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Thursday, March 25, 2010

women in love: lesbian and feminist intersections in the bostonians

Historically, Boston had been among America’s cities which were long identified as gay. Cultural critic Joel Cohen observed that “the gay subculture of Boston seems to already have been flourishing in the eighteenth century.” One manifestation of this was the emergence in late 19th century America of the setup that has been called “Boston marriage,” wherein two unmarried, financially independent women engage in a cohabitation and/or relationship that may probably be sexual, although not automatically. It is interesting to note that the phrase came to prominence right after Henry James’ novel The Bostonians saw print in 1886.
Set in 1876, The Bostonians features the relationship of Olive Chancellor, a Boston feminist, and Verena Tennant, the young woman suffragist she gets attracted to. Upon the advice of the older woman, Verena cohabitates with Olive, promising never to marry as the two become more mutually intimate and more involved in the women’s suffrage movement. Tender to each other, the women anticipate their realization of the Victorian institution that’s the Boston Marriage. However, Olive’s distant cousin Basil Ransom arrives from Mississippi, and as the anti-suffragist Southern lawyer becomes enamored with Verena, his cousin Olive becomes disappointed not only because she is training Verena as her mouthpiece for the feminist movement, but also because she directly competes with her very cousin for her protégé’s affection.
Unlike other masterpieces by James, The Bostonians explores overt political themes like feminism and women’s overall role in society, and, inertly albeit controversially owing to the social temperament of the period that produced the novel, the ambiguously-examined theme of lesbianism. The subject of romantic attachments between women was an unconventional one in 19th-century American literature, so even as James’ novel was among the earliest works to deal with that sensitive theme, it was in a muffled manner. While the subsequent fictions of James did not altogether shy away from political subjects, it is The Bostonians wherein his political views were displayed most prominently, depicting a broader backdrop of feminism and other reform movements during the mid-1880’s as well as a silent rivalry between the cousins over Verena. James’ examination of the movement for female emancipation in that side of the West during that time may be summed up in “the situation of women, the decline of the sentiment of sex, and the agitation in their behalf.”
The 19th century in the United States came to be known “as a dynamic period in which the process of industrialization transformed women’s work and family roles.” Women began to realize that opportunities teemed outside the home, and that they could participate in the world like men do. As feministic view was seeing the light of day, the traditional attitude towards women was dramatically changing. To begin with, women would take a role in working to help slaves obtain emancipation through the anti-slavery movement, having identified with the manner slaves were being treated. As middle-class women became conscious of their similarities with men, they wanted to be treated as well, and participate in the activities men engage in, from accessing education to voting to working in order to support themselves without the assistance of men. This improvement in women’s conventional social role also affected their family role; they refused to be chained at home to rear children, cook, and clean when they could very well get out into the public sphere. During the Civil War, some of the women’s demands were shelved, but after it, more demands for equality with men sparked controversies. This entire historical scholarship revealed that 19th century American women, owing to the social progress brought about by industrialization, wore the theme of the “New Woman” with the necessary homosocial and feminist cultural underpinnings.
By the late 1890’s, the social label “New Woman” took on a problematic connotation, as it posed a modernist challenge to the Victorianism widespread during that period. Despite modernity being conventionally ascribed to the masculine culture, the New Woman penetrated that space and enabled herself as a key player as the 19th century drew to a close. This was not a walk in the park for the New Woman, as the experience of modernity is related to the public sphere of work, to politics and to city life, all of which prohibit 19th century women or render them invisible unless they are or will be mistaken for prostitutes loitering in the city streets. Also, the city existence’ transformation in the guise of accelerated urbanization, and progresses in work, housing and social relations widened the gap between the public and private arenas, with women promptly designated to the domestic sphere in the suburbs, the city’s opposites. Women of Olive’s socially and financially independent stature constitute the minuscule number of “New Women” who enjoy access to public life.
In James’ historical location mentioned in the previous paragraph, real-life suffragist feminists (from whose mold the novel’s female protagonists were cast) along with purity campaigners, rational dress lobbyists, sexual degenerates and the like were neatly categorized—despite their contradictory links—under the label “New Woman.” A phrase invented by writers Sarah Grand and Ouida two years before the publication of The Bostonians, “New Woman” was frequently strung along with feminism at large in order to define lesbian identity.
What emerged as feminism—the value system that invests women with the same rights as men and with equality among women—in the milieu in which The Bostonians was born may be traced to the organized force that denounced abolitionism in the early part of the 19th century. As every person was a self-owner, each human being has jurisdictions over his or her own body. Hence, there is a truism to the previously mentioned statement that the women related to the parallel plight of the negro slaves. More importantly, the abolitionist movement was the first radical force that women actively participated in. Within the pre-Civil War movement, women’s rights caused intense debate due to the caution with which their rights were not to be discussed in the same breath as the slaves’. This changed when the Civil War took place, as individualism was struck by war measures that included but not limited to censorship, suspension of habeas corpus and political imprisonment. While feminists were pro-war because it was an instrument to end slavery, it meant waiting until the post-Civil War for the tackling of their issues to proceed, not to mention that the war caused them to lose some of their legal rights. As the lack of reference to gender into the US Constitution became apparent as the pursuit for black men to vote was put forth, women claimed equal rights to suffrage but to no immediate avail. It was this feminist promotion of suffrage that propelled the central same-sex relationship within the novel.
Meanwhile, the rise of a lesbian identity has the effort of the late-Victorian sexologists like Havelock Ellis, Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Edward Carpenter to give credit to. Even in its infancy stage, this identity was already readable in The Bostonians in the embodiment of New Women namely Olive and, by extension, Verena. The former persuades the latter, a talented orator, to advance the women’s cause. Simultaneously, she seeks to maintain a partnership with the younger woman, one that excludes men.
Olive has the capability to engage in feminist politics and intellectual argument since she is financially independent as well as without a husband, two conditions that free her from the traditional domestic assignment for women and that enables her to participate in the public space. Her inability to speak in public, though, merits her choice of Verena as her spokesperson on behalf of the feminist movement:
“‘I want you to address audiences that are worth addressing,’ Olive tells Verena, ‘to convince people who are serious and sincere ... Your mission is not to exhibit yourself as a pastime for individuals, but to touch the heart of communities and nations.’”
The orator begins her career in Miss Birdseye’s tiny Boston townhouse, before an audience that is already won over to the side of the women’s movement. Her entrance into public life is deferred by Olive not only because the latter wants to improve Verena’s knowledge of feminist politics before addressing the public in general, but also because she seeks to maintain a domestic intimacy with Verena, an alternative to the conventional heterosexual domesticity expected in a heteronormative world.
Soon, Verena’s audience grows, increasing from the small Boston townhouse to Mrs. Burrage’s posh residence in New York. Her ultimate public oration is set in Boston’s Music Hall, where she will speak before her first mass constituency. Her entry into the public arena caught the eyes of the mass media, which promoted her as the “New Woman.” Meanwhile, Olive’s silence regarding this promotion of Verena via the mass media is much more than just a lover’s possessiveness. She is careful not to be exploited by the media for commercial benefits but desires to exploit the same media apparatus to advance the women’s cause.
When Basil comes into the picture, he is saddened by “the exhibition of enterprise and puffery” that comes with the media-covered speech for the feminist cause at the music hall. He laments Olive’s multiple struggles as she trades Verena’s oratorical giftedness to a sizeable audience if only to promote the women’s cause, rightly identifying that his cousin has “conform[ed] herself to a great popular system.” His own desire is to prevent women in general and Verena in particular from going beyond the confines of domesticity. It must be noted that his failure to be published implies the threat he feels towards women who get to penetrate the public sphere ahead of him. By keeping Verena from speaking publicly, he signifies his intent to reserve the public arena for himself, an attempt that is overwhelmed by the eventuality that Olive manages to take to the stage and speak on behalf of the women’s movement. In one of his attacks against the feminist movement, Basil gets Verena to listen to the point that
“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 that has ever been.”
Hence, in one of his walks with Verena, Basil tries to dissuade her from the women’s cause (in which she, addressing the public, gets objectified by the male gaze) and asks her to marry him instead. Basil advises his and his cousin’s common romantic object that “it’s not natural to give yourself to a movement or some morbid old maid.” Whereas Verena is being groomed by Olive for a public speaking career, Basil wishes her out of it by becoming his wife. Explaining how things will be after her retirement, he says,
“Your gift is the gift of expression, and there is nothing I can do for you that will make you less expressive. It won’t gush out a fixed hour and on a fixed day, but it will irrigate, it will fertilize, it will brilliantly adorn your conversation. Think how delightful it will be when your influence becomes really social. Your facility, as you call it, will simply make you, in conversation, the most charming woman in America.”
To the detriment of her political belief and public speaking stance, Verena decides in favor of marriage to a man whose political views oppose hers. In the long run, Olive loses her beloved Verena to her very cousin but musters more strength and self-confidence.
As initially stated, James’ novel was engendered by a time when Olive’s lesbian tendencies could hardly be suggested, much less discussed. James himself repressed his homosexuality, which case qualifies Olive as a fictional counterpart. Also, a good part of the novel is devoted to his disagreement with Olive’s feminist politics, mocking its principles through Basil especially in the first few chapters. At best, he was ambivalent over the women’s movement, an ambiguity that enhances the novel since it opens a similar ambiguity about the motives of Olive. While not a few features of the fictional universe of The Bostonians are displayed in a negative light, it does not follow that their opposites are necessarily positive, thus the ambiguity. It is a universe wherein nothing can be trusted. In the novel’s opening, Olive gets satirized when her sister Mrs. Luna mocks her: “A radical? She’s a female Jacobin – she’s a nihilist. Whatever is, is wrong, and all that sort of thing…” However, Olive’s view mimics the narrative view of James: Whatever is, always has something wrong with it. The novel presents no character possessing “the good values.” No absolutes to serve as standards are present.
This is why as the sisters’ characters get introduced in the beginning, one rejects the construction of herself as an object of male gaze and as an upper class while the other desperately desires to construct herself as both. Olive shows a smile that resembles “a thin ray of moonlight resting upon the wall of a prison,” and wears a dress “as if she were got up from a sea-voyage.” Meanwhile, Mrs. Luna wears curls that may be likened to “bunches of grapes,” an ill-fitting bodice and a pair of gloves that call to mind a pair of stockings. Their political perspectives—one a staunch feminist, the other a pandering male supremacist—and the manner in which they are expressed liken their appearances. Unlike her pandering sister, Olive refuses to put on a mask of sociability when she believes she must defend her feminist ideals. She suspects Basil’s friendliness the moment she gets acquainted with him, anxious that being congenial to him might force her to pander too, even in the most mundane way. When the cousins meet at Mrs. Burrage’s house before Verena’s speaking engagement, she launches into absurd accusations in reply to the trivial things mentioned by Basil. While it is manifest that Basil was unfairly censured by a feminist being out of context, James’ exposition of Basil’s inner thoughts reveals that Olive’s accusations are correct. Though Basil will pay homage to women’s femininity, he harbors tremendous fear and contempt for it, as may be gleaned from the following passage:
“…I am so far from thinking, as you set forth the night, that there is is not enough woman 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 womanized; 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 the feeblest and flattest and the most pretentious that has ever been. The masculine character, the ability to dare and endure, to know and yet not fear reality, to look the world in the face and take it for what it is – a very queer and partly very base mixture – that is what I want to preserve, or rather, as I may say, to recover; and I don’t in the least care what becomes of you ladies while I make the attempt!”
Many ironies may be drawn from this speech, testaments to the clashing worlds of feminism and patriarchy. One, the lawyer is satirizing the kind of femininity that Verena possesses, something that he would like to customize according to his very own private thrills. Two, the allusion to daring, enduring and meeting the ugly facts of reality could fit Olive to a T, even as Olive is likewise self-deluding in certain ways. Three and most significantly, the speech divulges the absence of absoluteness of femininity-associated values. This is important since those values are the standards utilized by men to measure women. If a woman does not deem it a positive gauge for herself any longer, then she need not be judged by it any longer. To disparage femininity is to add to the fragmentation of gender-linked myths in the novel.
These are but a few of the ambiguities painted by James in the novel’s universe: something can be something and be another thing altogether simultaneously. There is no positive absolute to measure things in this fictional universe. Therefore, the female protagonists in the novels find themselves in evil binaries, as when Verena was confronted by the dilemma of selecting between her ideology and personal affairs.
As Basil comes nearer to scooping Verena, James’ sympathy for him slowly diminishes while that for Olive magnifies as she starts to lose Verena in the closing chapters. In the following passage, Basil harbors the notion that Verena naturally exists but for a man’s love, notwithstanding Olive’s indoctrination of feminist ideology in her:
“The deepest feeling in Ransom’s bosom in relation to her was the conviction that she was made for love, as he had said to himself while he listened to her at Mrs. Burrage’s. She was profoundly unconscious of it, and another ideal, crude and thin and artificial, had interposed itself; but in the presence of a man she should really care for, this false, flimsy structure would rattle to her feet, and the emancipation of Olive Chancellor’s sex (what sex was it, great heaven? He used profanely to ask himself), would be relegated to the land of vapors, of dead phrases.”
This loss of sympathy gets an ultimate reinforcement towards the end of The Bostonians. The last two lines of the novel read: “But though [Verena] was glad, [Basil] presently discovered that, beneath her hood, she was in tears. It is to be feared that with the union, so far from brilliant, into which she was about to enter, these were not the last she was destined to shed.” To interpret these as an allegory of the battle of the sexes wherein the red-blooded American manhood beats lesbian feminism to a pulp is to miss the irony with which Basil is regarded. On an ideological point, the ambiguity James constructs involves two systems from which Verena must select: the modern sexual emancipator in the embodiment of Olive, and the radical conservative in the guise of Basil. Nonetheless, on a structural level, the radical conservative system is associated to the male heterosexual, while the modern sexual emancipator with the female lesbian. The tension, then, mounts as regards the side which one must favor. This also offers the challenge posed before lesbianism, feminism and lesbian feminism by the prevailing patriarchal hegemony.
The Bostonians has usually been interpreted as a depiction of a lesbian relationship, with Olive as the unnatural woman who ensnares Verena, who is in turn finally rescued from her lesbian entrapment by Basil. Interestingly, this current notion within 20th century interpretations of James’ work is that the relationship between Olive and Verena is not explicitly lesbian, and only a post-Freudian regime could vilify The Bostonians as a lesbian trouble. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, intimate and passionate friendships between women were deemed normal even as lifelong devotion and declarations of love along with nights spent together kissing in communal homes were committed. In the novel, the friendship between Olive and Verena and, to a smaller magnitude, that between Dr. Prance and Miss Birdseye could be categorized as such. Boston marriages during the period were not condemned inasmuch as the dominant assumption was that women-women love was asexual, women being believed to be devoid of sexual drive so the idea of a sexual activity between two women did not exist.
It may be recalled that throughout the century that spawned James’ novel, gender dynamics affected the way same-sex love and relationships were molded and promoted. The harsh gender roles and expectations in the early part of the period awakened the need for change during the mid-19th century. Such earnestness for change motivated the women’s movement to help alter the dynamic of female bonding, encouraging them to live independent lives with one another. As a result, the late 19th century stood witness to the female romantic friendships that sexologists concluded to have emerged from the correlations of sexual inversion and the feminist movement. Therefore, instead of being publicly condemned for their cohabitation, Olive and Verena were even possibly encouraged to carry on their romantic friendship, as it symbolizes the deeply-seated good moral values of society.
The feminist movement during the mid- and late 19th century introduced change in the form of female sex-sex love and relationships like the one between the female protagonists. Owing to the absence of support women discovered within the male sphere, they sought support among each other. Romantic friendships permitted strong bonds to shape between women that would help them construct the feminist movement. The women’s cause, in turn, would permit women to seek independent lives and relationships with other women. Before the movement, two women could fall in love with each other and desire one another. Their lack of independence, however, treated them like lesser human beings and rendered them incapable to support themselves financially, to the detriment of their pursuit of a shared dream life with another woman. During the Civil War when significant loss of American males intensified the movement’s demands for women to be able to support themselves, the “New Woman” was born in response to women’s longtime oppressive roles and expectations. It was the 19th century feature of homosociality that women got to coordinate with one another to effect social change, a leeway to the alternative lifestyle to heterosexual marriages that many of them sought, as is evident in the cohabitation represented in The Bostonians.
The writings of the late-Victorian sexologists mentioned at the onset provided the late 19th century discourse of lesbianism as a category of sexual behavior. During the period, sexologists published their findings on same-sex desire and behavior, in the process identifying lesbians in Western culture as a distinct construct, a recent designation that belied the visibility of homosexuality across culture and time. Men have historically entertained notions about what is acceptable for women in love, sex and family and owing to the invisibility of males in a lesbian relationship, usually protested the probability of lesbianism or dismissed it as a valid manifestation of sexuality. These sexologists came up with their characterization of lesbians on their principles that women who interrogated their strictly prescribed gender roles were mentally sick. In effect, women who became conscious of their new medical status created underground subcultures in both sides of the Atlantic, being unified by the discrimination and potential ostracism they confront from families, friends and other people. This shaping of a subculture according to gender role subversions was a reaction by many lesbians whose designation as immoral outcasts are regarded as threats to the challenge lesbians pose against traditional feminine gender dynamics. The link between the “New Woman” and lesbianism is fascinating in that the terms Havelock Ellis, for instance, employed to depict lesbian women were similar to those used to revile the spinster feminists of the late 19th century, the “New Women” like Olive. In 1897, Ellis described the typical homosexual woman in the same anti-feminist way that New Women were depicted:
“…[lesbian women] usually show some traits of masculine simplicity, and there is nearly always a disdain for the petty feminine artifices of the toilet...The brusque energetic movements, the attitude of the arms, the direct speech, the inflexions of the voice, the masculine straightforwardness...will often suggest the underlying psychic abnormality to a keen observer...There is also a dislike and sometimes incapacity for needlework and other domestic occupations, while there is some capacity for athletics.”
The conflation of lesbian identity with feminist identity was exploited by anti-feminists of the late 19th century to challenge women’s struggle for emancipation. Based on these claims, Olive’s feminism in the novel was the point of tirades by not a few 20th century critics. If she is not rightly portrayed as a “New Woman,” then her relationship with Verena is presented to be affirmative and favorable to the two of them. Verena is extremely pleased and fruitful in Olive’s company, and with her Verena “expanded, developed, on the most liberal scale.” It may be read from the novel that The Bostonians, in its sympathetic description of the friendship between Olive and Verena, appears to appeal for a more sensitive interpretation of same-sex love between women.
While The Bostonians does not qualify as a lesbian novel owing to its non-lesbian author (but a gay one, it must be emphasized), it has had a tremendous impact on the lesbian and feminist communities with its own portrayal of the central character as lesbian feminist. It helped define and continues to redefine the position of lesbians and feminists in society and offered a significant record of the cultural attitude toward lesbianism and feminism during James’ time. By describing a version of the lesbian and feminist experiences at the end of the 19th century, by interrogating gender norms and prevailing values and by arguing how a woman should define herself in society, The Bostonians has contributed to the constitution, enrichment and development of lesbian and feminist cultures.
Works Cited:
Auchinloss, Louis. Reading Henry James. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1975.
Buck-Morss, Susan. “The Flaneur, the Sandwichman and the Whore: the Politics of Loitering.” New German Critique 39, 1986.
Cohen, Joel. Boston Camerata’s Liberty Tree: American Music 1776 1861.
Ellis, Havelock. Sexual Inversion. Philadelphia: F. A. Davis, 1925.
Faderman, Lilian. Surpassing the Love of Men. London: Junction Books, 1981.
Felski, Rita. “The Gender of Modernity.” Political Gender: Texts and Contexts. S. Ledger et al, eds. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994.
James, Henry. The Bostonians. 1886 (e-text).
Rupp, Leila. “Reflections on Twentieth-Century American Women’s History.” Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1981.

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