Monday, June 6, 2016

consumed by the passion of sympathy - some Henry James comedy in The Bostonians

She had been consumed by the passion of sympathy; it had crumpled her into as many creases as an old glazed, distended glove.  (Ch. 5)

Henry James spends a great deal of time in his 1886 comic masterpiece The Bostonians mocking his characters, sometimes with a ruthlessness that rivals Thackeray.

Mrs. Farrinder, at almost any time, had the air of being introduced by a few remarks.  (Ch. 4)

Mrs. Tarrant had the idea that she (Mrs. Tarrant) liked to study people…  Mrs. Tarrant, with the most imperfect idea of the meaning of the term, was always talking about people’s temperament… she also had an impression she knew a little French…  (Ch. 14)

The long practice of philanthropy had not given accent to her [Miss Birdseye’s] features; it had rubbed out their transitions, their meanings…  who knew less about her fellow-creatures, if possible, after fifty years of humanitary zeal, than on the day she had gone into the field to testify against the iniquity of most arrangements.  (Ch. 4)

The two pages describing poor Miss Birdseye are shocking in that the narrator is so cruel to a character he seems to mostly like, compared to Mrs. Tarrant, a con artist and fraud who deserves everything she gets.  You may notice that these marvelous minor characters are all women, and it is true that the surface satirical targets are people active in the women’s rights movements, feminists, although I suspect that any movement would do, that the satire is against movements, the “poor little humanitary hacks[s],” as Miss Birdseye is called in Chapter 5 rather than feminists as such.  The men, mostly con men, hustlers, and reactionaries, get a pretty good shellacking from James, too.  The male protagonist is a Confederate veteran who openly supports slavery, for pity’s sake, and is “conscious of much Bohemianism – he drank beer, in New York, in cellars, knew no ladies, and was familiar with a ‘variety’ actress” (Ch. 3).

This sad sack and the most intense of the feminists – the crumpled glove – compete for the attention of the novel’s heroine, Verena Tarrant, a young woman gifted with good looks and a peculiar talent for improvisatory speaking.  The Mississippi Bohemian wants to marry her; the glove wants to – well, James is pleasingly ambiguous about that, but wants to keep the girl’s talent for herself.

If there is a character with a point of view that represents the author (and perhaps there is not), it is the great and original Dr. Prance, Boston’s lady doctor who acts rather than theorizes, who “was impatient of the general question and bored with being reminded, even for the sake of her rights, that she was a woman – a detail that she was in the habit of forgetting, having as many rights as she had time for” (Ch. 6).

The minor characters are so much fun.  The politics are not meant entirely seriously, I do not think, except as one of many kinds of human foolishness.  How are the revolutionary politics of the Turgenev-inspired The Princess Cassamassima, published almost simultaneously with The Bostonians, meant?  I can guess; it’s by Henry James.


  1. This is the James novel I want most to reread. That line about Mrs Farrinder -- that's superb.

  2. James is so good in this book with descriptions of personality or attitude.

    I suppose I enjoyed The Bostonians as much or more than any James I have read.

  3. Okay! Good to stumble by, after a very long silence, to read some notes on one of my old faves. You know how I like the mention of Thackeray too.

    I'm going to go through these (from last week) in order I guess. Will go back and read my old posts somewhere along the line, try to remember a few things.

    I recall being absorbed by backgrounds, per usual. Reading Blithedale Romance into Bostonians, I think, and remembering James' little book on Hawthorne. And then there's the Annie Fields piece of the puzzle, which I was trying to figure out.

    But the main item here is that Miss Birdseye was a sort of cameo for Elizabeth Peabody--the elder statesman version of Elizabeth Peabody, not the young discoverer/supporter of Hawthorne. The comic philanthropist version.

  4. Hi there! Welcome back. You can see that during your hiatus I have been grinding on as usual, five posts a week, like a lunatic.

    "the main item" - very funny.