Posted by: zhiv | April 30, 2009

Blithedale to Bostonians2: The Women

Hawthorne’s doomed woman in Blithedale, Zenobia, is an extraordinary character, deeply appreciated by Henry James. I’ve mentioned how important the relationship between Zenobia and Priscilla might be, how the novel casts a veil over the fact that they’re sisters. Zenobia’s strong first generation American feminism is another key element that James wants to update and appropriate, with great care and thought and effort. Zenobia is a part of the beginnings of 19th century intellectual feminism, a contemporary of Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody, themselves contemporaries with Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Thoreau, Lowell and James T. Fields . From that perspective, it’s a nice stroke by James to include a member of that generation as a figure in his narrative, remembering that The Bostonians’ Miss Birdseye is based quite directly on Elizabeth Peabody. Look at that!

James tossed the veiled sister plot, and in what is perhaps his primary, defining innovation, much less subtle than the fusing of Hollingsworth and Coverdale, he bases the female pairing on his own sister’s domestic life. James’ depiction of an attempted Boston marriage is an exponential leap of complexity, and it makes the novel deeply subversive, daring, and probably contributes somehow to it being little read. The fact that the attempt by Olive Chancellor to live with Varena Tarrent is thwarted by Basil Ransom at the last moment makes the tale a romance of sorts, and like Blithedale it has gone to a place beyond the norm and bourgeois expectation, while testing realism at many turns. Ransom’s character is meant to be a romantic, isolated, final representative of chivalry and the old code of honor, but he’s almost as self-conscious, feverish, and confused as Miles Coverdale. We’re not really rooting for Ransom, and his role as a man of action is highly questionable, even to himself.

His antagonist is Olive Chancellor. Olive lives in Annie Fields’ house on Charles Street, and she’s the same age and generation as Annie–it’s an interesting question to see what Annie Fields has to say about Elizabeth Peabody/Miss Birdseye, although we know her relationship with Sophia Hawthorne was close and complex. Rita Gollin’s “biography” of Annie Fields, which tells her story–sort of–through discussions of her different relationships, would be helpful here, and Gollin is also a Hawthorne scholar. The closer model for Olive is Alice James’ partner Katharine Loring. After writing this yesterday, I picked up a copy of Jean Strouse’s biography of Alice James at lunchtime today. I read it when it came out in 1980/81, and missed the Boston Marriage element completely–10 pages on The Bostonians, flying right over my head. Analysis of Strouse’s approach will have to wait for the later, promised post on criticism, but she says this in her chapter “Peculiar Intense and Interesting Affections”:

When Henry described Olive’s disappointment, loneliness, and deep humiliation “in the point where she felt everything most keenly,” he drew on what he saw as Katharine’s full possession of Alice, knowing how desolate either would feel at the defection of the other.

Olive Chancellor walks a hard road in The Bostonians, and she’s fascinating. James tries to do justice to her but there is very little sympathy. Unlike Zenobia, quite importantly, she’s not attractive at all, decisively so. She’s a pure, advanced, and often-misguided example of intellectual feminism, a creature that Hawthorne never dreamed of. It’s a neat trick by James, ambitious and perhaps flawed–can you call it a postmodern romance? a postmodern twist on Hawthorne? Does that mean anything? Probably not.

Verena Tennant is fleshed out to a much greater degree than Hawthorne’s Priscilla. There was always a sense of a natural bar between Zenobia and Priscilla, and Priscilla seems to arrive as a ward of the forming couple, Hollingsworth and Zenobia. Zenobia seems maternal with Priscilla, although there are plenty of depths, unexplored by me at the moment, in the chapter where Zenobia narrates the story of the lifted veil–I should probably look at it again. What seems semi-maternal turns into sisterly, of course, and then suicide. There’s no “natural bar”–did I say that?–in The Bostonians, opening up the entirely new topic of mutual female attractions. Coverdale’s attraction to Hollingsworth was in the Blithedale post, and where Blithedale has Hollingsworth-Coverdale, Bostonians substitutes Olive and Verena. The mesmerist scoundrel Westerfelt turns into Selah Tennant here, Verena’s father. James plays a tidy shell game, a bit of mixing and matching.

One could easily identify a significant flaw in James’ approach in the characterization of Olive, especially coming from the view of Blithedale and the dynamism of Zenobia. Hawthorne has her drowning after being thwarted in love, while James makes Olive an anxious, unpleasant zealot. James splits Zenobia’s charms, perhaps, in between Olive and her sister Mrs. Luna, who is there to provide a temptaion for Ransom, turning him away from Verena in a different manner from how Zenobia turns Hollingsworth away from Priscilla. Perhaps this seemed sufficient and explains why James went to some lengths to prevent Olive from being attractive. Oddly enough, the disdain and anxiety that Olive feels about Ransom is actually quite reminiscent of Coverdale’s feelings about Westerfelt. It can’t be said that the anxiety James generates through Olive isn’t present in Blithedale: Coverdale’s feelings of sexual threat and general anxiety are a close match.

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