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The Bostonians, by Henry James

A review by Horace Elisha Scudder

It might be supposed, at first glance, that Mr. James in The Bostonians was not going to let us off, but intended to drag us with him into the labyrinth of the woman question. Nothing could be more unjust. Mr. James, with the quick instinct of an artist, saw his opportunity in the strange contrasts presented by a phase of Boston life which is usually taken too seriously for purposes of fiction. We do not remember any more striking illustration of Mr. James's general self-expatriation. He comes back, as it were, to scenes once familiar to him, bringing with him habits of thought and observation which make him seize upon just those features of life which would arrest the attention of an Englishman or a Frenchman. The subtle distinctions between the Laphams and Correys are nothing to him, but he is caught by the queer variety of humanitarianism which with many people outside Boston is the peculiar attribute of that much suffering city. He remembers, we will suppose, the older form, the abolition sentiment which prevailed in his youth, and now is curious about the later development, which he takes to be a medley of women's rights, spiritualism, inspirationism, and the mind cure. He notices a disposition on the part of what a clever wit called Boston Proper to break away from its orbit and get entangled in this nebulous mass, and so he takes for his main figure a woman who is young and old by turns, according to the need of the novelist, a Bostonian of the straighter sect, who has yet, by the very force of her inherited rigidity of conscience, martyred herself, and cast in her lot with a set of reformers who are much the worse for wear. Olive Chancellor's high-bred disdain of her seedy associates is mingled with lofty devotion to the cause which they misrepresent, and the composition in character is extremely truthful and skillfully shown. What renders it even more fine as a personal portrait is the admixture of passionate, womanly appropriation of the girl whom she looks upon as the young priestess of the new church of womanhood; and the manner in which the woman is always getting the better of the doctrinaire strikes us as showing more completely than anything else in the book how thoroughly Mr. James has possessed himself of this character.

The second lady of this drama is Verena Tarrant, who was constructed for the purposes of the story, and is, we may say, a purely imaginary being. Mr. James may have had an indefinite image of the Priscilla of Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance floating in his mind when he built this impossible Verena. Impossible, we say, because, while Hawthorne manages to invest Priscilla with a delicacy of nature in spite of her surroundings, Mr. James, in his analysis of Verena, makes her refined, beautiful, spiritual in her power, and in a hundred ways, when he is not analyzing her, succeeds in betraying a cheap imitation of spiritual beauty. That Olive Chancellor, with a cataract over her inner eye, should fail to perceive the innate vulgarity of the girl is not surprising, but it is too much to ask of us that we should make Basil Ransom stone blind also.

Basil Ransom, however, is in certain ways equally remote from the life which he is supposed to represent. It was a clever notion to bring the antipathetic element from the South, and in a few features this hero of the story has a little likeness to an actual Mississippian; but we cannot resist the conviction that Mr. James has never been in Mississippi, as the phrase goes, and trusts to luck that his readers have not been there either. We have not much quarrel with him on this ground, however. Perhaps we ought to be thankful, since an intimacy with Ransom's native surroundings might have produced another book of the story, in which the hero should have been built up as patiently and minutely as was the case with The Bostonians themselves. Suffice it to say that the fact of an extreme Southern birth and breeding count for a great deal in orienting this important character.

We have intimated that the book is not in the least a contribution to the study of the woman question, so called. It is rather a study of the particular woman question in this book. Instead of the old, familiar predicament of one heroine and two heroes, one of whom must get and one lose the prize, the two heroes are a man and woman, but the struggle is of the same general character. Who is to have Verena? Shall it be Olive or Basil? That is the question which is asked with great particularity and at great length. The novel is divided into three books: in the first, Basil is barely introduced, but Olive and Verena are built up like a coral reef; in the second, the contesting parties maneuver for position; in the third, the conflict takes place, with what may be called a tussle in the end. We hope we may be pardoned for a slight "derangement of epitaphs" and for a possibly flippant manner in stating the argument of the book. The astounding array of particulars invites one to pause and see if he cannot abstract the generals. Indeed, one stands in amazement before the delicacy of workmanship, especially in the first few chapters. The minute touches with which the portraits of Olive Chancellor and Miss Birdseye are elaborated, and the quick, firm strokes that depict Mrs. Farrinder and the Tarrants, have never been excelled by Mr. James. There is a page given to Mrs. Farrinder which is simply a masterpiece in its way; its compactness intensifies its brilliancy, and the wit of its quiet sentences is as keen as it is easy.

The character, however, on which Mr. James has plainly expended the most careful and, we are tempted to say, loving descriptive art is that of Miss Birdseye. At first one fears that the author does not appreciate her, but one ends by seeing that Mr. James knew the pathetic nobility of the figure, and admired it, even while he was apparently amusing himself and his readers. It is not art alone that can do this,--something of personal tenderness must go into the process; and this character is the one redeeming feature of the book, if one is considering the humane aspects. The other persons are either ignoble, like the Tarrants and Mrs. Luna, or they are repellent for other reasons; but Miss Birdseye one falls in love with, quite to the exclusion of the proper heroine.

When we say that most of the characters are repellent, we are simply recording the effect which they produce upon the reader by reason of the attitude which the author of their being takes toward them. He does not love them. Why should he ask more of us? But since he is extremely interested in them, and seems never wearied of setting them in every possible light, we also accede to this interest, and if we have time enough strike up an extraordinary intimacy with all parties. It is when this interest leads Mr. James to push his characters too near the brink of nature that we step back and decline to follow. For instance, the details of the first interview between Olive and Verena in Olive's house carry these young women to dangerous lengths, and we hesitate about accepting the relation between them as either natural or reasonable. So far does this go that in the author's exhaustive reflections upon the subject directly afterward we feel as if another step only were needed to introduce a caricature by Mr. James upon himself. All this is still more apparent in the final scene of the book, which ought to have been the climax; instead of which, by its noise and confusion, and its almost indecent exposure of Miss Chancellor's mind, this scene allows the story just to tumble down at the end.

Mr. James himself is, we fear, somewhat contaminated by the people whom he has been associating with in this study. His book begins, as we have said, with a remarkable piece of writing, but by and by he falls into a manner which could only have been caught from the Tarrants. His own manner has a trick of being almost too familiar, with its elisions and its easy-going phrases; but his constant resort to the initial well in conversation, and his habit of reporting the mind as well as the conversation of his baser characters in a sort of third personal evasion of elegance, add to the general effect of slouchiness which much of the book produces.

We have been drawn by the spirit of the book into a more minute criticism that we had intended, but after chasing with Mr. James so long, it is difficult not to go on chasing him a little. It is when we stop and take the book as a whole that we forget how fine the web is spun, and remember only the strong conception which underlies the book; the freshness of the material used; the amazing cleverness of separate passages; the consummate success shown in so dangerous a scene as the death of Miss Birdseye, where the reticence of art is splendidly displayed; and, in fine, the prodigal wealth scattered through all the pages. There is sorry waste, and one's last thought about the work is a somewhat melancholy one, but we all have a lurking affection for prodigals.


Horace Elisha Scudder, The Atlantic Monthly, June 1886.
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