Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Bostonians

Title: The Bostonians
Author: Henry James
List: #87 on Radcliffe’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading? Maybe.

I did not particularly enjoy this novel. And as I work my way through my massive list, I am finding that for the most part I really enjoy the novels on the BBC list, but less so the novels on the Modern Library and Radcliffe lists. Then again, maybe it is just the novels on those lists that I haven’t read yet that I don’t like very much, because the Radcliffe list does include books I have really enjoyed, like To Kill a Mockingbird, Charlotte’s Web, Winnie-the-Pooh, Gone With the Wind, Schindler’s List, and Lord of the Rings, to pick out just a few of my favorites. So perhaps I am just in a novel-choosing slump.

As for The Bostonians, I don’t think I’ve read a Henry James novel before, so I’m not sure if this novel is reflective of James’ style. What I did not enjoy about his style in this book were the massive paragraphs describing (rather boring) conversations between the characters instead of actually transcribing their dialogue. When James did relate actual dialogues, I found the book much more enjoyable.

Perhaps part of the problem is that this book is rather political. Two of the main characters, Olive Chancellor and Verena Tarrant, are very active in the feminist movement and James describes their ideas and mission in quite some detail. He also describes the opposition to their cause felt by the other main character, Basil Ransom. It is difficult to tell where James’ personal views lie. At the beginning of the novel he satirizes the feminist platform quite effectively, but as Basil Ransom gains influence over Verena Tarrant, James appears more sympathetic to the feminist cause.

I think it bears keeping in mind that this is not a modern novel, but was first published as a serial in 1885-86. The novel appears to be set a decade or so earlier, as Basil Ransom is a relatively young Civil War veteran from Mississippi. Clearly, the attitude towards feminism at that time was not the same as it is today, and it is perhaps this late 19th century setting that made James give his characters options that were only black and white.

I’m not giving anything away by saying that Basil Ransom, a staunch conservative, falls in love with Verena Tarrant, a beautiful young woman and gifted public speaker. At the same time, Olive Chancellor discovers Verena and seeks to develop Verena’s speaking ability to advance the cause of women’s rights. Both Basil and Olive see Verena’s future in terms of black and white. Olive apparently believes that for Verena to promote the feminist cause, she must pledge to remain unmarried. (It is also possible, but not explicitly stated, that Olive may be in love with Verena herself and be opposed to the possibility of Verena marrying on that ground.) Basil, on the other hand, doesn’t believe in women’s rights and doesn’t believe Verena’s gift should be exploited in public exhibitions. Rather, he feels that she must use her charm only at home in the parlor—a parlor shared with him, of course. Poor Verena, meanwhile, is torn in both directions, and neither of her friends offers her the option to do both: marry and advance the feminist cause through public speaking.

It may be our modern times that make me think this third option is an obvious one, but the lack of that option for Verena in the novel really irritated me (as did the fact that Verena wasn't a strong enough character to come up with that option herself!). This irritation was not on a policy level because I feel it is important to think of the political climate in which the novel was released, but more because by presenting the options as black and white, James causes all of his characters, but particularly Verena, to suffer severe pain and anguish. Maybe that was necessary for the story James wanted to convey, particularly because it is supposed to be a satire, but apparently this satire was lost on me, leaving only the annoyance and irritation.

And from this you may believe that I only enjoy novels with happy endings. But I swear that’s not true! Just look at the previously mentioned Gone With the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird as two examples. Anyway, I didn’t enjoy The Bostonians. Somehow it didn’t engage me and I really just wanted to get to the end and finish it already. And with that, I’ll leave reading this book up to you. I see no reason to rush out and read it, but I guess it wasn’t a complete waste of time.

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