Henry James’s novel The Bostonians, published as a serial in The Century Magazine in 1885-1886, then in book form in 1886, marks the beginning of James’s middle career. By this time, James has vowed never to return to New York because of the growing emphasis on commercialism. James's personal loss of the past becomes a theme in The Bostonians through the character of Basil Ransom, a Southerner from post-Civil War Mississippi, who has come to live in New York. Visiting in Boston, he runs into a group of radical reformers (including his cousin, Olive Chancellor) who have taken up the cause of women's rights, now that the abolition of slavery has been accomplished. Despite Ransom's conviction that this group was responsible prior to the war for sparking the anger of the South toward the North, he is drawn to members of the group. He is attracted to Verena Tarrant, an exceptionally beautiful young woman who is a rising star of the women's rights movement, yet he does not admire her opinions. Olive is also drawn to Verena, establishing herself obsessively as Verena's professional and personal manager. Olive’s control over Verena leads to an odd triangle among the two women and Ransom. The struggle over Verena forms the conflict between Ransom and Olive, each representative of an opposing philosophy and indeed an opposing world.
The Bostonians was not well received by the public, either in Europe or in America. The unflattering portrayal of the Boston reformers especially aroused the ire of the reading public in the United States. James’s bitterness over this reception lasted for years. Instead of novels, James focused on writing dramas, none of which did well. It was not until 1897 that he returned to fiction with What Maisie Knew, followed by his classic ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, a year later.