“The Bostonians” by Henry James

I read this book because it was on the discard pile IN MY OWN HOUSE. And “it’s a classic”.

That said, I liked The Bostonians well enough to finish it. It is a slow read, and I enjoyed that. I feel like many modern novelists tear along at a great pace, and sometimes life is not like that.

I will admit that I cheated, checking out the last chapter to find out the ending, then went back and read the remainder. But I do that more and more frequently – so many books, so little time…

This book has a reputation as one of the earliest “lesbian novels”. I decided NOT to look at commentaries or even the preface, but to read it on my own terms.

So what do we have? It’s a love triangle, set in Boston after the Civil War, when social activists (reformers) were turning to the plight of women as a new challenge after the end of slavery. Serious and idealistic Olive Chancellor becomes obsessed with young, beautiful Varena Tarrant, who comes from a “lower” rank in society and is possessed of an unusual gift of rhetoric, which she is happy to employ in the service of the women’s movement. Together these women plan to emancipate women and elevate society.

A distant cousin of Olive’s appears on the scene. His name is Basil Ransom. He comes from a Mississippi family that has lost everything in the Civil War, and his attitudes about the issues of the day are unapologetically old fashioned. He falls in love with Varena, but never hides his disapproval of the social changes Olive and Varena support. Nonetheless, he wins Varena’s heart. We learn less about Ransom than about the two women.

The final scene, when Ransom steals Varena away just before she is scheduled to address a vast crowd of eager Bostonians, must be the inspiration for the last scene in the movie “The Graduate” and the well known song “Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson”! Yes, Ransom dramatically saves Varena from a life and cause she no longer wants. Dustin Hoffman or his scriptwriter certainly must have read The Bostonians.

I couldn’t resist checking on the term “Boston marriage”. It is not used in the book and does not seem to have originated with Henry James. In addition to long term co-habitation by a pair of women, it implies financial independence.

I enjoyed The Bostonians but doubt I will read more by Henry James. A few years ago, I was supposed to read The Turn of the Screw for a book group discussion, but I think I used Spark Notes.

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3 thoughts on ““The Bostonians” by Henry James

  1. Been a while since I read it, but I remember enjoying the Bostonians. Right now am plowing though “The Moonstone” by Wilkie Collins. Supposed to be the first mystery novel.

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