I’ve made no secret of my disdain for some of the early feminist novels of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. While some believe that Kate Chopin–who, by the way, demonstrated great skill in writing short stories–struck a mighty blow for feminism with The Awakening. I see that novel as holding its protagonist up as a spoiled and foolish child. Similarly, I’ve found commented here on two of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novels, which are idealistic to an embarrassing extent. I’m even an outlier on Hedda Gabler. If that is the best sort of a presentation that feminism can make, then the school is in truly pitiful straits. But then along comes Henry James and The Bostonians.
Leave it to James to craft a novel in which the women’s suffrage and emancipation movement is held up for fairly sharp ridicule while at the same time the limited range of experience open to women of a certain class during that time is presented in heartbreaking fashion.
Some who summarize this novel describe the relationship between the three main characters as a love triangle. In fact, in the early chapters of the book, a pair of far-flung cousins, Bostonian Olive Chancellor and Mississippian Basil Ransom, meeting for the first time, attend a gathering of social reformers and both fall under the spell of a young woman, Verena Tarrant. The precise relationship between Olive and Verena is uncertain, although Olive’s moves to have Verena abandon her parents’ home and move in in the Back Bay give some evidence to suggest a romantic interest. Basil’s romantic interest is not in the slightest way disguised.
In reality, the nature of the relationship between Olive and Verena–lovers or mentor-student–is not nearly as relevant as the power exercised by Olive toward Verena. As surely as Olive tells herself that she seeks only to advance “the cause” of emancipating women, she is guilty of restricting her protege. And as surely as Basil insists on his love for Verena, his goal, it seems clear, is domination much more than nurture.
In the wonderfully written final scene, covering the last several chapters, we find Verena about to give her breakthrough performance as a lecturer to a capacity crowd at Boston’s Music Hall. Olive, it seems, stands on the verge of a vicarious triumph when Basil appears in the building. His mere presence disrupts Verena’s focus and prevents her from mounting the stage.
There is no true feminist in this novel. Olive seeks to control Verena just as surely as Basil does. Basil never even spends a moment considering that Verena might present her lecture and then head off to marital bliss. The marvelous last moments of the book show the characters in their true light, Olive and Basil fighting for supremacy with Verena as the spoil of their conflict.
Ransom, palpitating with his victory, felt now a little sorry for her [Olive], and was relieved to know that, even when exasperated, a Boston audience is not ungenerous. “Ah, now I am glad!” said Verena, when they reached the street. But though she was glad, he presently discovered that, beneath her hood, she was in tears. It is to be feared that with the union, so far from brilliant, into which she was about to enter, these were not the last she was destined to shed.
Throughout this book, James skillfully presents Olive as the manipulative user, determined to make Verena into the mouthpiece she herself could not be. Basil is portrayed as a bit rough around the edges but basically a determined and decent person, a conservative but a compassionate conservative. Only in those closing moments do we recognize him as every bit as manipulative as Olive. He will cause more tears, but so, probably, would have Olive.
The tragedy of The Bostonians lies in the fact that no one will allow Verena to be Verena. She must either be a true believer of the feminist faith or reject all of that and worship at Basil’s marital altar. There seems no room for anything like love at either of these ideological poles.