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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.

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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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Unlike many of Henry James’s novels, The Bostonians is set in the United States. Its female characters are involved in the reform movement that swept New England during the latter half of the nineteenth century. In the novel, James presents compelling but not sympathetic characters. A central figure in the reform movement is Olive Chancellor, a proponent of women’s rights, a movement upon which her identity is based. Presumably, American educator Elizabeth Peabody was James’s prototype for Olive. Olive is inspired by Miss Birdseye, an abolitionist in her eighties, and seeks to become a force in the women’s reform movement.

Lacking the articulateness required to be a successful spokesperson, Olive latches onto Verena Tarrant, an attractive but docile young woman who has received some public notice on account of her association with her mesmerist father’s public performances. Olive liberates Verena from her squalid surroundings, bringing her to the Beacon Street house in which she lives.

Verena, never encouraged to find her own identity in a world dominated by men, becomes the mouthpiece through which Olive can communicate her ideas of reform to audiences. Verena tries to remain loyal to Olive, who tyrannizes her. The two live together, travel together, and move toward sharing a single identity, one constructed wholly by Olive. Olive, if viewed in the light of modern psychoanalytical theory, has a lesbian attraction to the submissive Verena.

All runs smoothly, however, until Basil Ransom, Olive’s cousin, a Confederate veteran from Mississippi, arrives to stay with Olive. He totally opposes his cousin’s ideas. His presence allows James to create two philosophical polarities that produce the novel’s dramatic tension. James exaggerates both sides for dramatic effect.

Ransom, predictably, proposes to rescue Verena by marrying her, although Olive made Verena promise long before Ransom’s arrival that she would never marry. Verena, however, has few firm convictions. Her compliant...

(The entire section contains 1675 words.)

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