So, I just finished reading Henry James’ The Bostonians. I know, I know, I’m a little late to the party, considering it was published in 1886. But even through all my years of college as an English major I had never heard of this novel. That’s not so surprising but given my queerness and want of uncovering queerness in literature, you would have thought I would have stumbled across it much sooner, but I digress. I have stumbled across it now and yeah, I’ve got some thoughts.
First, I want to say, it took me several pages (or chapters, but who’s counting) to realize the connection between the title and the term ‘Boston marriage.’ If you are unacquainted with the term, a Boston marriage is a Victorian term used to describe two women living together, supporting themselves, without the presence of a man. They may or may not have been lovers. Given Victorian quaintness, it would have been improper and impolite in the extreme to mention it if they were. Given the conventions of his time, James is never explicit about the relationship between the two female protagonists, Olive Chancellor and Verena Tarrant, but there is compelling evidence, when one reads with a queer sensibility (queer in the current use of the word queer) in mind.
With a queer sensibility in mind, common tropes of lesbian relationships presented from a cis male gaze are definitely present but they are presented in such a way as to invoke ridicule and pity on the ‘poor spinsters.’ However, it may surprise the reader that I don’t want to be too harsh with James and I think that over the years his novel about politics and relationships may have been not only harshly judged, but wrongly judged. Hear me out.
First, the comparison of this story and that of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew should come easily to mind to anyone who has read both. Both deal, in part, with controlling women who dare to speak their own mind. However, at the end of the Shrew Katherina is clearly the victim of Stockholm Syndrome, seemingly living happily ever after. While at the end of The Bostonians, James leads the reader to the conclusion that Verena, over the years, is not so happy, but she accepts her fate regardless. An obvious comparison can be made between Shakespeare’s Petruchio and Basil Ransom, both of whom want to have calm, obedient wives. Their methods may be different (Petruchio uses torture, such as withholding food and sleep; while Ransom uses romance) but their goal is the same.
This is also a novel about opposing political views. Ransom’s family in Mississippi lost their fortune after the Civil War and he has gone to New York to seek his fortune as a lawyer. He travels to Boston to meet his distant cousin, Olive Chancellor. It is Olive who takes him to hear Verena speak about feminism. Both cousins are instantly enchanted with the young girl, and each want to win her affections; Olive with the intention of winning her for the cause of feminism, which would also mean that young Verena would not marry…because feminism. The rest of the story is about the competition between Olive and Basil to win her to their side. Basil is a staunch southern conservative, who belittles the women’s movement and is against everything Olive and Verena stand for. At first, the thought that Verena would throw Olive over for him, when she is so committed to the cause, and to Olive, might strike some readers as ridiculous. Unless the reader has ever read a novel or seen a movie about lesbians that didn’t come out in the last fifteen years or so. Those of us all too common with this eventuality know how this is going to end, though you spend the whole novel hoping Verena decides to renounce both of her main pursuers and go off on her own. But striking a win for feminism (and closeted lesbians) was not James’ intention.
In my humble opinion, I think James was satirizing all sides. I’m just not sure that he had a dog in that fight. Neither side comes out as seeming righteous. It could definitely be argued that they are mere caricatures, drawn for the sole purpose of James to make fun of two groups whom he found completely ridiculous (I haven’t read up on his thoughts on the matter, I wanted to come at this untainted, only put out my thoughts without being unduly influenced). And that would be a fair assessment. The characters are not drawn very deeply, though James does spend a lot of time with each character in introspection. As my mother would have said rather placatingly, “He tries.”
I honestly thought that as a queer person I would have a stronger reaction to how the alleged lesbian that is Olive Chancellor is drawn, but that was not to be. While I felt for her plight, I couldn’t help thinking that she would have been no better of a choice for Verena than Basil was. She, also, wanted Verena to be the person she, Olive, wanted her to be, just as Verena’s parents and later Basil wanted to control her. And Verena herself was no angel. She is drawn as fickle and naïve (I really think bisexual women have a bone to pick with James about the current mistrust some still have of them that a bisexual woman is likely to leave a woman for a man—I think this all started with James) and something of a liar. She strings both Olive and Basil along, promising her loyalty to each in turn, then having a change of heart later when she feels guilty. But this doesn’t make me hate her, or James. Obviously, his knowledge of lesbians, alleged or otherwise, was scant, as was everyone who wasn’t one, so we can’t fault him there.
So what was James trying to say with this novel? What was his overall point? I tend to think he was saying that no matter which side you were on, the more fervent you were, you were just ridiculous and bound to lose whatever it is that you were fighting for. I think James used the character of Dr. Prance (someone else I think was an alleged lesbian) to voice his own beliefs. Dr. Prance was more in sympathy with Basil Ransom than with the feminist movement, but she was not against the advancement of women. She was more of the belief that women were doing alright for themselves, putting more stock in actions and less in words. In other words, all the speeches weren’t really doing much good, to her way of thinking, that women should spend more time doing and less time talking about what they want to do. Granted, still a misguided view that doesn’t take into account restrictions placed on women because of poverty or race, but it may very well have been in keeping with a number of people at that time.
At the end of the day, I think this was a novel about class war (the rich Bostonians against the newly poor Mississippian) as well as an older way of thinking (slavery and the subjugation of women) versus the new (abolition and feminism). The novel was written at a turning point in our country when views were starting to lean more liberal, and the southern man needed to either change and adapt or just keep his views to himself. I think James was trying to capture that time in our history without picking a side per se, but still giving the most expected ending. So, I can look upon James and his Bostonians with empathy and accept the story he has presented for what it is: political satire; and forgive his over-simplified characterizations of a great many people he possibly disagreed with. I like to think, however, that eventually Olive found someone who was actually on her side, believed in the cause wholeheartedly, and stuck by her. She deserves a happy ending.