I did a quick drive-by yesterday afternoon at my neighborhood major university resarch library, looking for the holy grail of Bostonians criticism. I needed to renew my library card anyway–you get library privileges by being an “associate,” and I’m happy to give them the money. Parking is a racket up there, and I try to beat the system, but it’s not worth it and I end up short on time and nervous, but I needed to get back to work anyway.
So I had about 15, maybe 20 minutes to sift through a wall of books by and about Henry James. It was both daunting and impressive. I came away with a few notes, and I was empty-handed; no holy grail.
The first thing to say is that The Bostonians seems to be something of a stealth text in the James canon. I looked at the indices of a few dozen books and routinely found it absent or mentioned on a single page or two Apparently no one read the book when it was serialized, and the first publisher went bankrupt, and later it was left out of the “New York Edition” of James’s works–the New York-Boston thing perhaps didn’t help its cause. One commentator–and I won’t keep very good track of these yet, unfortunately–mentions that the book was supposed to take up six monthly serial numbers, and it might have been more successful as a shorter novel like The Europeans, but it ballooned up to double the size, and was neglected to a certain extent. The James industry has made up the gap over the last century, but it will take some time and digging to find good writing about it, while there are books and books that cover the better-known titles. For good reasons, I would guess.
The second impression and helpful piece of information is that Alice James, Henry’s sister, had a longtime partner and a “Boston Marriage.” I read Jean Strouse’s excellent biography of Alice James when it came out in the early 80s, and I don’t remember this at all. What I do remember is that Alice James was brilliant, but a classic 19th century female hysteric and invalid, suffering breakdowns and staying in bed, unable to live in the world. Thinking about it now, I believe I can place my reading of the book at a fairly specific moment, around the time that Jeff Masson was about to publish “The Assault on Truth” and Janet Malcolm eviserated him in a New Yorker profile, “In the Freud Archives.” That’s its own Berkeley story for me, but it seems that Jean Strouse, who is actually the sister of a guy I vaguely knew in middle school, was a key player in a post-70s, post-Freudian revision of “female hysteria.” So my deeply faded impression of the book is all about Alice James’s struggle with illness, and I don’t recall anything about her living arrangements.
But Alice James lived with a woman, Katharine Loring, and a quick glance at Leon Edel’s biography, with the clock ticking, says that Loring was rather crabby and controlling, a bit like Olive Chancellor. This needs more study, and the odd part is that Olive is the character in the novel who, like Alice, seems prone to hysteria, so I’d need to know more to see how things line up. Yes, I’m out of my depth once again, but the Alice James-Katharine Loring relationship is apparently the first stop on the train to understanding The Bostonians. And I guess that makes it all the more interesting.
Getting Alice James into the mix brings up the topic of hysteria, which is no small issue in The Bostonians, along with the related topic of female speech. Olive Chancellor is a very trouble woman, struggling with anxieties and compulsions. In a complex inversion, we’re sympathetic to Olive’s point of view but repulsed by her presentation and anxiety, while we don’t like Ransome’s opinons or approach, but he’s supposed to be an okay guy. James gives us a quite unsatisfactory set of options. We have to ask ourselves what he meant by making the intellectual, organizing side of feminism so strident. Olive is constantly uncomfortable and bent towards losing it, towards hysteria. This serves the reactionary purposes of the novel, as it forces on us the simple idea that a young and beautiful heroine is made for love, and it leaves us unhappy about this, and unhappy that she is silenced in the process. The duality of the Olive and Varena relationship even has an Iago-Othello quality to it, and the source of Olive’s hysterical response to the growing threat of Ransome explores complications and depths in ways similar to Iago’s mysterious misogyny; it’s nasty from the very start, and becomes demonized, and ugly. Maybe Henry James just didn’t like the way that Katharine Loring controlled his sister, and it’s as simple as that. Whatever it might be, it’s a long way from the contemporaneous sunny times of Annie Fields and Sarah Orne Jewett living together on Charles St. And I’m still just browsing around.