The Bostonians, Henry James, 1886
I don’t know why Henry James thought satirizing late Victorian feminism would be a good idea. It wasn’t. The Bostonians, the result of this misguided endeavor, is a truly worthless book. I don’t know who he imagined would want to read it. Maybe Men’s Right’s Activists. I stumbled across a review of this book on what turned out to be an MRA website. That’s the type of book this is.
The plot concerns two cousins who get into a fight over a young woman. Olive Chancellor is a well-to-do Bostonian and very active in the Women’s Movement. She invites her Southern cousin, Basil Ransom to visit. At one of Olive’s meetings they are both introduced to a beautiful young woman named Verena Tarrant who is a talented speaker. They didn’t have Netflix in the 1880s, so the ability to deliver some stirring oration was quite a talent. Olive and Basil become locked in a battle for lovely Verena’s soul.
James depicts Olive as cold and joyless. He shows her the type of disrespect that activists are often shown by assuming that her efforts are more a result of her personality than her convictions. She tries to change people’s behavior because she is an egotistical, controlling nag, not because these behaviors are harmful. She is obsessed with the suffering of women, not because women have truly suffered, but because the more downtrodden they are the greater her glory in lifting them up to a higher life. James continually indicates that he sees no merit in Olive’s cause, equal rights for women, by depicting Olive as someone who believes “whatever is—is wrong” and who would “reform the solar system if she could get a hold of it.” Barf. That attitude is so dismissive. James draws feminists as meddlers who want to reform for reformation’s sake. At no point does he demonstrate respect for the idea that all people should be equal.
That disrespect got him in trouble with the literary community. Nobody was interested in his backwards, even for the time, opinions. One doddering old feminist character, Miss Birdseye, was clearly based on Eliza Peabody, a relative of Nathaniel Hawthorne and friend of the Alcotts. Here’s a segment of James’ description of Ms. Birdseye “she belonged to the Short-Skirts League, as a matter of course; for she belonged to any and every league that had been founded for almost any purpose whatsoever.” Cuz, you know, all these loud women talking about feminism don’t even care about equality, they just like being in a club together. To continue with the quote “this did not prevent her being a confused, entangled, inconsequent, discursive old woman whose charity began at home and ended nowhere, whose credulity kept pace with it, and who knew less about her fellow-creatures, if possible, after fifty years of humanitary zeal, than on the day she had gone into the field to testify against the iniquity of most arrangements.” Also, she’s ugly. Yep, Henry James did just depict humanitarianism as inconsequential. I want that on the record. The scorn in that phrase “iniquity of most arrangements” is at the heart of what makes this book worthless. Who the hell is James talking to? Who does he think his audience is? Society had already acknowledged that arrangements were iniquitous. Mocking that idea will appeal to no one except for reactionary assholes like Basil Ransom.
I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t gotten to the worst part of Ms. Birdseye’s characterization. James states that she is less busy since the end of the Civil Wa, “before that her best hours had been spent in fancying that she was helping some Southern slave to escape. It would have been a nice question whether, in her heart of hearts, for the sake of this excitement, she did not sometimes wish the blacks back in bondage.” Uhhhhhhhhhhh. Where to even start with this one. Yet again, James sees no sincerity in activism. Abolitionists were just in it for the thrills. Now, it is hard to know if James is being dismissive of the efforts of everyone involved in the Underground Railroad or if Ms. Birdseye really did only fancy that she helped slaves escape. Potentially, he could mean that she was so ineffective that she couldn’t bring about an escape. However, he doesn’t have much benefit of the doubt left. So, probably not? The idea that she might wish for the reinstatement of slavery smacks of that dumb philosophical argument that there is no true altruism, because if you feel pleasure when you help someone, you aren’t being truly selfless. I believe it was John Stewart Mill who rolled his eyes hard and said “Wtf do you care if someone who does a good deed feels pleasure? Someone was helped. Someone else felt happy. These are both good things. Shut up, Henry James. What part of feeling good about doing good is objectionable to you, you twisted ratbag?”
This is not to say that feminists and abolitionists are too sacred to be criticized or even mocked. You don’t have to do much digging to find objectionable behavior in either camp. But this is not an instance of one humanitarian holding other humanitarians to a higher standard. This is just one twisted ratbag making fun of people for promoting equality. Yes, the people that these characters are based on were not the intersectional heroes we wish for. However, that’s not what James is lampooning. He’s not mocking them for doing a bad job of striving for equality. He’s just mocking them. The Bostonians was published serially. James’ depiction of Ms. Birdseye was so poorly received that he had to change direction and write a touching death scene for her near the end of the novel.
Woof. 1,000 words already. I’ve covered the first 5% of the book. We need to talk about Basil. He is a Southern gentleman who lost his family fortune when his slaves were freed. Basil has such reactionary political opinions that he cannot get them published. A newspaper editor rejects his “paper on the rights of minorities” because his “doctrines were about three hundred years behind the age; doubtless some magazine of the sixteenth century would have been very happy to print them.” So, Olive and Basil are both ideologues. Basil has the upper hand in their fight for Verena, because he is charming and persuasive, while Olive is the incarnation of an MRAer’s mental picture of a feminist. Basil falls in love with Verena and wants to rescue her from the taint of public life, because women should be hidden away at home. Doing some baking.
Long story short, Verena chooses Basil, because I don’t know, the innate superiority of men? James depicts her as young and impressionable. She only became involved in the Women’s Movement, because of her father’s influence. She sways from one influence to another. James cannot conceive of a young woman who genuinely believes in equal rights or has any convictions whatsoever that won’t fly out of her silly little head as soon as someone mildly persuasive starts talking to her. Verena is clay to be molded by the stronger characters; “it was in her nature to be easily submissive, to like being overborn.” Which describes exactly zero of the young advocates I know. Although, I can’t claim that a prominent feminist falling in love with an anti-feminist troll and losing her way is absolutely unrealistic. Remember Laci Green, the feminist, sex-positive youtuber who “reached out to the other side,” started dating an anti-feminist troll and immediately started tweeting transphobia? It can happen.
But do we need a novel about it? No.
We have to talk about the book’s queerness. There is an obvious implication that Olive is in love with Verena. They live together, an arrangement that lead to the coining of the term “Boston marriage” meaning a same-sex couple that live together ostensibly as platonic friends, but who are really romantically involved. I can understand how even a tacit acknowledgement of the existence of same-sex relationships during this era is significant, but this book is not the queer classic you deserve. Not by any stretch. James promotes the stereotype of homosexual love as the corruption of malleable young person by a misguided older lover. I don’t need it. You don’t need it. It’s trash and I don’t want to think about it anymore.
You might like The Bostonians if:
- You’re a Men’s Rights Activist or whatever they’re calling themselves now.
You might not like The Bostonians if:
- See above.
Final thoughts: Barf.