinion, I hope,” said Ransom, laughing. “Men and women are all the same to me,” Doctor Prance remarked. “I don’t see any difference. There is room for improvement in both sexes. Neither of them is up to the standard.”
  • We must remember that the world is ours too, ours—little as we have ever had to say about anything!—and that the question is not yet definitely settled whether it shall be a place of injustice or a place of love!
  • “You don’t know me, but I want to know you,” Olive said. “I can thank you now. Will you come and see me?” “Oh yes; where do you live?” Verena answered, in the tone of a girl for whom an invitation (she hadn’t so many) was always an invitation. “I want to know you,” Olive said, on this occasion; “I felt that I must last night, as soon as I heard you speak. You seem to me very wonderful. I don’t know what to make of you. I think we ought to be friends; so I just asked you to come to me straight off, without preliminaries, and I believed you would come. It is so right that you have come, and it proves how right I was.” 
  • “Will you be my friend, my friend of friends, beyond every one, everything, for ever and for ever?” Her face was full of eagerness and tenderness. Verena gave a laugh of clear amusement, without a shade of embarrassment or confusion. “Perhaps you like me too much.” 
  • “Do you live here all alone?” she asked of Olive. “I shouldn’t if you would come and live with me!” Even this really passionate rejoinder failed to make Verena shrink; she thought it so possible that in the wealthy class people made each other such easy proposals. 
  • Do you really take the ground that your sex has been without influence? Influence? Why, you have led us all by the nose to where we are now! Wherever we are, it’s all you. You are at the bottom of everything.” 
  • “I am not angry—I am anxious. I am so afraid I shall lose you. Verena, don’t fail me—don’t fail me!” Olive spoke low, with a kind of passion. “Fail you? How can I fail?” 
  • But any man who pretends to accept our programme in toto, as you and I understand it, of his own free will, before he is forced to—such a person simply schemes to betray us. There are gentlemen in plenty who would be glad to stop your mouth by kissing you! 
  • “You do keep me up,” Verena went on. “You are my conscience.” “I should like to be able to say that you are my form—my envelope. But you are too beautiful for that!” 
  • He had been diligent, he had been ambitious, but he had not yet been successful. 
  • “It does come back to me now, what you told me about the growth of their intimacy. And do they mean to go on living together for ever?” “I suppose so—unless some one should take it into his head to marry Verena.” 
  • Duty should be obvious; one shouldn’t hunt round for it.
  • Are you a little girl of ten and she your governess? Haven’t you any liberty at all, and is she always watching you and holding you to an account? Have you such vagabond instincts that you are only thought safe when you are between four walls?
  • Doctor Prance dealt in facts; Ransom had already discovered that; and some of her facts were very interesting. 
  • “Women—women! You know much about them!” “I am learning something every day.” “You haven’t learned yet, apparently, to answer their letters. It’s rather a surprise to me that you don’t pretend not to have received mine.”

© 2021 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Ruth said...

I was going to ask you at least about his writing style, which you answered. I was curious about this book, but now I get the feeling I may still have the same experience I did with his Portrait of a Lady, which I liked neither the story or the characters, though one was acceptable. Anyway, I am open to giving James a second chance and will try Turn of the Screw this year. But I was wondering about this book, too. So I may keep it in mind.

Carol said...

I only have one of his books, Portrait of a Lady, which I haven't read yet and don't know when I'll have the wherewithal to crack it open. :)