The Bostonians

I finally finished a book I have been reading forever - The Bostonians ! You shouldn't be mislead by the length of time it took me to conquer the book; it was really a fantastic novel. Think an updated version of Pride and Prejudice, with a bit of Persuasion. Or, if you're already a Henry James fan (I think there are at least three of us out there..), it's a romantic version of The Portrait of a Lady, which, if I remember correctly, wasn't romantic at all. At any rate, this novel has it all: a crotchety young feminist; a less-crotchety older feminist; a beautiful young sophist; her ill-kempt, hippie partents; and a dashing young Southerner whose chivalry cuts through their feminist b.s. in a fitting tribute to Mr. Darcy.

Here's the gist of it: Oliver Chancellor is an uptight champion of women's rights in Boston in the 1870s. She writes a letter to her long-lost southern cousin (the handsome Basil Ransom), who journeys to New England to meet her. She realizes he is hopelessly opposed to her radical cause; he sees she is a stuffy bachelorette who categorically dislikes all men who aren't falling over themselves to embrace feminism. After ten minutes together, she vows to hate him for all eternity, and he realizes that following her around for the day will really irritate her - so he insists that he accompany her to a gathering of supporters she is attending after dinner. He tags along and meets Verena Tarrant, a beautiful, but slightly vapid, up-and-coming feminist lecturer. Clearly, Basil instantly falls in love. But Olive already has her sights set on Ms. Tarrant, whose talent for discoursing on feminist nonsense is just waiting to be exploited. As you can probably guess, the remainder of the novel is a battle royale between Ransom's chivalry/chauvanism and Olive's feminism. Ransom wants to marry Verena and put her gift for discourse to use on the homefront, while Olive wants to harness her talent for her own purposes. It's really a struggle between one end of the spectrum (Olive's extreme feminism and disdain for all men) and a more middle ground place, occupied by the caring, but firm in his beliefs, Ransom.

I think that James does a brilliant job with the book; most feminists would have you believe that a woman must either renounce all connections with men (as Olive wants Verena to do) or those same men will make sure you stay barefoot and pregnant, but James paints a much more nuanced picture on Ransom's side. Ransom truly cares for the innocent Verena, and though marriage would effectively put an end to her lecture circuit, he astutely sees the feminist movement as using Verena's gift to further its own ends, at the expense of her happiness.

As usual, the back of the Penguin Classics version (which I read) completely mischaracterizes the novel as either "embody[ing] the triumph of chauvinism or mourn[ing] the tragic collapse of avant-garde feminism," so my recommendation would be to skip the blurb on the back and the useless introduction until you've worked your way through The Bostonians and can make your own opinions about its content. I promise you won't be disappointed.

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