Saturday, August 18, 2007
"The Bostonians" Henry James
This is an extraordinary account of a lesbian relationship, what was called in James’s day, a Boston marriage. The action plays out over the 1870s in the cities of Boston, New York and in the country around Cape Cod. Verena and Olive are activists in the woman’s emancipation movement and have set up house together. Basil Ransom, a Southerner (Civil War only over for 5 or 6 years) and a long-lost distant cousin of Olive, is in love with Verena. The book’s plot and central theme is the battle ground for Verena's soul: straight or lesbian, on the level of sexuality; modern emancipated woman or typical 19th century hausfrau on a deeper level.
However, James complicates things immensely by creating structural tensions between character and argument.
Olive is probably one of the most unpleasant female characters in James (Lord knows there are enough). She is a desiccated man-hater, rich, and while not exactly a dilettante, her motives for joining the struggle are not economic, but intensely ideological, idealistic and passionate. The Boston marriage is depicted as a marriage of unequals: Olive is basically paying Verena's father for Verena to live with her. It’s very difficult to like Olive Chancellor, but James is scrupulously honest in giving us her thoughts and motivations as objectively as possible.
Verena comes from a low middle-class background, her father is a pseudo faith healer, who had previously discovered a miraculous gift in his daughter, her ability to speak in public and move her hearers. She is corralled by Olive into the movement, and she enters into it whole heartedly. Olive’s role, and the ostensible basis for their relationship, is to ‘bring her out’. It’s never quite clear whether Verena is a naïve genius who is being not unwillingly exploited, or whether she is as calculating as her mother behind the façade of naivety.
Basil Ransom is a struggling writer of a Romantic appearance, and a defeated Southern gallant into the bargain. He has everything going for him. His views are extremely reactionary and conservative:
He was sick of all the modern cant about freedom and had no sympathy with those who wanted an extension of it. What was needed for the good of the world was that people should make much better use of the liberty they possessed... He thought the spread of education a gigantic farce- people stuffing their heads with a lot of empty catchwords-….you had a right to an education only if you had an intelligence, and if you looked at the matter with any desire to see things as they are, you soon perceived that an intelligence was a very rare luxury, the attribute of one person in a thousand.
(sounds like Gore Vidal at his most trenchant.)
On an ideological level, James sets up these two systems: the modern sexual emancipator, the radical conservative: Verena has to choose between them. James is sedulously non-judgemental in his voice, and in his marvellously insightful analyses of his characters.
Structurally, however, the radical conservative system is linked to the male heterosexual, and the modern sexual emancipator with the female, lesbian. This structural conjoining creates a tension in the work: with whom is one meant to side? With whom does the narrator side? With whom does James?
James’s narrative voice in this novel is a marvellously gossipy and indiscreet presence, of acute insight and omniscience, and delighting in the most subtle shades of irony:
Basil Ransom spent nearly a month at Marion. In announcing this fact I am very conscious of its extraordinary character.
Miss Birdseye is a very elderly feminine activist from a previous generation, retired and nearing death. Here’s how the narrator talks about her: At the end of her long day’s work she might have been placed there to enjoy this dim prevision of the peaceful river, the gleaming shores, of the paradise her unselfish life had certainly qualified her to enter, and to which, apparently, would so soon be opened to her. The voice is at once lyrical, elegiac and ironic, perfectly balanced, sympathetic and yet coolly removed.
The key scenes of conflict between the characters are written with an immensely precise metaphorical intensity, lifting them into the realm of a metaphysics. You can cut the air with a knife between the characters. There are extended meditations on the way insignificant events –a walk in the square –can have enormous significance in the memory later, and have ramifications for the story and the lives of the characters that can never be guessed at.
James is at the peak of his descriptive powers in this novel. The scenes of city life and nature are sublimely visual and limpid, and provide a contrast to the rather abstract social problems and arguments posited by the characters in the story.
Here is Basil watching Miss Birdseye on the summer veranda:
His eyes did not rest on the distance: they were attracted by a figure seated under the trellis, where the chequers of the sun, in the interstices of the vine-leaves fell upon a bright coloured rug spread out on the ground.
It’s somewhere between Kroyer, Sisley and Redon, the closest verbal equivalent to impressionism that any contemporary writer in the language was capable of (except perhaps Kate Chopin). In its limpid beauty and expressiveness, James’s prose matches the dash and verve of Dickens. Both are supreme verbal artists.