The Bostonians by Henry James

The Bostonians (1886) by Henry James is another extraordinary example of character development and story telling.  In that sense, The Bostonians is not unlike James’ The Wings of the Dove which he wrote in 1902. 

 A love triangle between two women and a southern gentleman set in Boston, New York and Cape Cod.  Olive Chancellor, a wealthy leading citizen of Boston, becomes fascinated with a young and ravishing Verena Tarrant, who was being promoted by her parents as a sort of mystic for hire to perform at fashionable Boston salons.  Olive, a leader in the early feminist movement in Boston, sees Verena’s talents and speaking skills better used as an advocate for women’s rights. She literally buys her from her parents! A bit of satire from James about Olive, the zealot reformer.

Arriving upon the scene is Basil Ransom, Olive’s distant cousin from Mississippi who outspokenly detests the feminist movement.  Instantly, Ransom falls in love with Verena. “My dear madam,” says Ransom to Olive, “does a woman consist of nothing but her opinions? I like Miss Tarrant’s lovely face better, to begin with.”  I need say no more about where the narrative for this epic conflict takes the reader, especially as Ransom discovers  that Olive’s love for the young evangelist is equal to his own.

Henry James has great ability to develop astonishing female characters in his novels. I first discovered that in The Wings of the Dove. The women in his books evolve in wonderful detail of personality and emotion.  Verena:  “She appeared to him as a creature of brightness, but now she lighted up the place, she irradiated, she made everything that surrounded her of no consequence, dropping upon the shabby sofa with an effect as charming as if she had been a nymph sinking on a leopard-skin, and with the native sweetness of her voice forcing him to listen till she spoke again.”

In writing The Bostonians, James is coming back to his roots in the United States but in retrospect, the novel may well have been set in the parlors of New York.  However, the venerable Miss Birdseye is definitely a Bostonian!

 Unlike his later novels,  The Wings of the Dove and The Ambassadors,  The Bostonians received little acclaim and was in fact scoffed upon by writers including Mark Twain. The Bostonians was made into a movie in 1984 starring Vanessa Redgrave and Christopher Reeve, which also received  modest notices. 

A footnote.  Henry James novels always seem to contain favorite words. In The Wings of the Dove  the word is  ” prodigious.” In The Bostonians time and again James uses the word “rejoinder,”  which  means to  answer a question. Henry James , writing the word   “answer” would be much too simple. ” Rejoinder” heightens the magnitude of simple prose. I believe Henry James accomplishes the same in every paragraph he wrote.

While reading The Bostonians I wondered if in 1926 Sinclair Lewis could possibly have developed the idea for his Elmer Gantry after discovering Verena Tarrant in The Bostonians?  Possible?

The Bostonians is one more reason why looking back for a “good read.” is so rewarding. Great novels are never dated.


Those of you who have paged through Gordon’s Good Reads know that I have a penchant for playing catch-up with great writers who have escaped my time and attention. 

Henry James, the American born  novelist ( 1843-1916) whose most prolific years were spent living and writing in England, is a classic example of a novelist for whom anyone who has a love for the form will find his work a Good Read. In making my “classic” Henry James selection I chose The Wings of the Dove (1902) a book credited by many as among the best novels of the 20th Century.

Henry James writes in a unique style. His sentence and paragraph structure is complex and his character development is intricate. The characters are  the narrators of the story. The Wings of the Dove is typical of many James novels in that it pits American and British traditions and values against one another.  James creates eight central characters that interact in life’s dramas of love, greed, envy and deception.  The book travels from  America to England and Venice.

Henry James has been described as an “Impressionist” in his ability to create characters and then with the minutest attention to personality cast them in relationships and enviornments that are so complex that they sometimes defy a “Now I understand!” moment. One is constantly required to turn yet another page for answers which often lead to more questions.

The reader of Henry James ought to be prepared to  traverse a hundred pages to become accustomed to the rhythm of his prose. However, once you find the tempo the paragraphs become lyrical.  You will come to be accustomed to sentence structure where a half-dozen commas and a few added semi-colons are commonplace! The complexity has a magnetic effect that draws the reader to make every word count. No skimming in reading The Wings of the Dove!

James wrote his greatest works during three periods, the 1880s, 1890s and 1900s.  The first period culminated with The Portrait of a Lady (1881), which remains his most popular work of fiction.  In 1886 James wrote The Bostonians themed around the early feminist movement in America.  Following The Wings of the Dove, James wrote The Ambassadors (1903), and then the famous short story The Turn of the Screw, later adapted for the stage.

I have often said in these pages “The best new book is one you have not read.”  Henry James, The Wings of the Dove is no easy literary undertaking but I found it to be worth every minute.

Like many writers, James has favorite words which reappear throughout his work. In The Wings of the Dove you will come upon “prodigious,” again and again.   It is a fitting description of The Wings of the Dove.  “Impressively great in size, force and extent. Marvelous.”