Briynne's Reviews > The Bostonians

The Bostonians by Henry James
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Aug 10, 2010

really liked it
Read from August 10 to 31, 2010

James is so sharp and mean in this – it’s not what I expected at all, and I kind of loved it. The story is set post-Civil War and concerns the women’s rights movement of the time. Olive Chancellor is a frigid, yet highly emotional, spinster who is obsessed with the idea of women’s suffering and oppression. She takes up a begrudging acquaintance with her Mississippian cousin Basil Ransom, who is the perhaps the least ridiculous of the three principle characters, despite being cast as the stereotypical southern gentleman who likes his women pretty, vaguely dim, and susceptible to his chivalric charm. Between them is the ingénue Verena Tarrant, a blossoming public speaker who is set to become the new face of the movement and to whom they both wish to lay claim, albeit for different reasons.

And it is it on this stage that James proceeds to mercilessly make fun of everyone involved. The women are awful. Their arguments, saving those of the brusque lady-doctor, are silly and shallow. Think less Elizabeth Cady Stanton and more Legally Blonde. I wanted to shake both of them every time they opened their mouths. James’ language is wonderful; there’s a lovely line from Olive that really sums up her views of men in general: “No man that I have ever seen cares a straw in his heart for what we are trying to accomplish. They hate it; they scorn it; they will try to stamp it out whenever they can. Oh yes, I know there are men who pretend to care for it; but they are not really men, and I wouldn't be sure even of them!” So if you are against us, you’re a jerk – if you are with us, you aren’t much of a man. It’s a miracle she doesn’t win more converts in the masculine ranks.

The men, primarily Ransom, are a bit better but are still at the butt end of James’ joke. I found Ransom’s chauvinism to be somewhat more palatable than Olive’s reforming, due to his honest, good-humored delivery of it. He’s undoubtedly a caricature, though: he is implacably deaf to the ideas of women’s equality, he cheerfully sees Verena as a beautiful moron, and he persists in his gallantry despite having little real feeling behind it. You’ll have to excuse another quote, but the disparity between Ranson’s outward politesse and his inward loathing toward Olive is one of my favorite examples: “…he had quitted her, the other year, without telling her that she was a vixen, and that reticence was chivalrous enough.” We should really bring back the word “vixen” – I only ever see it in nail polish names now but it always makes me laugh.

I had trouble initially accepting the idea that Verena could love Basil despite his unvarnished disregard of her passionately-held opinions. The more I read, however, the less bothered I was. First, it quickly became apparent that her opinions were very easily molded by whatever strong personality exerted the most influence over her. Secondly, while his approach was patronizing and offensive, Basil’s sentiment of, ”I deplore Miss Tarrant's opinions, but her character—well, her character pleases me” would actually have been rather romantic if it had been paired with a bit more respect. The whole thing reminded me of the amusing conversations I had at my hyper-politicized college with people of violently different opinions, back when I still thought I cared about domestic politics; sometimes the eye-rolling and stern disapproval eventually would give over to the “you’re a lunatic, and possibly dangerous, but adorable” look. I always found it endearing, and I chose to assign that sort of incredulous affection to Basil rather than the more calculated sexism it could be read as. Although honestly, I guess I would probably prefer either reaction to the cold scorn and dismissal which was Olive’s approach to ideas that didn’t mesh with her own.

I would love to have been able to see Henry James’ expression as he was writing some of the passages in this book. I have the impression, or anyway I’ve chosen to be under the impression, that he wrote this was a sense of amusement and not just cynicism. It’s too funny to be entirely mean-spirited. This is my third attempt at James, following The Turn of the Screw and Washington Square, and I think I may have hit my stride with this author. I will definitely be reading more.
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08/24/2016 marked as: read

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Judith It does begin funny, but it doesn't continue that way. I am not sure you will find much more of that quality in James, but I am glad you will read more of him.


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