Thursday, April 30, 2009

Deeds not Words.

Current book: The Bostonians
Pages read: 183-246

It's to Henry James's enormous credit that it actually takes me more than a minute a page to read this book. Normally, and especially when I'm working out, and doubly especially when the subject matter is not all that interesting, I get a significantly better rate than that. In this book, though, it's just impossible to maintain the thread of the narrative when I skip paragraphs or sections. I find myself having to stop and look back to determine who or what is being discussed. I realize this sounds like it might be a bad thing, but what it actually means is that James is moving the text along well enough to require sustained attention. It's demanding, but the mark of a good writer. (Yes, I hate myself for saying he's a good writer. I never thought I'd admit it about James, but the artistry of his craft is impossible to deny. Even if he does describe everyone we meet for five pages each.)

Since Basil met with Verena and took that fateful stroll with her, his interest in her has renewed itself. He's attended several of her speeches, though he considers everything she says to be nonsense in addition to poor oratory, and seems to want to marry her almost as much because it'll prove that she's a silly little girl who doesn't believe what she espouses in public as because he's interested in her romantically. (Did you stay with me on that sentence? The syntax got all twisty, so I was just checking. (I almost used the word tortuous instead of twisty, but people get so confused by tortuous versus torturous that I abstained. Of course now I've raised the question in this parenthetical, but maybe it'll make you go look it up. A blogger can dream.))

Anyway, while Basil's daydreaming about marrying her, Olive's beginning to realize that Verena might soon slip through her fingers. She's experiencing enormous popularity, being invited to tour in New York as well as across the country, and is continuously plagued by suitors of both the romantic and entrepreneurial type, some of whom manage to be both simultaneously. Among these double threats is Mr. Burrage, the son of a woman deeply interested in the Cause (the emancipation of women). Mrs. Burrage invites Verena and Olive to New York, where Verena successfully lectures, but afterward meets clandestinely with Olive to propose the marriage of Verena and her son. It's interesting that Olive is the one whom Mrs. Burrage feels she needs to ask permission for the union, but she keenly realizes that Olive is in complete control of Verena's movements and decisions at this point. Olive leaves the interview having made no promises, but it seems to us that she's entertaining the idea simply to keep Basil from marrying her...well, there's no good word for Verena's relationship with Olive, so I'm going with...ward. When Olive returns to the lodging house that she and Verena are staying in whilst in New York, however, she finds that Verena has again gone out with Basil, and has already stayed with him for the scandalous period of at least four hours. (Just think of what could happen in four hours. I mean, really. They could be holding hands.)

James is definitely avoiding choosing a side in the battle over The Woman Question, but he's offering a clever and satirical portrait of all of Boston society, its interlopers, and their various interactions instead. He's hardly laudatory, but isn't particularly biting, either; the novel is more a reflection of reality portrayed through the lens of prose than it is an interpretation of that reality. (Although, weirdly, he chose to refer to himself in the first person once in the middle of the book. It's not like the narrator's a character, and it came completely out of nowhere. I was like, "Um, what happened there, James? Feeling a little neglected, were we?")

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