Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The Bostonians by Henry James

Ransom as a Southerner it may be said has a particular perspective on Northern righteousness. He has the experience of how retrospective justification of the war between the states/civil war was based on the emancipation of the slaves rather than a resistance to the constitutional break up of the union. Likewise we looking at The Bostonians may succumb to anachronism damming Ransom as a male chauvinist or seeing the busy lady burghers of Boston as same new same new to alter a phrase. It would be easy to do as the New Age elements are all there. We reach back and decorate the rooms with our own palette forgetting that there are shadows our thin beams will never dissapate. Take the theme of passionate friendships. Perhaps Henry James himself uncertain of where he stood brings a deliberate ambiguity into play and raises doubts where there would have been none. Verena Tarrant is certainly an innocent, in filly terms, inspiration out of claptrap and fraud. James is more circumspect than this but his continuous sly acerbities contra the American religion, prosperity gospel and flagrant boosterism gave rise to a cool reception of the novel from his compatriots. The target audience had an uncomfortable feeling that their aims were being mocked. There’s a sniffy review from The Atlantic of 1876 by Horace Elisha Scudder.
scudder review
The Horace Elisha seems a perfect combination of the classical and Hebraic in Arnoldian terms.

A. S. Byatt in a short essay published in the Guardian pencils in the background of high mindedness , New Thought and Old Money that obtained in the James family.
Byatt Essay

Verena is based on the woman Byatt calls Cora Tappen who was married for a while to the famous Samuel F. Tappen. Wikipedia has an article on her cora

A much fuller treatment and perceptive analysis of the milieu which bubbled like a cauldron in James’ day is detailed in Hatch wonder girl
(Cora was married 4 times and as Hatch was the first and most famous husband himself a mesmerist, she is generally known in the literature as Cora Hatch. He was also a Dr. like Dr. Tarrent.)

In mediumistic terms both Olive and Basil want to control Verena. Olive is a Chancellor of the Exchequer and Basil a would be the king. When one looks at the Cora Hatch phenomenon Ransome’s views are less antipathetic than we might from a modern day perspective suppose them to be. He sees a beautiful, clever young girl whose talent for impromptu speechifying is to be used in the service of dubious ideology.

The more Olive learnt of her visitor's life the more she wanted to enter into it, the more it took her out of herself. Such strange lives are led in America, she always knew that; but this was queerer than anything she had dreamed of, and the queerest part was that the girl herself didn't appear to think it queer. She had been nursed in darkened rooms, and suckled in the midst of manifestations; she had begun to "attend lectures," as she said, when she was quite an infant, because her mother had no one to leave her with at home. 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. Verena talked of the marriage-tie as she would have talked of the last novel—as if she had heard it as frequently discussed; and at certain times, listening to the answers she made to her questions, Olive Chancellor closed her eyes in the manner of a person waiting till giddiness passed. 

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