The end of innocence - Henry James: The Bostonians

Henry James said The Bostonians was to be his "very American tale". He wrote this in a note made in Boston in April 1883, just before his 40th birthday - he had been in America since December 1882, when he arrived just too late for his father's death. The novel was written after his return to, and settlement in, England. In the note he went on: "I asked myself what was the most salient and peculiar point in our social life. The answer was: the situation of women, the decline of the sentiment of sex, the agitation on their behalf."

It is a very American novel, related to Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance. It takes place in what James calls, writing about Hawthorne, "the light fresh American air, unthickened and undarkened by customs and institutions established", which made for a thinness as James and Hawthorne saw it, of social density available for realist novelists.

The Bostonians is about idealism in a democracy still recovering from a civil war bitterly fought for social ideals. It is written, paradoxically, with a ferocious, precise, detailed - and wildly comic - realism that derives from Dickens and Balzac. In that paradox lie both its greatness and the edged tone that arouses instinctive dislike in many readers.

James half-envied Balzac's freedom to invent novels in a historically younger world where (James thought) everything could still be seen with clarity and differentiated - partly because Balzac, writing early in the development of the social novel, constructed his form as he went along, partly because he escaped "the fatal fusions and uniformities inflicted on newer generations, the running together of all the differences of form and tone, the ruinous liquefying wash of the great industrial brush over the old conditions of contrast and colour".

Balzac's Europe is bright and clear and complicated. James's Europe is smoky and homogenised. (Or nostalgic for ancient graces and splendours.) Hawthorne's America exists in a "dry American light". In Hawthorne's America, James wrote, "the individual counts for more, as it were, and thanks to the absence of a variety of social types and of settled heads under which he may be easily pigeon-holed, he is to a certain extent a wonder and a mystery".

English and French thinkers can judge people quickly and easily. A European "has not that rather chilly and isolated sense of moral responsibility that is apt to visit a New Englander... he has the advantage that his standards are fixed by the general consent of the society in which he lives... American intellectual standards are vague, and Hawthorne's countrymen are apt to hold the scales with a rather uncertain hand and a somewhat agitated conscience."

James was able to write with a Balzacian particularity, and a Dickensian gusto, about the buzzing world of American idealism, in its lower and higher manifestations, because he grew up in it. He and his brother William had "queer lecturing blood" in their veins. Henry James Sr was both a Swedenborgian and a Fourierist. WD Howells remarked that William James's Pragmatism was brilliant but not clear, "like his father, who wrote The Secret of Swedenborg, and kept it".

The elder James believed in a fallen humanity separated from its creator, which would be rejoined in one divine human as family expanded into tribe, tribe into city, city into nation, and nations in some future social perfection into one society. Providence was the working of God that would merge church in state, and individuality in humanity. Evil, at least in part, was individual and personal. Man might fall from grace individually, but could only be saved collectively.

One aspect of these views was an exposure to Swedenborg's very odd ideas about sexuality. For Swedenborg, woman was, as it says in Genesis, a secondary being, derived from man, and dependent upon him. An angel is a "conjugial" being, containing both sexes, signifying the marriage of goodness and wisdom. The soul is derived from the father and is only clothed with a body by the mother. Sexual and "conjugial" love, Swedenborg says, despite popular belief, originate in woman, not man.

Swedenborg is scornful about woman - she "initiates nothing... her name has no place among inventors and discoverers"; "nothing in art or science owes birth to her brain..."; "Some suppose that women are equal to men in intellectual vision" but she displays only "ingenuity and wit". "Her moral superiority is sometimes alleged but ignorantly. She never inaugurates reformation... she can no more beget ideas than she can beget children."

Fourier, on the other hand, invented the word "feminism" and believed in the emancipation of women - but this was in the context of his serial laws of scientific and social change, his belief in ideal communities, representing all the possible variations on human passion. In Fourier's world, humanity would be regenerated by the application of the new sciences of humanity. And this would in turn transform the physical sciences and the universe, creating new stars and on earth new animals, new oceans peopled by supersharks (helpful to men), jungles peopled by super-tigers (to act as people-carriers) and seas of lemonade - mocked gently by Hawthorne in Blithedale.

Fourier believed in a series of social states - savagery, patriarchy, barbarism and civilisation - the last a decadent state that would be replaced, in the new order, by harmony. According to the elder James "...the entire scope of what we call history is to reduce this chaos to order, to lift up this sobbing and prostrate universe into beautiful and joyous and individual form, to train this mute and melancholy and boundless nature into the free and glorified lineaments of human personality or character."

All this, in the world James grew up in, was compounded by an intense interest in mesmerism and spiritualism. (Swedenborg, who had visited heaven and hell in person, was generally thought of as the founding father of spiritualism.) Maria Tatar, in Spellbound, a history of mesmerism and literature, remarks that the wandering mesmerists and trance maidens in America in the 1840s and 1850s "perfectly matched a central concern of American writers - the violation of innocence".

In The Bostonians, the sleazy Selah Tarrant and the beautiful Verena are direct descendants of the mysterious Priscilla of The Blithedale Romance, which takes place in a utopian community based on the transcendentalist Brook Farm, where Hawthorne stayed, and which later became a Fourierist phalanx. The feminist heroine of Blithedale, Zenobia, is based partly on Margaret Fuller. When, at the very beginning of The Bostonians, Basil Ransom discusses Olive Chancellor's "weird meetings" with Mrs Luna, he turns them into supernatural fantasy. "What kind of meetings do you refer to? You speak as if it were a rendezvous of witches on the Brocken."

"Well, so it is. They are all witches and wizards, mediums, and spirit-rappers, and roaring radicals."
"Do you mean to say your sister's a roaring radical?"
"A radical? She's a female Jacobin - she's a nihilist. Whatever is, is wrong, and all that sort of thing."

Basil Ransom, referring to Goethe's Faust, brings in the German Romantic side of transcendentalism. Mrs Luna gleefully coagulates the political and the occult. In the world Henry James grew up in, these were constituents of the surprising thin American air. All through both The Blithedale Romance and Little Women, there are references to "castles in the air".

Louisa May Alcott also grew up in an idealist farming utopia, her father's Fruitlands - badly run, and productive of mud, poverty and hunger. The real fantasy in her world is the solid comfortable dailiness of the March sisters' home life. American literature and thought in the mid-19th century produced a concoction of "isms", often inhering in the same individual minds and fiercely earnest communities. Spiritualism, Mesmerism, communism, radicalism, Swedenborgianism, Fourierism, abolitionism, transcendentalism, feminism.

James is able to report the phantasmagoria of spiritual and political abstractions, magnetisms and influences, with a surefooted realist solidity of specification (to use his own phrase) because it is what he knew best and first.

Verena was partly based on the lovely Cora Tappan, whose formless, enthusiastic, ultimately meaningless "lectures" were collected in an elegant book with her elegant blonde photograph as a frontispiece. James makes her plausible as the child of her subtly drawn seedy parents, the survivors of religious communities, with sexual freedom thrown in - she has warmth, responsiveness, and no instilled puritanical principles.

By AS Byatt

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