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August 11, 2010

Summer Re-Reading

Partly because of my new iPad, which allows me to download for free any of Project Gutenberg's out-of-copyright novels, I was re-reading Henry James's great early novel The Bostonians on my recent vacation.

I recommend re-reading James in any form, because once you know the plot, you can slow down enough to enjoy all the wonderful turns of phrase, and especially the jokes.  The Bostonians, in particular, is filled with sharp humor that at times made me laugh out loud -- as when an editor advised Basil Ransom, the sometime hero of the book, that his ideas were a few hundred years out of date and some magazine of the sixteenth century would no doubt have been glad to publish them.  I say "sometime" hero, because the other hero of this book, given equal standing with Basil, is the intense, anxious Olive Chancellor, staunch feminist and intimate friend of Verena Tarrant, the pretty red-headed girl whom Basil is trying to lure away into marriage.  The word "lesbian" does not surface in this novel -- even the idea, as sexual relationship, does not surface -- but the notion of a Boston marriage was common enough in James's time to lend that connotation to the book's title.

I finished the book a few days ago, but the characters are still with me:  not just Basil and Olive and the beautiful but slightly vacuous Verena, but also the wonderful Dr. Prance (the "lady doctor," perhaps the sharpest intelligence in the book, who is concerned with specifics and realities rather than the airy theories of feminism, and who slyly lets Basil know that she thinks Verena "rather thin"). My thoughts have lingered as well with the unscrupulous, man-chasing Mrs. Luna and her brat of a son, Newton, and with the kind-hearted old Bostonian, Miss Birdseye, who represents the classic New England reformer. I even treasure the loathsome Tarrants -- Verena's father, a "mesmeric healer," and her mother, the pathetic, social-climbing daughter of a well-known abolitionist -- for their near-Dickensian vividness and ludicrousness.  This is a novel in which no one is spared but in which everyone earns at least a grain of James's sympathy, and sometimes (as in Olive's and Basil's case) much more than that.
After its initial 1886 appearance, James never republished this book; even when he brought out his uniform New York Edition, he left it out, perhaps in part because the folks back home in Boston had such violent objections to it.  From the letters he wrote and received, it would seem that the objections centered mainly around the character of Miss Birdseye, who was taken as an unkind portrait of the well-regarded Miss Peabody. But there's lots more to object to than that, and many people who read it in 1886 probably hated it for exactly the reasons that make one love it today.  I would even recommend paying for a paper copy, an actual, old-fashioned, bound-in-covers book.  That way you can keep it on your real (as opposed to virtual) shelf when you have finished it, and be able to loan it out to friends, and have it handy for future re-readings that might take place decades hence, when -- even as digital files may have changed their format -- print will remain eternally legible.
August 11, 2010 5:26 AM | | Comments (1)


Hi Wendy:
Very interesting piece. I'm a James/Wharton groupie, and also find this a very provocative and underrated novel.
I do actually like and recommend the Ivory-Merchant film verson, which captures some (if not all) of the book's fascination. It stars Vaness Redgrave, who is wonderful as Olive, and Christopher Reeves, who was a fine stage actor and does well with the difficult role of Basil.
James was a frustrated (and failed) playwright, but I've always felt his novels come alive most when they are read aloud, or dramatized well. In fact, recently I took a look at a BBC adaptation of "Portrait of a Lady" from the 1970s, and it was long enough, and used enough of James' own language, to be, well, Jamesian.
Thanks for reminding me of "The Bostonians."

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