Monday, November 30, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Bostonians by Henry James

After finishing a YA fantasy adventure that was unexpectedly plodding, I needed something completely different. I grabbed The Bostonians by Henry James from my TBR-pile. Not much happens in this intensely inward-looking novel, but it is oddly compelling, demonstrating once again how great writing can draw you in.

Olive Chancellor embodies the word spinster. A youngish, unmarried and glad-to-be-so feminist of comfortable means, an inhabitant of the late 1800s Boston upper society who shuns all that, Olive reaches out to a southern cousin. Basil Ransom has moved from Mississippi to New York to try his luck. (Doesn’t that name scream villain?) A young, handsome lawyer, Basil isn’t having much success in the big city; he comes to Boston to meet her. The mismatched pair don’t hit it off. Olive takes him to a meeting, regretting that she invited him, where a renowned feminist speaker will be holding forth. There, Basil and Olive are treated to the debut of the beautiful, charming ingenue, Verena Tarrant, who gives an impromptu speech on women’s rights and the suppression thereof. Olive and Basil are both immediately smitten.

Basil must return to New York, where his fortunes continue to decline. He becomes more and more resentful and curmudgeonly. He becomes more and more convinced of the rightness of his antiquated views and is perturbed that no one wants to hear them.

Olive, meanwhile, takes young Verena under her wing. Verena is charming but not particularly educated and Olive means to remedy that. She also wants to be sure that the attractive girl is not swayed from the path by any of the young men who have discovered her charms. They love to hear her talk, even if they essentially ignore the content of her speech. Olive wants her to vow she will never marry, but at the same time, wants her to make the decision for herself, not only to please her mentor.

The novel is an in-depth psychological study of these characters who become caricatures of the ideas they represent. As unpleasant as they are, and surrounded by people who are equally un-admirable, they nevertheless ground a story that I had to keep watching unfold. Naturally, Basil and Verena’s paths cross again, and he is able to weasel his way into her confidence. For some unfathomable reason, Verena falls for him.

Olive was overbearing and possessive, so it is not Verena’s escape from her influence that is distressing, but rather her flight to so repugnant a man. Still, Verena is as shallow as a puddle. A pretty mouthpiece for Olive’s cause, she never possessed the courage of her convictions.

This is supposed to be one of Henry James’ funniest novels, and it’s true, the irony, particularly at the beginning of the book, is quite amusing. Eventually though, the cynicism wears away the gentle irony, and the novel becomes sad. You want to believe these stereotypes are overdrawn, but in truth, they are more likely spot on.