Read an Excerpt
From Siri Hustvedt’s Introduction to The Bostonians
In the novel, two ideologies and two people are pitted against each other. In its simplest terms, the book presents us with a conflict between a reformer and a reactionary, between a triumphant North and a defeated South, between a woman and a man. The Bostonians is a novel of ideas, but the ideas articulated by James’s two battling characters, who are also distant cousins—Olive Chancellor, a Boston spinster and champion of women’s rights, and Basil Ransom, a bitter archconservative from Mississippi—are not the ideas the book probes. Indeed, both characters are guilty of mouthing sentimental or clichéd tripe, and I don’t think their creator was terribly interested in their beliefs per se. He was drawn by something infinitely more complex than a conflict between two hardened ideological positions. Like all of James’s novels, The Bostonians is an investigation of what happens between and among people, and how that arena of interaction can take on a life of its own and determine the fates of those involved.
Miss Chancellor and Mr. Ransom are ferocious rivals in what becomes a love triangle. Both want possession of Verena Tarrant, the pretty, weak, and very charming product of a Cambridge quack healer and the daughter of an abolitionist. The innocent Verena, who has a “gift” for inspirational speaking, is nothing if not a child of the new ideas. “She had sat on the knees of somnambulists, and had been passed from hand to hand by trance-speakers; she was familiar with every kind of ‘cure,’ and had grown up among lady-editors of newspapers advocating new religions, and people who disapproved of the marriage-tie.” Through this tug-of-war over a person, Verena, who is also the creature of a particular New England subculture, James explores the psychological implications of belief—how a climate of ideas can invade, affect, mingle with, and be used, both consciously and unconsciously, by a person in the throes of passion.
The book’s intellectual vigor, then, is not located in what the characters say they believe, in their dogmatic positions, but rather in a dialectical tension between the “personal” and the “impersonal,” the “private” and “the public,” “the particular” and “the general.” These words in their various forms occur so often in the novel that they become a conspicuous and pointed refrain. What they mean, however, is another, far more complicated business. Because The Bostonians skips from one person’s point of view to another’s, the narrator gives us access to the thoughts of all his major characters and to each one’s idiosyncratic uses of these words, a fact that further complicates their meaning. When Basil first meets his cousin Olive, he notes the bourgeois opulence of her house and feels that he has never found himself “in the presence of so much organised privacy.”. This is exactly the realm in which he hopes to place Verena. He emphatically believes that she is meant “for privacy, for him, for love.” On the other hand, the narrator tells us that Mrs. Farrinder, formidable spokeswoman for the emancipation of women, has “something public in her eye, which was large, cold, and quiet.”
The foggy, attenuated Miss Birdseye, relic of an earlier abolitionist age, is also a being of generalities, a person who, though rumored to have had a Hungarian lover in her youth, could never, the narrator tells us, “have entertained a sentiment so personal. She was in love, even in those days, only with causes.” Dr. Prance, on the other hand, devoted physician and living proof of female competence in a profession usually reserved for men, has no use for causes: “She looked about her with a kind of near-sighted deprecation, and seemed to hope that she should not be expected to generalise in any way.” The society matron Mrs. Burrage, only marginally involved in causes, is also a woman whose “favours” are “general, not particular.” Selah Tarrant stresses that his daughter’s success as a speaker is “thoroughly impersonal,” and Verena herself insists that when she addresses an audience, “It is not me. . . .” In sharp contrast, Ransom, as he watches Verena’s performance, thinks to himself that what he is witnessing is “an intensely personal exhibition.” And while Olive Chancellor hopes and believes that she will never be like her frivolous sister, Mrs. Luna, who is “so personal, so narrow.” Basil Ransom finds Olive to be “intensely, fearfully, a person.” Verena, too, discovers “how peculiarly her friend” Olive is “constituted, how nervous and serious . . . how personal, how exclusive.” The words slip according to each character’s perceptions, blind spots, and feelings, and only through their interplay can we begin to make sense of James’s meaning.