Verena Tarrant is caught between two people vying for control of her attention and affections. Because of her eloquence as a speaker for the feminist movement, Olive Chancellor wants her attention focused on the cause. But handsome lawyer Basil Ransome has his mind set on capturing her heart, and in the process, taking her away from Olive and her feminist crusade.
Henry James deftly explores the politics of the early women’s movement in this satirical novel, and keenly observes the friction exists even now—is it truly possible for women to have everything?
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About the Author
Henry James (1843-1916), the son of the religious philosopher Henry James Sr. and brother of the psychologist and philosopher William James, published many important novels including Daisy Miller, The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl, and The Ambassadors.
Date of Birth:April 15, 1843
Date of Death:February 28, 1916
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Place of Death:London, England
Education:Attended school in France and Switzerland; Harvard Law School, 1862-63
Read an Excerpt
"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 Of 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."
These words were spoken with much volubility by a fair, plump, smiling woman who entered a narrow drawing room in which a visitor, kept waiting for a few moments, was already absorbed in a book. The gentleman had not even needed to sit down to become interested: apparently he had taken up the volume from a table as soon as he came in, and, standing there, after a single glance round the apartment, had lost himself in its pages. He threw it down at the approached Mrs. Luna, laughed, shook hands with her, and said in answer to her last remark, "You imply that you do tell fibs. Perhaps that is one."
"Oh no; there is nothing wonderful in my being glad to see you," Mrs. Luna rejoined, "when I tell you that I have been three long weeks in this unprevaricating city."
"That has an unflattering sound for me," said the young man. "I pretend not to prevaricate."
"Dear me, what's the good of being a Southerner?" the lady asked. "Olive told me to tell you the hoped you will stay to dinner. And if she said it, she does really hope it. She is willing to risk that."
"Just as I am?" the visitor inquired, presenting himself with rather a work-a-day aspect.
Mrs. Luna glanced at him from head to foot, and gave a little smiling sigh, as if he had been a long sum in addition. And, indeed, he was very long, Basil Ransom, and he even looked a little hard and discouraging, like a column of figures, in spite of the friendly face which he bent upon his hostess's deputy, and which, in its thinness, had a deep dry line, a sort of premature wrinkle, on either side of the mouth. He was tall and lean, and dressed throughout in black; his shirt collar was low and wide, and the triangle of linen, a little crumpled, exhibited by the opening of his waistcoat, was adorned by a pin containing a small red stone. In spite of this decoration the young man looked poor — as poor as a young man could look who had such a fine head and such magnificent eyes. Those of Basil Ransom were dark, deep, and glowing; his head had a character of elevation which fairly added to his stature; it was a head to be seen above the level of a crowd, on some judicial bench or political platform, or even on a bronze medal. His forehead was high, and broad, and his thick black hair, perfectly straight and glossy, and without any division, rolled back from it in a leonine manner These things, the eyes especially, with their smouldering fire, might have indicated that he was to be a great American statesman; or, on the other hand, they might simply have proved that he came from Carolina or Alabama. He came, in fact, from Mississippi, and he spoke very perceptibly with the accent of that country. It is not in my power to reproduce by any combination of characters this charming dialect; but the initiated reader will have no difficulty in evoking the sound, which is to be associated in the present instance with nothing vulgar or vain. This lean, pale, sallow, shabby, striking young man, with his superior head, his sedentary shoulders, his expression of height grimness and hard enthusiasm, his provincial, distinguished appearance, is, as a representative of his sex, the most important personage in my narrative; he played a very active part in the events I have undertaken in some degree to set forth. And yet the reader who likes a complete image, who desires to read with the senses as well as with the reason, is entreated not to forget that he prolonged his consonants and swallowed his vowels, that he was guilty of elisions and interpolations which were equally unexpected, and that his discourse was pervaded by something sultry and vast, something almost African in its rich, basking tone, something that suggested the teeming expanse of the cotton field. Mrs. Luna looked up at all this, but saw only a part of it; otherwise she would not have replied in a bantering manner, in answer to his inquiry: "Are you ever different from this?" Mrs. Luna was familiar — intolerably familiar.
Basil Ransom colored a little. Then he said; "Oh yes; when I dine out I usually carry a six-shooter and a bowie knife." And he took up his hat vaguely — a soft black hat with a low crown and an immense straight brim, Mrs. Luna wanted to know what he was doing. She made him sit down; she assured him that her sister quite expected him, would feel as sorry as she could ever feel for anything — for she was a kind of fatalist, anyhow — if he didn't Slay to dinner. It was an immense pity — she herself was going out; in Boston you must jump at invitations. Olive, too, was going somewhere after dinner, but he mustn't mind that; perhaps he would like to go with her. It wasn't a party — Olive didn't go to parties; it was one of those weird meetings she was so fond of.
What kind of meetings do you refer to? You speak as if it were a rendezvous of witches on the Brocken."
"Well, so it is; they are all witches and wizards, mediums, and spirit-rappers, and roaring radicals."
Basil Ransom stared; the yellow light in his brown eyes deepened. "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."
Oh, murder!" murmured the young man vaguely, sinking back in his chair with his arms folded. He looked at Mrs. Luna with intelligent incredulity. She was sufficiently pretty; her hair was in dusters of curls, like bunches of grapes; her tight bodice seemed to crack with her vivacity; and from beneath the stiff little plaits of her petticoat a small fat foot protruded, resting upon a stilted heel. She was attractive and impertinent, especially the latter. He seemed to think it was a great pity, what she had told him; but he lost himself in this consideration, or, at any rate, said nothing for some time, while his eyes wandered over Mrs. Luna, and he probably wondered what body of doctrine she represented, little as she might partake of the nature of her sister. 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. "Well, I suppose I might have known that," he continued, at last.
"You might have known what?"
"Well, that Miss Chancellor would be all that you say. She was brought up in the city of reform."
"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 loot out. That's the way I found her when I returned from Europe."
"Have you been in Europe?" Ransom asked.
"Mercy, yes! Haven't you?"
"No, I haven't been anywhere. Has your sister?"
"Yes; hut she stayed only an hour or two. She hates it; she would like to abolish it. Didn't you know I had been to Europe?" Mrs. Luna went on, in the slightly aggrieved tone of a woman who discovers the limits of her reputation.
Ransom reflected he might answer her that until five minutes ago he didn't know she existed; but he remembered that this was not the way in which a Southern gentleman spoke to ladies, and he contented himself with saying that he must condone his Boeotion ignorance (he was fond of an elegant phrase); that he lived in a part of the country where they didn't think much about Europe, and that he had always supposed she was domiciled in New York. This last remark he made at a venture, for he had, naturally, not devoted any supposition whatever to Mrs. Luna. His dishonesty, however, only exposed him the more.
"If you thought I lived in New York. Why in the world didn't you come and see me?" the lady inquired.
Well, you see, I don't go out much, except to the courts."
"Do you mean the law-courts? Everyone has got some profession over here! Are you very ambitious? You look as if you were."
"Yes, very," Basil Ransom replied, with a smile, and the curious feminine softness with which Southern gentlemen enunciate that adverb.
Mrs. Luna explained that she had been living in Europe for several years — ever since her husband died — but had come home a month before, come home with her little boy, the only thing she had in the world, and was paying a visit to her sister, who, of course, was the nearest thing after the child. "But it isn't the same," she said. "Olive and I disagree so much."
"While you and your little boy don't," the young man remarked.
"Oh no, I never differ from Newton!" And Mrs. Luna added that now she was back she didn't know what she should do. That was the worst of coming back; it was like being born again, at one's age — one had to begin life afresh. One didn't even know what one had come back for. There were people who wanted one to spend the winter in Boston; but she couldn't stand that — she knew, at least, what she had not come back for. Perhaps she should take a house in Washington; did he ever hear of that little place? They had invented it while she was away. Besides, Olive didn't want her in Boston, and didn't go through the form of saying so. That was one comfort with Olive; she never went through any forms.
Basil Ransom had got up just as Mrs. Luna made this last declaration; for a young lady had glided into the room, who stopped short as it fell upon her ears. She stood there looking, consciously and rather seriously, at Mr. Ransom; a smile of exceeding faintness played about her lips — it was just perceptible enough to light up the native gravity of her face. It might have been likened to a thin ray of moonlight resting upon the wall of a prison.
"If that were true," she said, "I shouldn't tell you that I am very sorry to have kept you waiting."
Her voice was low and agreeable — a cultivated voice — and she extended a slender white hand to her visitor, who remarked with some solemnity (he fill a certain guilt of participation in Mrs. Luna's indiscretion) that he was intensely happy to make her acquaintance. He observed that Miss Chancellor's hand was at once cold and limp; she merely placed it in his, without exerting the smallest pressure, Mrs. Luna explained to her sister that her freedom of speech was caused by his being a relation — though, indeed, he didn't seem to know much about them. Site didn't believe he had ever heard of her, Mrs. Luna, though he pretended, with his Southern chivalry, that he had. She most be off to her dinner now, she saw the carriage was there, and in her absence Olive might give any version of her she chose.
"I have told him you are a radical, and you may tell him, if you like, that I am a painted Jezebel. Try to reform him; a person from Mississippi is sure to be all wrong. I shall be back very late: we are going to a theatre-party; that's why we dine to early. Good-bye, Mr. Ransom," Mrs. Luna continued, gathering up the feathery white shawl which added to the volume of her fairness. "I hope you are going to stay a little, so that you may judge us for yourself. I should like you to see Newton, too; he is a noble little nature, and I want some advice about him. You only stay to-morrow? Why, what's the use of that? Well, mind you come and see me in New York; I shall be sure to be part of the winter there. I shall send you a card; I won't let you off. Don't come out; my sister has the first claim. Olive, why don't you take him to your female convention?" Mrs. Luna's familiarity extended even to her sister; she remarked to Miss Chancellor that she looked as if she were got up for a sea-voyage, "I am glad I haven't opinions that present my dressing in the evening!" she declared from the doorway. "The amount of thought they give to their clothing, the people who are afraid of looking frivolous!"CHAPTER 2
Whether much or little consideration had been directed to the result, Miss Chancellor certainly would not have incurred this reproach. She was habited in a plain dark dress, without any ornaments, and her smooth, colorless hair was confined as carefully as that of her sister was encouraged to stray. She had instantly seated herself, and while Mrs. Luna talked she kept her eyes on the ground, glancing even less toward Basil Ransom than toward that woman of many words. The young man was therefore free to look at her; a contemplation which showed him that she was agitated and trying to conceal it. He wondered why she was agitated, not foreseeing that he was destined to discover, later, that her nature was like a skiff in a stormy sea. Even after her sister had passed out of the room she sat there with her eyes turned away, as if there had been a spell upon her which forbade her to raise them. Miss Olive Chancellor, it may be confided to the reader, to whom in the course or our history I shall be under the necessity of imparting much occult information, was subject to fits of tragic shyness, during which she was unable to meet even her own eyes in the mirror. One of these fits had suddenly seized her now, without any obvious cause, though, indeed, Mrs. Luna had made it worse by becoming instantly so personal. There was nothing in the world so personal as Mrs. Luna; her sister could have hated her for it if she had not forbidden herself this emotion as directed to individuals. Basil Ransom was a young man of first-rate intelligence, but conscious of the narrow range, as yet, of his experience. He was on his guard against generalizations which might be hasty; hut he had arrived at two or three that were of value to a gentleman lately admitted to the New York bar and looking out for clients. One of them was to the effect that the simplest division it is possible to make of the human race is into the people who take things hard and the people who take them easy. He perceived very quickly that Miss Chancellor belonged to the former class. This was written so intensely in her delicate face that he felt an unformulated pity for her before they had exchanged twenty words. He himself, by nature, took things easy; if he had put on the screw of late, it was after reflection, and because circumstances pressed him close. But this pale girl, with her light-green eyes, her pointed features and nervous manner, was visibly morhitf; it was as plain as day that she was morbid. Poor Ransom announced this fact to himself as if he had made a great discovery; but in reality he had never been so "Boeotian" as at that moment. It proved nothing of any importance, with regard to Miss Chancellor, to say that she was morbid; any sufficient account of her would lie very much to the rear of that. Why was she morbid, and why was her morbidness typical? Ransom might have exulted if he had gone back far enough ho explain that mystery. The women he had hitherto known had been mainly of his own soft clime, and it was not often they exhibited the tendency he detected (and cursorily deplored) in Mrs. Luna's sister. That was the way he liked them — not to think too much, not to feel any responsibility for the government of the world, such ids as he was sure Miss Chancellor felt. If they would only be private and passive, and have no feeling but for that, and leave publicity to the sex of tougher hide! Ransom was pleased with the vision of that remedy; it must be repeated that he was very provincial.
These considerations were nut present to him as definitely as I have written them here; they were summed up in the vague compassion which his cousin's figure excited in his mind, and which was yet accompanied with a sensible reluctance to know her better, obvious as it was that with such a face as that she must be remarkable. He was sorry for her, but he saw in a flash that no one could help her; that was what made her tragic. He had not, seeking his fortune, come away from the blighted South, which weighed upon his heart, to look out for tragedies; at least he didn't want them outside of his office in Pine Street. He broke the silence ensuing upon Mrs. Luna's departure by one of the courteous speeches to which blighted regions may still encourage a tendency, and presently found himself talking, comfortably enough with his hostess. Though he had said to himself that no one could, help her, the effect of his tone was to dispel her shyness; it was her great advantage (for the career she had proposed to herself) that in certain conditions she was liable suddenly to become bold. She was reassured at finding that her visitor was peculiar; the way he spoke told her that it was no wonder he had fought on the Southern side. She had never yet encountered a personage so exotic, and she always felt more at her ease in the presence of anything strange. 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. She had no difficulty in asking him now whether he would not stay to dinner — she hoped Adeline had given him her message. It had been when she was upstairs with Adeline, as his card was brought up, a sudden and very abnormal inspiration to offer him this (for her) really ultimate favor; nothing could be further from her common habit than to entertain alone, at any repast, a gentleman she had never seen.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Bostonians"
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgements; List of abbreviations; General editors' preface; General chronology of James's life and writings; Introduction; Textual introduction; Chronology of composition and publication; The Bostonians; Glossary of foreign words and phrases; Notes; Textual variants; Appendices.
Reading Group Guide
1. “I wished to write a very American tale, a tale very characteristic of our social conditions,” wrote Henry James in one of his Notebooks. How would you describe the social and political climate in New England as depicted in The Bostonians? Consider the profound effects of the recently ended Civil War, as well as the changes wrought by an increasingly industrial society.
2. In A. S. Byatt’s Introduction, she notes that Henry James was raised in a progressive, transcendentalist household, and that he was “able to report the phantasmagoria of spiritual and political abstractions, magnetisms, and influences, with a surefooted realist solidity of specification . . . because it is what he knew best and first. . . . The characters even the southerner, Basil Ransom– are people James was at ease with, could represent economically, precisely, and with wit.” Do you agree? Which of the characters described by Mrs. Luna as “witches and wizards, mediums, and spirit-rappers, and roaring radicals” stand out as the most fully realized? Do any of them strike you as caricatures?
3. According to Alison Lurie, “The central conflict in The Bostonians is over who will have possession of Verena. Because she is naive and passive, her own wishes have little to do with the outcome.” Do you agree? Consider the various characters who battle to control the beautiful young orator: Olive Chancellor, Basil Ransom, the Tarrants, Mr.Burrage and his mother, and Matthias Pardon. How do their motives differ, and what does Verena represent to each of them?
4. Writing about The Bostonians, Irving Howe praises “James’ affectionate rendering of places and scenes. The elegance of Olive Chancellor’s drawing room, the dinginess of the Cambridge street in which the Tarrants live, the glimmering mildness of Cape Cod in the summer . . . The musty mumbling circle of reformers meeting, and sagging, in Miss Birdseye’s rooms . . .” After reading James’s satirical masterpiece, which scenes and locales strike you as the most vivid and memorable?
5. In Chapter 5, James writes that Olive “knew her place in the Boston hierarchy, and it was not what Mrs. Farrinder supposed; so that there was a want of perspective in talking to her as if she had been a representative of the aristocracy. . . . Olive Chancellor seemed to herself to have privileges enough without being affiliated to the exclusive set and having invitations to the smaller parties, which were the real test.” Can you find other examples of a defined social hierarchy in The Bostonians? How would you compare Olive’s views on class structure with the social aspirations–or lack thereof–of Mrs. Luna, Miss Birdseye, Dr. Prance, and Mrs. Tarrant?
6. Much has been written about the closing line of The Bostonians: “It is to be feared that with the union, so far from brilliant, into which [Verena] was about to enter, these were not the last [tears] she was destined to shed.” What do you imagine the future holds for Verena, Basil, and Olive?
7. When The Bostonians was first published, in 1886, it was deemed a critical and commercial failure in America. Why do you think James’s nineteenth-century contemporaries found the novel so distasteful? Was it the author’s colorful characterization of the women’s suffrage movement or his depiction of a “Boston marriage” between Olive and Verena? Was it his depiction of a bitter struggle between a northerner and a southerner, so soon after the Civil War? As a modern reader, did you find the author’s satirical portrait of the women’s suffrage movement or Basil Ransom’s antifeminist arguments offensive? Are the viewpoints expressed in the novel still relevant today?