“The Bostonians” Inside Out
The whole generation is womanized; the masculine tone is passing out of the world; it’s a feminine, a nervous, hysterical, chattering, canting age, an age of hollow phrases and false delicacy and exaggerated solicitudes and coddled sensibilities, which, if we don’t soon look out, will usher in the reign of mediocrity, of the feeblest and flattest and the most pretentious that has ever been.
Thus Basil Ransom, one of the three major protagonists—and certainly the conqueror—of Henry James’s The Bostonians, which has just reached the screen in one of the most singularly perverse adaptations of a classic I have ever encountered.
Ransom is a cousin of Olive Chancellor, the second of the novel’s dominant triad and its most sharply delineated figure, and he has been invited to visit her on Charles Street in her native Boston. The scene is the early 1870′s, just after the end of Reconstruction in the South (and shortly after the period in which James still lived in the Boston-Cambridge area). Ransom is a Southerner, from Mississippi. He has fought for the Confederacy and lost everything—the war, his wealth, home, plantation, slaves, friends, relatives—while his third cousin Olive has conveniently retained her fortune and, if her blood is not absolutely the bluest, is one of Boston’s leading philanthropic heiresses. The great struggle for the abolition of slavery having been won, she is now—still a reformer—a passionate feminist. Her own sister says of her: “A radical? She’s a female Jacobin—she’s a nihilist. Whatever is, is wrong. . . . She would reform the solar system if she could get hold of it.” But here is James, speaking in his own voice, of Olive Chancellor:
The curious tint of her eyes was a living color; when she turned it upon you, you thought vaguely of the glitter of green ice. She had absolutely no figure, and presented a certain appearance of feeling cold. . . . She smiled constantly at her guest, but from the beginning to the end of the dinner, though [Ransom] made several remarks that he thought might prove amusing, she never once laughed. Later, he saw that she was a woman without laughter; exhilaration, if it ever visited her, was dumb. Once only, in the course of his subsequent acquaintance with her, did it find a voice; and then the sound remained in Ransom’s ear as one of the strangest he had heard.
After their dinner at her luxurious house on the edge of Beacon Hill, Olive invites Ransom to a small gathering of people “interested in new ideas.” Although Ransom has tasted in full the bitterness of defeat, and has left the South for New York, where he is a penniless young lawyer, he has retained his virility, his stoicism, and his wit. When Olive asks him, “Don’t you care for human progress?” he answers breezily, “I don’t know—I never saw any. Are you going to show me some?” And when she presses him passionately, “Don’t you believe then, in the coming of a better day—in its being possible to do something for the human race?” he wonders what in God’s name he’s gotten himself into, but answers drily, “Well, Miss Olive, what strikes me most is that the human race has got to bear its troubles.” Basil Ransom, this tall, muscular young Southerner, is, in short, a profound conservative.
The two ill-assorted cousins nonetheless make their way to Boston’s South End to the sparsely furnished, ascetic home of Miss Birdseye for an evening among some forty virtuous Bostonian reformers—socialistic vegetarians, Ransom thinks, who would give the ballot to women and rob men of their drink. Ransom realizes with some disgust that he is in the citadel of his enemies—Boston, “city of reform,” “the Puritan city,” cradle of abolitionism—the people who destroyed the South, his homeland.
The opening sections of The Bostonians created something of an uproar in the Massachusetts capital when they were serialized in the Century in 1886, for James had modeled Miss Birdseye on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s elderly sister, Elizabeth Peabody, a widely admired local idealist about whom many of the Puritan city’s “social leaders” would have shared Olive Chancellor’s view: “She was heroic; she was sublime; the whole moral history of Boston was reflected in her displaced spectacles.” James, on the other hand, draws a portrait of the lady that would have been quite acceptable to Basil Ransom. Here is James, again in his own voice, on Boston’s Miss Birdseye:
She belonged to the Short-Skirts League, as a matter of course; for she belonged to any and every league that had been founded for almost any purpose whatever. This did not prevent her being a confused, entangled, inconsequent, discursive old woman, whose charity began at home and ended nowhere, whose credulity kept pace with it, and who knew less about her fellow-creatures, if possible, after fifty years of humanitary zeal, than on the day she had gone into the field to testify against the iniquity of most arrangements. . . . Since the Civil War much of her occupation was gone; for before that her best hours had been spent in fancying that she was helping some Southern slave to escape. It would have been a nice question whether, in her heart of hearts, for the sake of this excitement, she did not sometimes wish the blacks back in bondage.
A few pages later James calls Miss Birdseye a “poor little humanitary hack.”
Much as, in recent U.S. history, high-minded idealists went from the civil-rights movement in the South, to the antiwar movement during the Vietnam conflict, to environmentalism, to—after some lay fallow for a bit—the present-day quasi-pacifist “peace” movement, so did the high-minded Bostonians of over a century ago move from one noble cause to another. After abolitionism had achieved its aim, the high-minded of that earlier period went, approximately simultaneously, into female suffrage, prohibitionism, and spiritualism—mediums, ectoplasm, séances, and all that—at the time (unlike now) considered intellectually quite respectable, even avant-garde. (A comic echo of this anti-rational component among those wishing to “do something for the human race” occurred in a young woman of my acquaintance. Having fought on the barricades of freedom for “peace” in Vietnam, waving a Vietcong flag, she developed during her apolitical fallow period—when she did not know the name of the governor of her state, let alone what was happening in Southeast Asia—an obsessive interest in the occult, in parapsychology, and in Uri Geller, the Israeli charlatan who could stop clocks and bend nails by magic. A new cause having appeared, she is now at the forefront of the movement for nuclear disarmament.)
For Olive Chancellor, of course, the cause for which she was destined was feminism:
Yes, she would do something, Olive Chancellor said to herself; she would do something to brighten the darkness of that dreadful image that was always before her, and against which it seemed to her at times that she had been born to lead a crusade—the image of the unhappiness of women. The unhappiness of women! The voice of their silent suffering was always in her ears, the ocean of tears that they had shed from the beginning of time seemed to pour through her own eyes. Ages of oppression had rolled over them; uncounted millions had lived only to be tortured, to be crucified. They were her sisters, they were her own, and the day of their delivery had dawned. This was the only sacred cause; this was the great, the just revolution. It must triumph, it must sweep everything before it; it must exact from the other, the brutal, bloodstained ravening race, the last particle of expiation! It would be the greatest change the world had seen; it would be a new era for the human family, and the names of those who had helped to show the way and lead the squadrons would be the brightest in the tables of fame.
Olive Chancellor’s principal obstacle in all this was Charlie. For Boston’s shop girls—with whom Olive for some reason had the most inordinate difficulty establishing a relationship—
always ended up being odiously mixed up with Charlie. Charlie was a young man in a white overcoat and a paper collar; it was for him, in the last analysis, that they cared much the most. They cared far more about Charlie than about the ballot. . . .
The star performer of the soiree at Miss Birdseye’s is beautiful, young, fresh, delightful Verena Tarrant, an “inspirational speaker” and the third element in the novel’s central triad. Her mother is of “good abolitionist stock,” and her father, a combination faith healer and “mesmerist,” puts Verena into a trance before the assembled company until she makes contact with a “voice.” One is given to understand that Verena hears different kinds of voices, depending on the section of the country she is in and the audience, but here in Boston before a feminist group, lo, the voice she hears is feminist. Verena, sitting, her eyes closed, mumbles incoherently at first, then rises and opens her eyes, whose shining softness makes up half the effect of her “inspirational” discourse.
Her talk is “full of schoolgirl phrases, of patches of remembered eloquence, of childish lapses of logic, of flights of fancy which might indeed have had success at Topeka.” She speaks first of the dreadful misery of mankind:
Poverty, and ignorance, and crime; disease, and wickedness, and wars! Wars, always more wars, and always more and more. Blood, blood—the world is drenched with blood! . . . The cruelty—the cruelty; there is so much, so much! Why shouldn’t tenderness come in?
After which the “voice” explains how the tenderness of women will change the world:
I am only a girl, a simple American girl, and of course I haven’t seen much. . . . But there are some things I feel. . . . It is what the great sisterhood of women might do if they should all join hands, and lift up their voices above the brutal uproar of the world . . . the sound of our lips would become the voice of universal peace!
As it happens, both Basil Ransom and Olive Chancellor are quite taken with Verena. Ransom finds every word she has spoken sheer drivel, “inanities,” “trash,” but feels he has witnessed an absolutely charming performance. If on completion of her speech Verena had brought out castanets and a tambourine and begun to dance, he shouldn’t have been in the least surprised. Olive, by contrast, has drunk in every word as if it were incandescent truth. Utterly smitten, she believes she has found at last the leader who will inspire the invincible battalions of women in the final victory of tenderness, peace, and love.
Once one has the three main characters of The Bostonians fixed in one’s head, the plot of the novel is simple. It is the battle between Olive Chancellor and her cousin Basil Ransom for the possession of Verena. It goes right down to the wire. A defeated but still virile South against goody-goody Boston. Conservatism against reform. A struggling poor man against a rich idealist. Male against female. Sex against virginity. Heterosexuality against lesbianism (sublimated). And Ransom wins going away.
There are people willing to fight to the death at the suggestion that Olive Chancellor is a lesbian, and they don’t much like such expressions as “sublimated lesbian” either. Although perfectly aware that sexless “New England marriages” (also known as “Boston marriages”) between women were a commonplace in James’s day (this before Shere Hite’s legions demanded the “Big O” as their constitutional right), I am quite prepared to accept Louis Auchincloss’s succinct formulation: “Olive is a classic example of a ‘sublimated’ invert; her sexual drive has been converted into a hatred of men and a lust for power.”
The Bostonians occupies a special place in the Jamesian canon. It is his most American novel. Almost all his other major works are set in Europe, and although most contain American characters, they have as their great theme the contrasts between American and European societies. We must remember that James, for his period, was a very cosmopolitan American. Although he lived his first twelve years in New York, his later school years were spent largely in French-speaking Switzerland and he spoke and wrote perfect French. He knew Paris well—forming friendships with Flaubert, Zola, and Turgenev—not to mention London, where he eventually settled.
But in between his school years and his final return to Europe, he had spent five impressionable years in Boston and Cambridge (from twenty-one to twenty-six), and had aspired since boyhood to write what he himself called the “great American novel.” While still young, he had underlined in his copy of The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson a line by Emerson: “We are a little wild here with numberless projects of social reform.” In 1883 James wrote in his notebooks: “I wished to write a very American tale, a tale very characteristic of our social condition, and I asked myself what was the most salient and peculiar point in our social life. The answer was: the situation of women, . . . the agitation on their behalf.” So those were the themes: reform and feminism. And the result was The Bostonians.
But the novel is unusual for James in respects other than its concentration on Americana. As Lionel Trilling has pointed out, it contains by far the most social (and sociological) observation of any of his works. Departing from the style of his other great novels, James fills The Bostonians with pages of minute description, and, also unusual for him, he is not content with describing, but also “editorializes,” giving the reader again and again his own judgment of the character in question. It takes James nine chapters to get through the book’s first evening, and twelve—almost a quarter of the novel—to get through the first twenty-four hours.
The Bostonians ran to over twice James’s planned and contracted for length in serialization, for none of which extra work he received a penny. He was plainly obsessed with the material, for there can be no question that he harbored a deep-seated animus against Boston, for its moralism, its preachiness, and, yes, its feminization. With his cosmopolitan standard of comparison (which most Americans lacked), James did not at all subscribe to the Boston feminists’ view of women as tender, weak, and pitiable. To the contrary, The Bostonians alone is strong evidence that he found the essential traits of the American woman above all to be (I quote his biographer Leon Edel) “her assertiveness, her pushing, ruling, dominating mastery of men and children,” and even (Edel) “her threat to American life.”
It is noteworthy, although not surprising, that The Bostonians is probably the wittiest of James’s novels, mockery being the means by which James chose to deal with what, as he proceeded with his planning, he found a thoroughly unattractive subject. More unexpected, perhaps, is the fact that The Bostonians is the most openly sexual of his works, with its story of blatant sexual rivalry and highly interesting, to say the least, kissings and tremblings between Olive and Verena (“She came to her slowly, took her arms and held her long—giving her a silent kiss”).
The book, when it appeared, was greeted with marked hostility. Boston, understandably, was decidedly chilly. But even Mark Twain swore that he would rather be condemned to John Bunyan’s heaven than read it. For whatever reason, the book sent most American critics into a rage, perhaps because, as James knew perfectly well, over the preceding generation the U.S. reading public had become overwhelmingly dominated by women. The book offered women of the period no conventional happy ending; nor is a single one of the major female characters portrayed attractively. Olive Chancellor is a man-hating hysteric. Verena is a charming ninny. Adeline, Olive’s sister, is a scheming minx. Miss Birdseye is a moralistic old fool. Verena’s mother is a vulgar sycophant.
In short, The Bostonians (like James’s The Princess Casamassima, published later the same year) was a disaster in its own time and caused a serious decline in James’s reputation and market. Scribner’s, in consequence, prevailed upon James to omit The Bostonians from his 1907 collected edition, in which each of the published novels was accompanied by a preface written by the author himself. James later regretted the omission, feeling the novel had never received its due and saying in 1915, the last year of his life, “I should have liked to write that preface.” With the passage of time, his judgment seems to have been vindicated. F.R. Leavis, in The Great Tradition, wrote that The Bostonians and James’s The Portrait of a Lady were quite simply “the two most brilliant novels in the language.”
By A curious coincidence of fate, shortly before James began planning The Bostonians, his mother died, and he wrote of her in his notebook: “She was our life, she was the house, she was the keystone of the arch. She held us all together, and without her we are scattered reeds.” And farther on:
It was the perfect mother’s life—the life of a perfect wife. To bring her children into the world—to expend herself, for years, for their happiness and welfare—then, when they had reached a full maturity and were absorbed in the world and their own interests—to lay herself down in her ebbing strength and yield up her pure soul to the celestial power that had given her this divine commission.
As can be seen, this is somewhat at variance with Olive Chancellor’s view of the mission of womankind upon this earth. But the congruence of James’s views with those of Basil Ransom, on this point and others, is startling. James, in unadorned fact (worth stressing in the present age when the general assumption of the semi-educated is that artists are automatically “on the Left”), was an utter Tory.
Prevented by an injury from serving in the Civil War, James deeply envied those who had. His brother William’s closest friend, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.—the same man who, appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by Theodore Roosevelt, remained on the bench long enough to become a hero of Theodore’s cousin Franklin—was wounded and almost killed at Antietam, and considered until his dying day that having fought and faced death with the Union forces was the most exalting experience of his life. “Now, at least,” said Holmes, “and perhaps as long as man dwells upon the globe, his destiny is battle, and he has to take the chances of war.” William James himself wrote:
Martial virtues must be the enduring cement; intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command, must still remain the rock upon which states are built—unless, indeed, we wish for dangerous reactions against commonwealths fit only for contempt, and liable to invite attack whenever a center of crystallization for military-minded enterprise gets formed anywhere in their neighborhood.
When it is remembered that Henry James renounced his American citizenship because the United States did not instantly enter World War I in 1914 on the side of the Allies, it is not difficult to surmise that a further reason for his sharing Basil Ransom’s view that the whole cause of women’s suffrage was essentially specious was (in Louis Auchincloss’s words) that it tended to “dilute the masculinity of a great nation.”
James was somewhat dissatisfied with his portrayal of Basil Ransom, since, as he admitted, he did not really know the South. To which my comment is that Ransom might be even truer than James realized. I myself have seen Southerners (military men, I confess) brooding almost a century after the event on why Longstreet delayed his charge at Gettysburg—thereby costing Lee the battle. I have seen Southern tempers flare at the suggestion that the South used conscription, since the men of the Confederacy fought, uncoerced, for “honor and duty.” I have even heard Southerners, in a mood not entirely jocular, sing the old Confederate folk song which begins, “In eighteen hundred and sixty-one/ Skoogaw, says I/ In eighteen hundred and sixty-one/ Skoogaw, says I/ In eighteen hundred and sixty-one/ We beat the Yankees at Bull Run. . . .” I would suggest that no one who fails to comprehend the sentiment behind these lines can fully understand The Bostonians, for the novel’s victor, after all, is Basil Ransom.
Well, there was a second battle of Bull Run, which the South also won, and now we have upon us the second battle of The Bostonians, which—in a twist—is won by Olive Chancellor, at least morally. For feminism today stalks the land, in case you hadn’t noticed, and perhaps feminization as well, pretty much as James feared. And they might well be with us for a long time, if they do not first lead to the extinction of our society through insistence on military inferiority in the name of “peace.”
But, in the present circumstances, why would an eminent producer-director-writer team (Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala), with a long line of distinguished films escaping the platitudes and hackneyed turns of Hollywood, choose to run the risk of making a motion picture of The Bostonians which, in addition to being one of the most brilliant novels in the language, is also one of the most anti-feminist? Ismail Merchant is of course an Indian. Ivory, though a native Californian, has spent many years in India and done much good work there. Mrs. Jhabvala, although German-Jewish-English by birth and upbringing, married one of India’s leading architects and lived in India continuously for twenty-three years (“I loved everything there . . . even the beggars, the poverty. . . .”). In recent years her fiction has been published frequently in the New Yorker, she has won Britain’s Booker Award, and in America the Mac-Arthur Foundation’s quarter-million-dollar, tax-free “genius” award. Perhaps what we are getting here is an Indian view of Henry James. The team, in any case, has solved the problem of how to make a movie out of such an anti-feminist book by turning The Bostonians on its head. How they did it I shall explain. Watch closely.
First, the minor characters. It will be remembered that James called Miss Birdseye “a poor little humanitary hack.” Although she is later granted a dignified death, this is perhaps the most insulting description of any character in the whole book. But in the movie, behold, Miss Birdseye (well played by Jessica Tandy) has become simply a sweet, kind old lady. Do not look for the crusading zeal or the idiotic credulity. They are not there any more.
Then there is Doctor Prance (Linda Hunt, who won an Academy Award for her performance in The Year of Living Dangerously), a character I have not yet described. In the novel, she is a hard-bitten little woman doctor entirely out of sympathy with the feminist movement (“I don’t want anyone to tell me what a lady can do!”). With obvious approval, James writes of her that she had “as many rights as she had time for. It was certain that whatever might become of the movement at large, Doctor Prance’s own little revolution was a success.” In the movie, Doctor Prance’s hard, critical edge is removed as if by surgery. Not a single one of her character-defining lines of dialogue remains, nor anything to substantiate James’s commentary. And she, too, is played—completely against character—with a dulcet gentility.
But it is on the novel’s central triad that the sense of the story depends. Madeleine Potter as Verena Tarrant, I confess, is faithful to the book, certainly in spirit. In the novel she is a charming nincompoop, and in the film she is certainly a nincompoop. Charm is one of those subjective qualities that I will leave to the viewer to decide for himself. I, personally, couldn’t bear the woman.
Basil Ransom, as played by Christopher Reeve, the film’s biggest star, is another matter. Now I would never hold having played Superman against an actor. In fact, I found Reeve quite engaging in Deathtrap. But in The Bostonians he seems not to have the faintest clue what his character is about. He plays a “romantic lead,” a nice young man with a Southern accent, and that’s about it. British theater people often say that American actors generally cannot do “period” roles—presumably because they have little sense of the past. They are quintessentially modern. But Reeve’s problems go further than this. Basil Ransom is in the stronghold of his enemies, the “reformers.” We do not see this in Reeve’s performance. Ransom has the most bitter contempt for their values. We hardly see this, either.
One of the sillier things that producers do in promoting a new film is to have the leading actors (no doubt the best-known figures to the public) “explain” the movie. We have therefore been apprised by the press that Reeve feels that, after the end of James’s The Bostonians, Basil Ransom and Verena live a life “a lot like” that of Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda. As it happens, Henry James makes clear again and again that, if Ransom wins Verena, he will insist she give up this public life on the lecture platform (or the stage). She is headed for the kitchen and the nursery. Furthermore, Ransom’s intensely conservative view of the relations between men and women would forbid his allowing himself to live off his wife’s earnings. I submit that there could be nothing more radically wrong than playing Ransom and Verena as if they were about to turn into Hayden and Jane Fonda.
The most interesting distortions of James’s work, however, are presented by Vanessa Redgrave’s performance as Olive Chancellor. I must make perfectly clear that Miss Redgrave’s performance is quite remarkable, filled with sudden surges of emotion and moments of sublime awkwardness. But is it Olive? Even as ardent a devotee of Olive as F.W. Dupee admits that James himself feels not the slightest sympathy for her. Consider, for example, the description James gives of Olive as she refuses to disclose Verena’s whereabouts to Ransom, thinking she has thus gotten rid of him: “Her enjoyment of the situation becoming acute, there broke from her lips a shrill, unfamiliar, troubled sound, which performed the office of a laugh, a laugh of triumph. . . .” In the film, by comparison, Vanessa Redgrave gives us only a look of great dignity, the look of a noble spirit. And in general Miss Redgrave’s performance is nothing but warmth and sympathy. Poor Olive! Poor heartsick sublimated lesbian! Poor early feminist, who cast her brave light upon the path we all must follow! Poor lamb! Miss Redgrave, in fact, announced in a television interview her delight at the opportunity of playing such a sympathetic character.
But the most shocking thing the adapters of a classic work can do is to change the ending, a practice infrequently resorted to even by the uncouth Hollywood mastodons of the 30′s. It is something one would never expect of the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala team. But feminism is the most pervasive force in our society, some say, and the makers of The Bostonians dared not affront it.
The last scene of the novel, as of the film, is set in the Boston Music Hall (a real place, which gave way in time to Gilchrist’s department store). Ransom swoops down on his prey backstage in the dressing room just before she is to go on stage to deliver an inspirational speech on the position of women. Verena’s knees turn to water. Her will dissolves. And, on the last page, Ransom carries her off for good. The novel’s celebrated closing lines read:
“Ah, now I am glad!” said Verena, when they reached the street. But though she was glad, he presently discovered that, beneath her hood, she was in tears. It is to be feared that with the union, so far from brilliant, into which she was about to enter, these were not the last she was destined to shed.
I think it would be a mistake to read tragedy into these lines, as do some, and feel they mean merely that, with Ransom’s less than “brilliant” prospects, and their different temperaments, the marriage will be a difficult one for Verena. But there is no debate about Olive Chancellor’s end. James makes it plain in the novel that, if Olive were to lose Verena to her cousin Basil Ransom, she would be utterly crushed and humiliated and would never recover. And in the event nothing mitigates her defeat. Having explained earlier, “I can’t speak . . . I have no self-possession, no eloquence; I can’t put three words together,” Olive is last seen in the novel rushing toward the stage to tell the restive audience that Verena will not appear, looking as if she were “offering herself to be trampled to death and torn to pieces.” So ends the novel.
It was with some surprise, therefore, that I saw at the end of the current movie Olive Chancellor, unconquered, appear on the speaker’s platform of the Boston music Hall and deliver a rousing feminist speech. I do not know whether Ruth Jhabvala wrote this speech, or Vanessa Redgrave, or perhaps Miss Redgrave’s friend, Jane Fonda. It is not, in any case, in the novel:
. . . What I want to say to you is that when there is a great cause the individual is of no account. You’ve come to hear not the voice of one individual, however sweet, however harmonious, but the cry of all women, past, present, and future. For, like the great William Lloyd Garrison said in his fight against slavery, I say we will be as harsh as truth, as uncompromising as justice. Of this subject we will hot think or speak or write with moderation. We will not excuse! We will not equivocate! We will not retreat a single inch! And we will be heard!
As you might expect, at a recent evening showing in New York, feminist rowdies in the audience booed Basil Ransom when he carried off Verena, and cheered Olive Chancellor at the end of her tubthumper, as the credits rolled. For me it was as if, at the end of a production of Othello, Iago were to step to the front of the stage and announce that he has a very good explanation for everything, proclaim himself the hero, and call for a Boola Boola for the team.
The whole lesbian debate reminds me of a French friend of mine, a film director, who was preparing a screen version of François Mauriac’s celebrated Thérèse Desqueyroux. “But tell me, maitre,” my friend asked the aged Mauriac, “Thérèse is a lesbian, isn’t she?” “Oh, yes,” Mauriac answered, and then, raising his finger to his lips, whispered in his cracked voice, “But don’t tell anybody!”