I finally limped my way to the finish line of The Bostonians over the weekend. I shouldn’t whine about it–the novel is fairly readable and interesting enough, and it wouldn’t be very hard to manage in reading for a class or as a grad student or a motivated Henry James enthusiast, none of which I am. It also picked up toward the end, heading towards its climax. And I guess it’s something of a notoriously odd and ill-starred novel, with all sorts of publication and reception problems. It was one of those books that I wanted to finish so that I could read what other pople have to say about it. It’s very simple is some ways, and strange, baffling, and dissatisfying in others. At any rate, I want to go through my own initial thoughts and responses first, relatively untainted, before digging into some criticism and reading about it.
For me this is a peculiar case of bringing a set of assumptions and associations to the reading of a book. In one of my last posts (actually written back in February), I followed up on my process of reading Olive Schreiner’s Story of an African Farm into Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The simple version is that I had been conscious of To the Lighthouse when I read African Farm, and the connection seemed obvious, and it turned out to be there when I did the research.
So now I’ll trace the growth of my associatioins going into The Bostonians. First there is Megan Marshall’s excellent biography “The Peabody Sisters,” which I wrote about in May. The book, a couple of years ago, sparked my first interest in a new look at literary Boston. Elizabeth Peabody appears in a “gently satirical” portrait in The Bostonians as Miss Birdseye, an elderly veteran of the abolishionist movement and a longtime reformer entering her last days. Interestingly, The Bostonians seems to pick up right where Marshall’s biography leaves off, as Peabody/Birdseye’s days of glory recede into the distance behind her and she’s a living relic.
My more recent reading and research has looked at Annie Fields and Sarah Orne Jewett, with side trips into WD Howells’ Silas Lapham and Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club, which features Longfellow, Lowell, and JT Fields. So I thought that the James book would be a good companion to these reads, just a James novel set in Boston that I had never really considered before, with that nice Elizabeth Peabody twist thrown in.
I was shocked to discover that the key relationship in the novel, part of the central romantic triangle of conflict, at its foundation looks, well, a whole lot like the union of Annie Fields and Sarah Orne Jewett. The Bostonians is, as much as anything else, a novel of political and sexual ideas, identity, and allegory, and there are all sorts of different ways to read it. Again, this is just baggage that I happened to bring to the station as I was getting onto the train. And the parallels are only in the foundation, as I say, not in the story and the conflicts as they play themselves out. I would say that Woolf used inspiration from Schreiner’s structure and characters to create her own extremely personal story, while James took what was perhaps the preeminent example of a “Boston Marriage” and turned it around to create a complex story of sexual identity.
So here goes nothing, as this blog likes to say. TB tells the story of Olive Chancellor, a Boston brahmin, and her distant cousin Basil Ransome, a Confederate Army veteran and Mississippi gentleman, vying for the affections of beautiful, young, talented Varena Tarrant, who is a gifted natural speaker on “the woman question.” The parallels here are ways in which Olive Chancellor is like Annie Fields, and how Varena Tarrant resembles Sarah Orne Jewett. They only go so far, but they do appear to be there.
The main association is that Olive Chancellor lives on Charles Street in a townhouse with a parlour that has a wonderful view of the river, exactly the same as the home of James and Annie Fields, which SO Jewett later moved into. The novel opens with Basil Ransome coming to call on his cousin Olive, and we get a fairly precise description of Olive’s parlour, with its impressive bookshelves and literary curios. Basil and Olive form an immediate antipathy, and we find that Olive is a deeply committed feminist, an intellectual of puritan lineage, and she’s shy, awkward, anti-social, and hates men and what they’ve done to the world. Olive’s age, affluence, and intellectual bent are further associations between her and Annie Fields, but the direct connections pretty much end there. Annie Fields had a successful, happy marriage to JT Fields before his death, and she was a renowned, gracious hostess.
The connections between Varena Tarrant and Sarah Orne Jewett are minimal and less direct. Varena is a beauty, with natural charisma and a gift for public speaking on women’s issues. It’s easy enough to compare this to Jewett’s facility and talent as a writer determined to focus on anti-romantic feminist subjects, but it only goes so far. The novel concerns itself with debating whether Varena’s gifts are better-suited for the women’s movement or marriage and domesticity, and marriage wins the contest at the end, almost by force, and Varena’s public discourse is silenced.
It’s a weird and interesting mix, especially in its historical context. The story is prompted by the reality of “Boston marriage,” and it stays within its confines of intimate friendship. It’s quite obvious that Olive falls in love with Varena, just as Ransome does, and the descriptions of these events are fascinating textual pieces, with all sorts of Jamesian subtleties and extra fine distinctions. It’s interesting, of course, to look at the big differences from the actual Fields-Jewett relationship. SO Jewett was ostensibly the more committed girl’s girl/lesbian in the Fields-Jewett pairing, as her life and work shows, while Annie was married for 20 years to James Fields. It’s unclear (to me at least, at the moment) why the Fields never had any children, but Annie appears to have been happy in her marriage right up to Fields death, and Fields was a likeable, charming, and successful man. So that puts Annie Fields, ironically, in the ambiguous position of Varena Tarrant. And it was Annie, not Jewett, who was known as a great beauty and charismatic figure, like Varena Tarrant, in her younger days.
That Henry James guy, pretty clever. All of these antecedents aside, there are all kinds of interesting things going on in this novel. Basil Ransome is a fascinating portrait of a post-war Southerner and conservative. We’ve seen the staying power of conservativism in our own day, and it’s quite intersting to watch it play out as a phenomenon through this story, in this character. And in the battle of ideas it’s as if the South is a virus that will infect not just American liberalism and feminism, but domesticity and discourse throughout the coming century, and we can see how that has proved to be prophetic. The Dante Club did something similar, treating Civil War refugees as a contagion in Boston, but James seems to propose a much more central and troubling equation.
These are quick reflecitons, taken from the peculiar slant of my own perspective, but now I’m curious to go and look at what some people who actually know what they’re talking about have to say. Is it really possible that this novel has anything at all to do with Annie Fields, and how could I just stumble into it like this? I don’t quite get it. It doesn’t serve my particular Fields research pruposes, but still–it’s weird. But The Bostonians is a great, weird book, and I suppose this type of thing just happens sometimes.