The Bostonians, by Henry James – and James Ivory – …

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou

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…are equally bad. Ι started reading the book, and while relatively at the beginning, I caught Ivory’s version of it (1984). The movie was terribly miscast, with the domineering Vanessa Redgrave as the shy Olive Chancellor, the bland Christopher Reeve as Basil Ransom and the unknown and charmless Madeleine Potter as Verena Tarrant. Upon seeing the movie (made a year before Ivory’s masterpiece A Room with a View, and one of my favorite films), I thought the blame lay entirely on the cast, the director and the inane script. But upon finishing the book, I decided that even with a better cast, there were little James Ivory could do to improve the source material. It’s terrible.

It pains me to say that, since I love Henry James, and indeed, I went through most of the book half-expecting the narrator to come out and say “Gotcha! you thought I was being serious? Well, you were wrong”. The book has no sympathetic characters at all (except for Doctor Prance, maybe). Miss Birdseye is a ridiculous figure (ridiculed by the author as well), Adeline Luna is selfish, superficial and stupid, Mr. Burrage is vain and shallow (his mother, the shrewd observer, might be another exception, but she appears so little, and not under a sympathetic light). And the main characters are even worse. Olive Chancellor is the painfully shy, shrill caricature of a hysterical man-hater/”feminist” archetype, while Basil Ransom is a Southern ultra-conservative with an unjustified idea of self-worth, who entertains the most preposterous opinions (even for that period, I imagine they are a stretch, and if they were not, the author fails spectacularly to lend them any credibility). Verena is an empty vessel. She has no emotions and ideas of her own, except for the mysterious “gift” of her oratorial skills, a gift that the reader is supposed to take for granted, although the character has zero charm and talent. All these horrible people are put through an implausible plot, where Olive latches herself onto Verena, with an obsession that veers on lesbianism (the only possibly interesting element of the book), while Basil tries to woo her away in order to marry her and effectively shut her up, since he does not believe that women were ever made for public functions. The climax where Basil tries to convince Verena to abandon Olive, before a sold-out appearance of the former in front of the Boston public, is painfully bad. No-one cares and you just want it to be over. You could not give a damn about the fate of this supremely stupid girl and her inability to make a decision and stand by it.

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If this was an accurate portrayal of the women’s movement in late nineteenth century, or even of Boston society, I could perhaps have swallowed the endless, verbose descriptions. But the main problem of the book is not the length or accuracy of its descriptions. It’s the misguided attempt to populate a drama with the hyperbolically yet minutely drawn characters that belong only to satire. Had James adopted that literary genre, the novel would have doubtless fared better. But the book is a long, dreary, utterly humorless read, that does not compensate the reader for the painstaking task of plodding through its pages.

Another problem lies in the impossibility to gauge the narrator’s point of view, whose occasional comments seem distracting rather than enlightening. Strangely enough, it’s not until the very last sentence of the book that the narrator/author takes a clear position on Verena’s choice of future (or anyone’s choices and ideas for that matter): “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”. Suddenly, the life that she chose with Basil is recognized for all its inevitable limitations, due to his suffocating ideas about femininity and dire professional prospects.

Thus, Verena ends up where she started, and social balance is restored. Coming, as she was, from “obscure” parents and more specifically, a father who longed to be “in the papers” (a hack spiritual healer), she ends up with a man who equally hopes to make his living by being published. Basil is, in a sense, a mirrored image of Verena’s father, and she seems to re-enact her mother’s life (who was disowned by her respectable family after she married Selah for love). But it seems odd that James should have waited so long to pronounce his judgment on the impending marriage, since, throughout the novel, Verena’s future with Basil is presented not only as more acceptable than the one she’s facing if she remains unmarried at Olive’s side, but as the only natural one. That her marriage to Basil was the socially acceptable resolution of the plot is furthermore stressed by the fact that Verena had already rejected the marriage offer of Henry Burrage, the well-off suitor who would not have forbidden her public appearances for the “cause”, as it is so often called. Henry James comes off as a conservative, then, who placed a high value on maintaining the order of things and dreaded change, and not as the witty and lively observer of high society. And this is a Henry James I distinctly dislike.

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