A review of The Bostonians by Henry James

Reviewed by Tom Frenkel

Many novels do not treat of social movements, and the need for change in society.  Jane Austen’s books would be an example.  But then again, many other novels do delve into this region to one extent or another.  There is, of course, Dickens with his crusading against abuses such as debtor’s prison, and the mistreatment of orphans.  In Phineas Finn (1869), by Anthony Trollope — one of my favorite authors — male suffrage (forget about the female variety) is discussed, along with the Irish tenant-right movement.

In Henry James’ The Bostonians — the subject of this review — we see a social movement not only discussed, but actually serving as the centerpiece of the novel.  The main characters (well, two of them) are intimately involved in this.  (Though as we will see, to call this a “crusading” novel would be a considerable error.)  As TB opens, the Civil War has been recently over.  So one could say, in a sense (and of course in a sense only) that the issue of slavery has been dealt with. The matter of women’s rights, however, is very much still a live issue. (As a benchmark, it’s useful to remember that the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the vote, was not enacted until 1920.)

The writing of Henry James (1843-1916) is often divided into three periods.  But as far as this reviewer is concerned, it seems more like two periods:  the readable books, and the near-impossible later works. In the latter category I would place The Wings of the Dove (1902).  I was only able to finish this book — with its almost impenetrable prose — because a kindly English graduate student kept me under her wing by email, as it were.  Earlier and much more accessible HJ works that I have read, include the present TB, plus Washington Square, and the novella Daisy Miller.  [1] These works — and probably several other novellas and short stories — are just about all I have read of HJ’s voluminous output.

The Bostonians, a relatively early HJ novel, was published in book form in 1886.  (It was originally serialized — as common in the Victorian era — in a magazine over 1885-86.)  HJ was born in New York City, but took up residence in England, and had not been to the USA since about 1880.  (He did not re-visit the USA until 1905.)  With all the detailed descriptions of Boston, New York City, and Cape Cod, I would say that the work is a kind of tour de force, considering how many years HJ had been removed from the locales of the story.  One feels very present in the 19th-century streets and landscapes that he writes about.

Although HJ is often described as a writer of the “Realism” school, TB is unusual, even for him, for the extent to which it deals with real-world social issues.  And as we will see below, HJ might have felt he was a bit “burned” by this novel, in the public reaction he received.

My edition — or should I say, “e-dition”?  — of TB is in “ePub” format, downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org). It comes from the print edition “Macmillan and Co., Limited, St. Martin’s St., London, 1921”.  It is, happily, free or virtually free of typographical errors.  This seems to be thanks to a group called Distributed Proofreaders (www.pgdp.net).  How this operates is that anyone can volunteer to proofread just one page at a time.  So, as the saying goes, “Many hands make light work”.  My only point of contention is that Project Gutenberg does not present the work as a single ePub file.  Like many novels of the Victorian era, TB is comprised of 3 parts: “Book First”, “Book Second”, and (here it comes) “Book Third”.  The Macmillan edition does not physically follow this template; rather, it is in 2 brick-and-mortar volumes (splitting Book Second between them); that is the basis for the double ePub that we have to deal with.  While there might have been practical reasons to create 2 (or 3) printed volumes, there is no such justification for dividing the electronic version.  On the contrary: all that this multiplicity does is make the citation of ePub page numbers (in my work notes) more complicated, plus requiring my text searches to be in multiple places!

TB is written in the third person.  (In at least some of his later works, HJ has — instead of this — the novel narrated by one of the characters … raising the additional complexity of a possibly “unreliable” narrator.)  HJ is famous for his theme of a clash of cultures, e.g. the experience of an American living abroad.  In the present case, however, all the characters are American, and the clashes are, one might say, geographical, social, and gender-related.  One could also say this is a kind of “triangle” story … but not one in the conventional, purely sexual sense.

Basil Ransom, the male “lead” of the novel, is a young lawyer who, following the Civil War — in which he fought for the Confederacy — has “emigrated” from the defeated South to try his luck in New York City. He is very “cultured” in the traditional sense, very well-read … which, I must say, cannot help but endear him to me to some extent. However, he is conservative in his views, to say the least, e.g. on the subject of equal rights for women.  Ransom, as the story opens, is in Boston, visiting his cousin Olive Chancellor.  OC, the second personage in the “triangle”, is a severe individual, not conventionally cultured (she “would like to abolish Europe”).  Her fixated goal is the full liberation of the female of the species.

The last element of the triangle is OC’s young protégée, Verena Tarrant. Although of socially lowly origin, VT has a rather mysterious magnetic power to galvanize audiences when she talks about women’s rights.  OC seems to develop a Svengali-like influence over her, to do her bidding and devote her entire being to this cause.  The only problem is that — as you might have guessed — BR is very attracted to VT, wanting her romantically, of course to the detriment of the women’s crusade.  The vying for Verena’s allegiance, between OC and BR, is the principal story of the novel.

It should be borne in mind, however, that Verena is by no means just a puppet, or a tool in OC’s hands.  Verena has her own very definite ideas about women and their rights.  A memorable instance of this is when she takes BR on a tour of the Harvard campus in Cambridge.  BR, who as a Southerner has never been there, still knows it as an illustrious place. Verena, however, expresses her contempt for an institution that still excludes the female gender!  (As it did, for undergraduates, till 1973.)

Aside from the three principal personages sketched in above, there is one smaller role that stands out for me.  This is Dr.  Prance, a female doctor in the days when this was a “rara avis” indeed … when for a woman to become a physician took an inordinate degree of motivation and drive.  Dr.  Prance has carved out her own personal nook of liberation, and in her busy life has no time for the general women’s movement:

Ransom could see that [Dr. Prance] was impatient of the general question and bored with being reminded, even for the sake of her rights, that she was a woman a detail that she was in the habit of forgetting, having as many rights as she had time for.  It was certain that whatever might become of the movement at large, Doctor Prance’s own little revolution was a success.

In the nineteenth century, Boston was (in this novel as well, I think, as in real life) more of a focus of the women’s movement than was New York City.  Why was this the case?  An explanation I came across [3] is that upper-class women (of whom there were presumably more in NYC than in Boston) resisted the movement because they thought that women’s suffrage would “dilute their influence”.


Sad to say — but truth to tell —TB was the kind of book that left me with considerable negative reactions.  For one thing, the book can feel too long and slow-moving … particularly the first half.  Maybe some of this comes from its beginnings as a magazine serial?  In that medium, perhaps the readership needs overlap between the sections to jog their memory.  Or perhaps HJ was not able to trim and revise as he would have in a “one-shot” release (though of course he could have done so later)? Or perhaps most cynically, since HJ was (at least sometimes) paid by the page, was he trying to maximize their number?  [4] In any case, things do seem long during the first half, the situation not being improved by much description and little dialogue; the writer is telling us instead of showing us, which is not always such a good thing.  (The pace picks up nicely, however, in the book’s second half.)

It is worthy of note, that TB was not included in the “New York Edition” of HJ’s work, for which the writer produced revised versions of some other of his novels.  It has been thought that this omission was related to negative critical reception of TB, particularly in the USA. This arose at least in part from the none-too-friendly feelings that HJ seems to be exhibiting towards the woman suffrage movement.  (This did bother me, as it appears to have bothered readers in the past.)  The severe OC certainly does not give us warm feelings toward female liberation!  Another example of HJ’s attitude is the subsidiary character Miss Birdseye — evidently based on the well-known reformer Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804-94).  Readers “back then” seemed to have had objections to the depiction of Miss B, probably understandable when one looks at passages such as:

It would have been a nice [i.e. acute] question whether, in her heart of hearts, for the sake of this excitement, she [Miss B] did not sometimes wish the blacks back in bondage.

Miss Birdseye was always trying to obtain employment, lessons in drawing, orders for portraits, for poor foreign artists, as to the greatness of whose talent she pledged herself without reserve; but in point of fact she had not the faintest sense of the scenic or plastic side of life.

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was best known as an educator who opened the first English-language Kindergarten in the USA.  But she also had a bookstore where Margaret Fuller organized “conversations” about the women’s rights movement.  (These conversations are probably being evoked in the group scene early in TB, where BR meets VT.)

Except for The Princess Casamassima, published the same year as TB (1886), HJ never again wrote another “political” novel.  The reaction of the public might have meant a lot to him, perhaps partly because (though HJ was born into a wealthy family), he did support himself most of his life, by writing.  Perhaps a great artist facing hard realities …

Another negative point about TB (and I admit that this is sort of a weakness of mine, as a reader) is that one cannot wholeheartedly identify with any one character; no character is all that likeable. Perhaps this is HJ as “the Realist” again?  In any event, this made the book a bit less fun to read for me.

Finally on the negative side, there is the melodramatic conclusion of the story.  Perhaps HJ is trying a bit too hard to atone for the rather static nature of the book as a whole?  But see what you think, of course.


I would not have finished TB (and would not have penned this review) if I did not think the plusses of the book considerably outweighed the minuses.  So here is the bright side of the spectrum …

HJ is not nicknamed “The Master” for nothing.  His style is justly celebrated, and his prose is typically just a pleasure to read.  You will see examples of his writing excerpted in this review.  There is one aspect of his writing I especially enjoy.  Just as the story of TB incorporates all levels of society — from the lofty matrons of NYC to the seedy Tarrants (the parents of Verena), so does HJ love to drop an “earthy” word into an otherwise elevated sentence … creating a telling contrast.  Take this example:

[OC] promising herself that her first visit to Mrs. Tarrant should also be her last. Her only consolation was that she expected to suffer intensely; for the prospect of suffering was always, spiritually speaking, so much cash in her pocket.

The word “cash”, I think, jumps out at you.  And this:

Now, what he [Matthias Pardon, the newspaper reporter] tried for was that you shouldn’t have the least idea; he always tried to have something that would make you jump.

The word “jump” here does almost make me actually jump!

I find many of HJ’s landscape descriptions to be quite beautiful.  Take this one, of the view from OC’s window.  I think this scene is all the more memorable for being, one might say, gritty and not pretty:

The western windows of Olive’s drawing-room, looking over the water, took in the red sunsets of winter; the long, low bridge that crawled, on its staggering posts, across the Charles; the casual patches of ice and snow; the desolate suburban horizons, peeled and made bald by the rigour of the season; the general hard, cold void of the prospect; the extrusion, at Charlestown, at Cambridge, of a few chimneys and steeples, straight, sordid tubes of factories and engine-shops, or spare, heavenward finger of the New England meeting-house.  There was something inexorable in the poverty of the scene, shameful in the meanness of its details, which gave a collective impression of boards and tin and frozen earth, sheds and rotting piles …

Especially the word “extrusion” makes this passage for me.

Here is a description of a scene on Cape Cod, one of the important locales of the novel:

The hazy shores on the other side of the water, which had tints more delicate than the street vistas of New York (they seemed powdered with silver, a sort of midsummer light), suggested to him [BR] a land of dreams, a country in a picture.

This definitely suggests Impressionism (as in painting).  But one should not be too surprised at this.  HJ is very conscious of painting — as one can see in his “Art of Fiction” essay, to be discussed below.  The Impressionist movement in painting arose (in Paris) in the 1870’s and 1880’s, a bit before the 1886 date of TB.

When HJ is writing about New York City, he spends a bit of time on Central Park.  I do feel that I have met a soul-mate here, in someone else who does not share the general adulation of this place:

The long, narrow enclosure [i.e. Central Park], across which the houses in the streets that border it look at each other with their glittering windows, bristled with the raw delicacy of April, and, in spite of its rockwork grottoes and tunnels, its pavilions and statues, its too numerous paths and pavements, lakes too big for the landscape and bridges too big for the lakes, expressed all the fragrance and freshness of the most charming moment of the year.

I have above indicated reservations about HJ’s treatment of the women’s movement.  But one can definitely look at the other side of the coin as well … the fact that he is venturing into this territory at all. What other major writer, before the 20th century, has written a work in which such women’s themes are so seriously treated?

Perhaps an even more daring venture is HJ’s portrayal, “tiptoeing” as it might be, of a possibly lesbian relationship … and between two of the three major characters, Olive and Verena.  (The Well of Loneliness, the first overtly lesbian novel, was not published until 1928.)  Here, from TB, are some passages which one might say are “suggestive”:

“Yes, I am dreadful; I know it. But promise.” And Olive drew the girl [VT] nearer to her, flinging over her with one hand the fold of a cloak that hung ample upon her own meagre person, and holding her there with the other, while she looked at her, suppliant but half hesitating. “Promise!” she repeated. – “Is it something terrible?” – “Never to listen to one of them [men], never to be bribed –“

She [OC] remembered the magnanimity with which she had declined (the winter before the last) to receive the vow of eternal maidenhood which she had at first demanded and then put by as too crude a test, but which Verena, for a precious hour, for ever flown, would then have been willing to take. She repented of it with bitterness and rage; …

It was a very peculiar thing, their [OC and VT’s] friendship; it had elements which made it probably as complete as any (between women) that had ever existed.


A rather interesting sidelight of my investigations into TB was my encounter with the expression “Boston marriage”.  To quote Wikipedia:

Boston marriage as a term is said to have been in use in New England in the decades spanning the late 19th and early 20th centuries to describe two women living together, independent of financial support from a man. There is no documentary proof that any particular Boston marriage included sexual relations.

The article goes on to aver that

The term Boston marriage was used by Henry James in The Bostonians … [5]

Of course, one great boon of e-texts is that it is very easy to search for a given text string.  I did not remember “Boston marriage” appearing in TB, so I searched.  It was not there.

One feature of Wikipedia you may not be aware of, is that every article has a “talk” tab, where issues relating to that article may be discussed.  Being a “newbie” at this, I rather timidily ventured to state my findings.  I was heartened when a couple other people chimed in in agreement!  One contributor said, “I’m starting to think that the term [“Boston marriage”] wasn’t even invented till the late 1980’s”.

When one Googles “Boston marriage”, one finds dozens of hits attributing the phrase to TB.  [6] I am afraid that this may be an instance of what one might call the dark side of the Wikipedia picture:  that since Wikipedia is (normally) such a reliable source, people freely “borrow” its findings and pass them on (often unattributed) as a kind of gospel.


Going just a bit further afield … but still in Henry James land …  I would like to briefly discuss his essay “The Art of Fiction”, [7] written in 1884, two years before TB.  We seem to see HJ “the Realist” talking here, e.g.:

The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does compete with life.

HJ discusses painting in this essay, and argues a similarity to the novel in its (alleged) obligation to be true to life, in the sense that an historical work of non-fiction is true to life:

 … as the picture is reality, so the novel is history. That is the only general description (which does it justice) that we may give the novel.  But history also is allowed to compete with life, as I say; it is not, any more than painting, expected to apologize.  The subject-matter of fiction is stored up likewise in documents and records, and if it will not give itself away, as they say in California, it must speak with assurance, with the tone of the historian.

I am not sure if HJ ever saw an abstract painting, (He could have, in his later years.)  If so, it would have been interesting to record his reaction …

Anathema to HJ is the idea of a novel “giving itself away”, in which he includes the idea of the author coming out from behind the curtain, as it were, to admit that he is “just” telling a story.  In the passage below, HJ implicates one of my favorite writers — already cited at the outset of this review — in this supposed dastardliness:

Certain accomplished novelists have a habit of giving themselves away which must often bring tears to the eyes of people who take their fiction seriously.  I was lately struck, in reading over many pages of Anthony Trollope, with his want of discretion in this particular.  In a digression, a parenthesis or an aside, he concedes to the reader that he and this trusting friend are only “making believe.” He admits that the events he narrates have not really happened, and that he can give his narrative any turn the reader may like best.  Such a betrayal of a sacred office seems to me, I confess, a terrible crime; it is what I mean by the attitude of apology, and it shocks me every whit as much in Trollope as it would have shocked me in [the historians] Gibbon or Macaulay.  It implies that the novelist is less occupied in looking for the truth (the truth, of course I mean, that he assumes, the premises that we must grant him, whatever they may be) than the historian, and in doing so it deprives him at a stroke of all his standing-room.

Since I have to confess that if I could only take either the works of James or Trollope to a desert island with me, I would choose the latter, you can imagine that the above passage rather ticks me off.  I am definitely on Trollope’s side in this matter.  To me, fiction can be, in an important sense, more “true” than non-fiction.  But I think it is wrong for the novel to try to go about this truth-telling business in the same way that a Gibbon would do.  I am not as suspicious of a novel’s possible sympathetic characters, engrossing plots, and happy endings as Mr. James is.  In fact, I have been known to welcome them …


As you no doubt have gathered, I am not an unqualified fan of The Bostonians.  But I feel that it has some great merits.  It shows HJ the Realist at work, engaging himself with issues rarely if ever explored up to then by a great novelist:  women’s rights, and (tip-toeingly to be sure) love between women.  It has that un-matchable literary style of HJ, who is not known as “The Master” for nothing.  Last but not least, it is not one of those almost un-conquerable tomes of his late period …


[1] My review of HJ’s Daisy Miller:  accessible via my book review page home.roadrunner.com/~frethoa/bookrpts.html

[2] I have not tried it, but the free program called SIGIL could probably join two or more ePub’s into one ePub.

[3] Explanation of Boston’s lead in women’s movement over NYC: Wikipedia article “Women’s suffrage in the United States”.

[4] HJ sometimes paid by the page:  Library of America, note on HJ novels 1886-90.

[5] Attribution of “Boston marriage” to TB:  Wikipedia article on “Boston marriage”.

[6] In Googling “Boston marriage”, one also finds many references to David Mamet’s 1999 play of the same name.  I’m looking forward to acquainting myself with this work, by a writer I much admire.

[7] HJ’s “The Art of Fiction” available at public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/artfiction.html

Tom Frenkel
email: frethoa AT aol DOT com
book blog: lessthanamegabyte.wordpress.com
revised 31aug2013