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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.


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Olive Chancellor, a Boston activist in the women’s movement, is entertaining her cousin Basil Ransom, a Mississippian who lives in New York City. She invites him to join her at a gathering at the home of Miss Birdseye, a leader in the movement. Though he disagrees with the ideals of the feminists, Ransom accepts, partly out of curiosity and partly to meet Mrs. Farrinder, a national spokesperson for women’s rights. At Miss Birdseye’s, Ransom expresses his views on the movement to Dr. Prance, a woman who is successful in a traditionally male profession. Olive, becoming aware that Ransom opposes all she stands for, develops a strong animosity toward her cousin.

In attendance also at Miss Birdseye’s are the Tarrants, a family supported by the father’s lectures on mesmerism; the Tarrants claim that their daughter Verena has a special gift for oratory, and they persuade Miss Birdseye to let her speak to the group about the women’s movement. Everyone is captivated by Verena’s performance. Olive immediately recognizes that the young woman has a future as a public figure promoting women’s rights. Ransom is smitten with Verena’s beauty and charm. Both speak briefly to Verena after her performance.

Ransom is forced to return immediately to New York, but Olive goes to the Tarrants’ home in Cambridge on the following day to try to persuade Verena to become active in the women’s movement in Boston. The Tarrants are anxious to comply, Mr. Tarrant seeing this as a way to make money, and Mrs. Tarrant believing that it would provide an opportunity for her daughter to move into high society. Although Verena is being wooed by several young men, including the Harvard student Henry Burrage and the journalist Matthias Pardon, she agrees...

(This entire section contains 955 words.)

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to collaborate with Olive. Over time, the two became inseparable, and Olive eventually enters into a financial arrangement with the Tarrants to permit Verena to live at the Chancellor home. There, Olive educates her protégé in feminist doctrine. Olive is insistent that Verena abandon all thoughts of marriage and devote her energies to the cause. After years of dominating women, she declares that “men must taketheir turn” as objects of domination and that “they must pay!”

During this time, Ransom is struggling to practice law in New York. He spends his spare time writing Carlylean tracts against modern times, but no one will publish them. He manages to make ends meet by working for Mrs. Luna, Olive’s sister, who makes amorous advances that he consistently rejects. She is the first to recognize that Ransom is in love with Verena, whom she considers a sham.

Ransom decides to go back to Boston to woo Verena. Outside Olive’s house, Ransom meets Miss Birdseye, who is under the impression that he supports the women’s movement and therefore tells him that Verena is now staying with her parents in Cambridge. Ransom goes to see her, and though she rejects his advances, Verena nevertheless takes him on a tour of Harvard and agrees to keep the meeting secret from Olive.

Sometime later, after Ransom returns to New York, he receives an invitation to attend a meeting at the home of Mrs. Burrage, a socialite, who is sponsoring a public appearance by Verena. Basil attends, knowing that Verena arranged for the invitation. Before Verena’s speech, he has an ugly encounter with Mrs. Luna, who accuses him of impropriety in his relationship with Verena. While she is in New York, Verena agrees to see Ransom socially. When he tries to persuade her to give up her work in the movement and marry him, Verena balks. She received an invitation to stay on in New York with the Burrage family, whose son, Henry, courted her in Cambridge and wants to marry her. Knowing that Olive has a special influence over Verena, Mrs. Burrage tries to convince her that such an arrangement would be good for women’s rights, but Olive is not persuaded. When Verena insists that she cannot stay in New York, Olive takes her back to Boston.

Months later, Ransom travels to New England again, this time to Cape Cod, where Olive and Verena are staying together with Miss Birdseye and Dr. Prance. Olive is preparing Verena for a triumphant public engagement at Boston’s Music Hall. Ransom once again ingratiates himself with Miss Birdseye and Dr. Prance, but though he stays with them for a month, he makes no headway against his cousin’s dislike or in convincing Verena to marry him. Everyone is greatly saddened when Miss Birdseye, who was ailing, dies.

The party returns to Boston, where Miss Birdseye is buried. Little time is spent on mourning, however, as Verena’s big night at the Music Hall approaches. Ransom is kept away from her. Olive even sends Verena into hiding so that he will not be able to divert her attention from her mission, and when he attempts to see her backstage at the Music Hall before her performance, he finds a policeman barring his way. He is finally able to see Verena in her dressing room, where he confronts Olive, Verena’s parents, and Matthias Pardon and accuses them of expecting to profit in some way from Verena’s newfound notoriety. Verena hesitates to go before the crowd in the Music Hall, and Basil senses that she is finally coming around to his way of thinking. He makes a final impassioned plea to her to abandon this scheme devised by others to use her talents for their ends. Finally persuaded, Verena refuses to go on stage and leaves with Ransom to start a new life outside the spotlight and away from political wrangling.


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