The Bostonians

In the Fiamengo Files 2.0 Janice is focusing on early feminism, mostly in the nineteenth century. In a recent TFF2.0 video she acquaints us with the relevance of The Bostonians in this respect. This is the Henry James novel that depicts the views of feminists in the 1870s. You may wish to watch Janice’s video first.

Published in 1886, The Bostonians was set around 1874 and hence rather nearer to the end of the American Civil War (1865). I find the denouement of the novel rather unconvincing, despite James being classed as a “realist”. I suspect that designation relates to his representations of the details of social mores and the everyday minutiae of life, rather than plot credibility. Plots were to James merely the coat hangers on which the interesting clothing was hung, and coat hangers are not there to be noticed.

This book, then, is about feminism in (to use the UK designation) the mid-Victorian era. It is set in the fashionable circles of Boston and New York. Several ardent feminists appear in the book, but the main protagonists are Olive Chancellor and her protégé Verena Tarrant. We have become accustomed to the most active feminists being of the bourgeoisie, and Olive is a fine example. She is moneyed to the degree that she lives in considerable elegance without the inconvenience of having to think about money at all, something which dominates the lives of most of us, the less privileged folk. Olive’s antagonist is Basil Ransom. To consolidate his oppositional status he is from the South, a former Confederate soldier. But his chief sin (next, of course, to being male) is to be conservative – by modern standards disconcertingly so.

There is a lesson there immediately. As we shall see, the feminist views expressed by Olive and Verena and others in the novel are perfectly in accord with modern feminism. But few modern conservatives would be as hard-line as Basil Ransom. Over time the entire political spectrum has moved to the left.

Novels can be a rich source of knowledge about social attitudes in the past. That the plots are fictional does not detract from the author’s need to present characters who would be recognisable to readers of the time, and that necessarily imbues factuality. In that spirit I do not intend to attempt any further review of the book, but wish merely to present quotes which illustrate the nature of feminism as it was in fashionable US circles around the 1870s/80s. Quotes can be assumed to be Olive Chancellor speaking (or thinking), unless otherwise stated. In parentheses, in italics, are my observations. Perhaps the most remarkable is the one featured last in this list, where Ransom speaks for James, one suspects.


“She thought him very handsome as he said this, but reflected that unfortunately men didn’t care for the truth, especially the new kinds, in proportion as they were good-looking. She had, however, a moral resource that she could always fall back upon; it had already been a comfort to her, on occasions of acute feeling, that she hated men, as a class, anyway.”

(Do note the “new kinds of truth”, we’re accustomed to that now).

“Olive Chancellor regulated her conduct on lofty principles, and this is why, having tonight the advantage of a gentleman’s protection, she sent for a carriage to obliterate that patronage….he belonged to a sex to which she wished to be under no obligations.”

(Yet when I tell people that feminism isn’t about equality, it’s about making women independent of men, even after 150 years of being told this clearly by feminists themselves, they still don’t believe it).

“’Are you against emancipation?’ she asked, turning a white face on him…their vehicle stopped with a lurch. Basil Ransom got out; he stood at the door with an extended hand, to assist the young lady…’You hate it!’ she exclaimed…She alighted without his help.”

“’Don’t you believe, then, in the coming of a better day – in its being possible to do something for the human race?’…’Well, Miss Olive,’ he answered…’what strikes me most is that the human race has got to bear its troubles.’  ‘That’s what men say to women, to make them patient in the position they have made for them.’  ‘Oh, the position of women!’ Basil Ransom exclaimed. ‘The position of women is to make fools of men. I would change my position for yours any day,’ he went on. ‘That’s what I said to myself as I sat there in your elegant home.’” (Ransom was not wealthy).

(As if to illustrate what true emancipation and equality looks like, James includes the character Doctor Mary Prance – throughout referred to as Dr Prance. She is a no-nonsense medical scientist and practical doctor, with no time for feminism – or fashionable froth of any kind. Elsewhere in the novel James refers to “lady” journalists as irritating a particular male journalist by their tendency to get their ‘copy’ into print in preference to his. Later, Olive muses to herself about Verena, noting that “the fact that the girl had grown up among lady-doctors, lady-mediums, lady-editors, lady-preachers, lady-healers, women who, having rescued themselves from a passive existence, could illustrate only partially the misery of the sex at large.”  James is clearly signalling here that female professionals were already a commonplace, even if less so than today. Recall this was 150 years ago.)

(Of Mrs Farrinder, one of the leading feminists of the day): “She lectured on temperance and the rights of women; the ends she laboured for were to give the ballot to every woman in the country and to take the flowing bowl from every man.”

(In the UK at this date, and hence before the 3rd Reform Act, 67% of men over 21 did not have the Parliamentary vote. Over 90% of men earned their living through manual labour of a severity that few men today could tolerate. They had no choice, there was no Welfare State).

(Of the type of people attending a society gathering at which there was to be a feminist speech): “Basil Ransom wondered who they all were; he had a general idea they were mediums, communists, vegetarians.” I love that lumping together of “mediums, communists and vegetarians”. It reminds me of Orwell in Road to Wigan Pier, referring with coruscating derision to “fruit juice drinkers” and “prim little (socialist) men” who are “secret teetotallers with vegetarian leanings” creeping home to Welwyn Garden City to do their yoga exercises. Ha! Plus ça change!).

“…she (Olive) would do something to brighten the darkness of that dreadful image that was always before her, and against which it seemed to her at times that she had been born to lead a crusade – the image of the unhappiness of women. The unhappiness of women! The voice of their silent suffering was always in her ears, the ocean of tears that they had shed from the beginning of time seemed to pour through her own eyes. Ages of oppression had rolled over them; uncounted millions had lived only to be tortured, to be crucified. They were her sisters, they were her own, and the day of their delivery had dawned. This was the only sacred cause, this was the great, the just revolution. It must triumph, it must sweep everything before it; it must exact from the other, the brutal, the blood-stained, ravening race , the last particle of expiation!”

(This hyperbole, one has to assume, is not James’s. Rather he was simply recording here the sort of rhetoric that was current, or else how could he have come up with this? It is precisely the voice of modern feminism – and indicates, I believe, that this extremity of perspective (including the demand for ‘expiation’) springs from a common psychological source).

(Olive): “’It would be the greatest change the world had seen; it would be a new era for the human family, and the names of those who had helped to show the way and lead the squadrons would be the brightest in the tables of fame. They would be names of women weak, insulted, persecuted, but devoted in every pulse of their being to the cause, and asking no better fate than to die for it.’ It was not clear to this interesting girl in what manner such a sacrifice (as this last) would be required of her, but she saw the matter through a kind of sunrise-mist of emotion…”

(Note the psychological pull being described here is the same in feminism today – victim mentality disorder and its euphoric ‘fix’ which victimhood confers upon the addict via its “authenticity, innocence and an aura of admirable courage”, to quote Janice again.)

(Ransom musing on Verena Tarrant’s speech): “…it was all about the gentleness and goodness of women, and how, during the long ages of history, they had been trampled under the iron heel of man. It was about their equality – perhaps even (he was not definitely conscious) about their superiority. It was about their day having come at last, about the universal sisterhood, about their duty to themselves and to each other.”

(Verena Tarrant): “’When I look around me at the world, and the state that men have brought it to, I confess I say to myself, well, if women had fixed it this way I should like to know what they would think of it. When I see the dreadful misery of mankind and think of the suffering of which at any hour, at any moment, the world is full, I say that if this is the best they can do by themselves, they had better let us come in a little and see what we can do. We couldn’t possibly make it worse, could we?”

(Yesmuch, much worse. These are the sentiments of the pampered, lacking all appreciation for what holds their world up)

“Olive asked her (Verena) where she had got her ‘intense realisation’ of the suffering of women; for her address…showed that she, too (like Olive herself), had had that vision in the watches of the night. Verena thought a moment….then she inquired, always smiling, where Joan of Arc had got her idea of the suffering of France….She said to her visitor that whether or no the angels came down to her in glittering armour, she struck her as the only person she had yet encountered who had exactly the same tenderness, the same pity, for women that she herself had…it was the only thing in all the world she cared for, the redemption of women.”

(Ransom speaking, with tongue in cheek, of Verena’s speech, attempting to ingratiate himself): “I know what your ideas are – you expressed them last night in such beautiful language; of course you convinced me. I am ashamed of being a man; but I am, and I can’t help it, I’ll do penance any way you may prescribe.”

(Ransom speaking again of Verena’s speech, now more seriously): “Do you really believe all that pretty moonshine you talked last night? I could have listened to you for another hour, but I never heard such monstrous sentiments, I must protest – I must, as a calumniated, misrepresented man. Confess you meant it as a kind of reductio ad absurdum – a satire on Mrs Farrinder?”

(Ransom again): “’Do you really take the ground that your sex has been without influence? Influence? Why, you have led us all by the nose to where we are now! Wherever we are, it’s all you. You are the bottom of everything.’ ‘Oh, yes, and we want to be at the top,’ said Verena”.

(Olive musing on two young gentlemen visitors): “It was amazing how many ways men had of being antipathetic; these two were very different from Basil Ransom, and different from each other, and yet the manner of each conveyed an insult to one’s womanhood. The worst of the case was that Verena would be sure not to perceive this outrage – not to dislike them in consequence. There were so many things she hadn’t yet learned to dislike, in spite of her friend’s earnest efforts to teach her. She had the idea vividly (that was the marvel) of the cruelty of man, of his immemorial injustice; but it remained abstract, platonic; she didn’t detest him in consequence.

(This is feminism, not just as man-hating, but as taught man-hating the matriarchy as a social construct).

(Olive): “Yes, I am hard; perhaps I am cruel; but we must be hard if we wish to triumph. Don’t listen to young men when they try to mock and muddle you. They don’t care for you; they don’t care for us. They care only for their pleasure, for what they believe to be the right of the stronger.”

(Olive to Verena): “Promise me not to marry!”

(Olive): “No man that I have ever seen cares a straw in his heart for what we are trying to accomplish. They hate it; they scorn it; they will try to stamp it out whenever they can. Oh yes, I know there are men who pretend to care for it; but they are not really men, and I wouldn’t be sure even of them!”

(Poor male feminists – not really men, Ha! )

(Olive): “Any man that one would look at – with him, as a matter of course, it is war upon us to the knife.”

(Why does Olive find attractive men to be the particular enemy? Because the psychological origin of feminism is based essentially in female sexuality).

(Olive): “She considered men in general as so much in the debt of the opposite sex that any individual woman had an unlimited credit with them; she could not possibly overdraw the general feminine account.”

(Now that is feminist patriarchy theory to a tee – any amount of female preferencing is just the striving for an equality that will never be reached, and all disadvantages imposed on men, however extreme, are always fully justified).

(Olive): “She had never pretended to deny that the hope of fame, of the very highest distinction, was one of her strongest incitements…A person who might have overheard some of the talk of this possibly infatuated pair would have been touched by their extreme familiarity with the idea of earthly glory.”

“Mrs Luna (Olive’s sister) declared that if she must be trampled upon – and very likely it was her fate – she would rather be trampled upon by men than by women, and that if Olive and her friends should get possession of the government they would be worse despots than those who were celebrated in history.”

(Indeedthere have always been women who knew well how dangerous is feminism)

“Miss Chancellor had no difficulty in persuading herself that persons doing the high intellectual and moral work to which the two young ladies in Charles Street were now committed owed it to themselves, owed it to the groaning sisterhood, to cultivate the best material conditions.”

(Of Verena’s suitor, Mr Burrage): “’Well, he is greatly interested in our movement’: so much Verena once managed to announce; but the words rather irritated Miss Chancellor, who, as we know, did not care to allow for accidental exceptions in the great masculine conspiracy.”

(Of Olive and Verena): “They read a great deal of history together, and read it ever with the same thought – that of finding confirmation in it for this idea that their sex had suffered inexpressibly, and that at any moment in the course of human affairs the state of the world would have been so much less horrible…if women had been able to press down the scale. Verena was full of suggestions which stimulated discussions; it was she, oftenest, who kept in view the fact that a good many women in the past had been entrusted with power and had not always used it amiably, who brought up the wicked queens, the profligate mistresses of kings. These ladies were easily disposed of between the two, and the public crimes of Bloody Mary, the private misdemeanours of Faustina, wife of the pure Marcus Aurelius, were very satisfactorily classified. If the influence of women in the past accounted for every act of virtue that men had happened to achieve, it only made the matter balance properly that the influence of men should explain the casual irregularities of the other sex.”

(So familiar! There really is nothing new in modern feminism, is there? Except that it is now the establishment)

“…our young friends had a source of fortifying emotion…This consisted in the wonderful insight they had obtained into the history of feminine anguish. They perused that chapter perpetually and zealously, and they derived from it the purest part of their mission. Oliver had poured over it so long, so earnestly, that she was now in complete possession of the subject…she reminded Verena how the exquisite weakness of women had never been their defence, but had only exposed them to sufferings more acute than masculine grossness can conceive. Their odious partner had trampled upon them from the beginning of time, and their tenderness, their abnegation, had been his opportunity.”

“…it was women, in the end, who had paid for everything. In the last resort the whole burden of the human lot came upon them; it pressed upon them far more than on others, the intolerable load of fate. It was they who sat cramped and chained to receive it; it was they who had done all the waiting and taken all the wounds. The sacrifices, the blood, the tears, the terrors were theirs. Their organism was in itself a challenge to suffering, and men had practiced upon it with an impudence that knew no bounds. As they were the weakest most had been wrung from them, and as they were the most generous they had been most deceived.”

“…she (Verena) was not so hungry for revenge as Olive, but at the last…she quite agreed with her companion that after so many ages of wrong…men must take their turn, men must pay!”

“’I advocate equal rights, equal opportunities, equal privileges. So does Miss Chancellor,’ Verena added, with just a perceptible air of feeling that her declaration needed support.’ Oh, I thought what she wanted was simply a different inequality – simply to turn out the men altogether,’ Ransom said. ‘Well, she thinks we have great arrears to make up. I do tell her, sometimes, that what she desires is not only justice but vengeance, I think she admits that,’ Verena continued.”

“As he went on with Verena he asked her about the Women’s Convention, the year before; whether it had accomplished much work and she had enjoyed it. ‘What do you care about the work it accomplished?’ said the girl. ‘You don’t take any interest in that.’ ‘You mistake my attitude. I don’t like it, but I greatly fear it.’ In answer to this Verena gave a free laugh. ‘I don’t believe you fear much!’ ‘The bravest men have been afraid of women.’ (said Ransom)”

“’I suppose it was very exciting – your convention,’ Ransom went on, in a moment, ‘the sort of thing you would miss very much if you were to return to the ancient fold.’ ‘The ancient fold, you say very well, where women were slaughtered like sheep! Oh, last June, for a week, we just quivered! There were delegates from every State and every city…”

(Note that such mass feminist rallies were taking place in the 1870s – and, of course, Seneca Falls was 1848, Recall again what the plight of the majority of men was at this time: disenfranchised beasts of burden).

“The Memorial Hall of Harvard consists of three main divisions….the third, the most interesting, a chamber high, dim, and severe, consecrated to the sons of the university who fell in the long Civil War….they lingered longest in the presence of the white, ranged tablets, each of which, in its proud, sad clearness, is inscribed with the name of a student-solder. The effect of the place is singularly noble and solemn, and it is impossible to feel it without a lifting of the heart. It stands there for duty and honour, it speaks of sacrifice and example, seems a kind of temple to youth, manhood, generosity. Most of them were young, all were in their prime, and all of them had fallen…’It is very beautiful – but I think it is very dreadful!’ This remark, from Verena, called him (Ransom) back to the present. ‘It’s a real sin to put up such a building to glorify a lot of bloodshed. If it wasn’t so majestic, I would have it pulled down.’”

(Recall that Ransom had fought on the other side, and yet he regarded this monument with the utmost respect, not as a challenge or a rebuke. Verena, in contrast, goes on to claim that when women had the conduct of affairs they would “reason so well they would have no need to fight – they would usher in the reign of peace”. You’ve heard that one before, haven’t you?)

“…she (Olive) asked him about his mother and sisters, what news he had from the South. ‘Have they any happiness?’ she inquired, rather as if she warned him to care not to pretend they had.”

“’Ah, don’t be rough with me,’ he said, in his soft Southern voice; ‘don’t you remember how you knocked me about when I called on you in Boston?’ (Olive replies) ‘You hold us in chains, and then, when we writhe in our agony, you say we don’t behave prettily’”

(Of Verena’s speech): “Certain phrases took on a meaning for him – an appeal she was making to those who still resisted the beneficent influence of the truth….there were those whose prejudice was stronger and more cultivated, pretended to rest upon study and argument. To those she wished particularly to address herself; she wanted to waylay them, to say, ‘look here, you’re all wrong; you’ll be so much happier when I have convinced you.’…’Do you think any state of society can come to good that is based upon an organised wrong?’”


(From Verena’s speech): “…the precious sovereign remedy, of which society insanely deprives itself – the genius, the intelligence, the inspiration of women…The heart, the heart is cold, and nothing but the touch of woman can warm it, make it act. We are the Heart of humanity…Try us and you’ll see – you will wonder how, without us, society has ever dragged itself even this distance – so wretchedly small compared to what might have been…I shall not touch upon the subject of men’s being most easily influenced by considerations of what is most agreeable and profitable to them; I shall simply assume that they are so influenced, and I shall say to them that our cause would long ago have been gained if their vision were not so dim…It they had the same quick sight as women, if they had the intelligence of the heart, the world would be very different now…you would find grass and trees and flowers that would make you think you were in Eden…There would be generosity, tenderness, sympathy, where there is now only brute force and sordid rivalry. But you really do strike me as stupid even about your own welfare!”

(You’ll be getting the point by now – the entire psychological orientation of feminism as we know it today was in place 150 years ago – and presumably for ages past. Basil Ransom’s view of Verena’s speech was that “from any serious point of view it was neither worth answering nor worth considering” and he then reflects on “the crazy character of the age in which such a performance as that was treated as an intellectual effort”. Quite.)

(Ransom, after a bad-tempered exchange with Olive): “He turned away, with the sense that it was really insufferable, her attempt always to give him the air of being in the wrong. If that was the kind of spirit in which women were going to act when they had more power!”

(Olive to Verena): “I’ll tell you what is the matter with you – you don’t dislike men as a class!”

“It was nothing new to Verena that if the great striving of Olive’s life was for justice she yet sometimes failed to arrive at it in particular cases.”


(Olive to Verena in reply to her wish to talk to Ransom to convince him of their case, arguing that she had right on her side): “’What is that – for a man? For what was their brutality given them, but to make that up?’”

(Ransom speaking to Verena in perhaps the most remarkable passage in the book): “’There has been far too much talk about you, and I want to leave you alone altogether. My interest is in my own sex; yours evidently can look after itself. That’s what I want to save.’  ‘To save from what?’ she asked. ‘From the most damnable feminisation! I am so far from thinking, as you set forth the other night, that there is not enough women in our general life, that it has long been pressed home to me that there is a great deal too much. The whole generation is womanised; the masculine tone is passing out of the world; it’s a feminine, a nervous, hysterical, chattering, canting age, an age of hollow phrases and false delicacy and exaggerated solicitudes and coddled sensibilities, which, if we don’t soon look out, will usher in the reign of mediocrity, of the feeblest and flattest and the most pretentious kind that has ever been. The masculine character, the ability to dare and endure, to know and yet not to fear reality, to look the world in the face and take it for what it is…that is what I want to preserve, or rather, as I may say, to recover; and I must tell you that I don’t in the least care what becomes of you ladies while I make the attempt!”

(James notes that the rejection of the ideas expressed above by leading periodicals “was certainly not a matter for surprise”. It seems one could not talk openly about countering male feminisation even 150 years ago! Perhaps anticipating some trouble publishing, despite this being his eighth novel, James has Ransom say “editors are a mean timorous lot, always saying they want something original, but deadly afraid of it when it comes.”)

4 thoughts on “The Bostonians

  1. Groan

    “; it’s a feminine, a nervous, hysterical, chattering, canting age, an age of hollow phrases and false delicacy and exaggerated solicitudes and coddled sensibilities, which, if we don’t soon look out, will usher in the reign of mediocrity, of the feeblest and flattest and the most pretentious kind that has ever been.”
    Oddly enough I read this following the latest piece by the supposedly “cancelled” Kathleen Stocks in Unherd.
    Dr. Stocks has been an interesting read because her writings (which are pretty prolific since supposedly having been “silenced”) describe the current state of this nation as precisely that described in this quote above. Though fascinatingly she cannot see that it is the logical result of the feminism she remains a true believer.
    In the “Victorian” era the bourgeoisie were growing but still numerically small part of society. The big difference is the size of the bourgeoisie, and in particular those in secure professions whose work is not in fact that onerous and who have the assurance of secure and long retirements frequently paid for or underwritten by the tax payer. People for whom the difficulties M&S found in supplying their full range of Sushi to their stores in Northern Ireland is rightly the lead story of the evening news on TV. Utterly divorced from the concerns and contingencies of most working people and would be amazed to learn that even at the peak of “lockdowns” the country dropped only to 80% economic activity from it peak in 2019. Indeed those who still assume most people WFH when again in fact their privileged lives would have been impossible without the majority continuing to work at places of work.
    For the truth is that feminism remains a bourgeois set of beliefs that gives leverage to the already privileged and where it thinks at all about “ordinary people” is largely concerned about bosding them about because they’re stupid and rude.
    I really doubt there has been, in this country, a time that is more aptly described by Ransome s description.
    Earlier in the day I read that a local leisure centre is offering free sessions to teenage girls. The rational being that girls are much less likely to be active, more likely not to sleep well, more sedantry, more prone to bad or low moods and three times to have an anxiety disorder, similarly more likely to have all manner of mental health problems, than their Male peers.(curiously this is true of gender dysphoria too though youd never know it from media coverage). Not exactly a description of the superior sex.

    1. William Collins Post author

      There have been a number of successful complaints by men about preferential terms being offered to women at gyms. The message doesn’t get across, though, and it keeps happening. The reason, I suspect, is because having a number of nubile young female bodies about the place encourages custom – from both sexes. It’s similar to preferential female entry to clubs.

      1. Groan

        Interestingly in the City where I work there are both women only and men only sessiions in a leisure centre. The area has a large Jewish community. 8ne that has been becoming more “orthodox” over the century of its existence. The women’s and men’s sessions reflect tge fact that both sexes would be horrified by the presence of the opposite sex, It intrigues me. I do wonder if leisure centres in more orthodox islam8c communities do the same.
        I suspect your comment about “nubile female bodies” has everything to do with pubs, clubs and entrertainment venues and little to do with gyms and leisure centres. In my experience the “women only” sessions tend to attract the older lady. 8n general younger women seem 9nly too eager to attract attention to their expensive lycra and lithe bodies,


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