Ms. is a proud media sponsor and partner of the League of Women Voters Los Angeles and UCLA Film and Television Archive’s Women to the Polls: Suffrage Film Festival. In this dedicated series, we’ll be syndicating the program in time with each day of screenings.
In 1883 Henry James, the famed American novelist, stated that he wanted to write “a very American tale.” Thus, in 1886, he wrote The Bostonians.
The title is the key to the novel: It refers to romantic friendships among women, characteristic of the late nineteenth century, called “Boston marriages.” James himself probably was a “closeted homosexual.” He was born and raised in Boston and lived much of his life in London.
James’ novels often revolve around the contrast between a sensual Europe, represented by an older male, and an innocent America, represented by a young woman. In The Bostonians, the contrast is between the North—represented by Olive Chancellor, a wealthy woman’s rights advocate—and the South—represented by the anti-feminist womanizer and very sensual Basil Ransome—as they fight for control over Verena Tarrant, a young woman with a talent for public speaking who is the daughter of greedy spiritualists and the granddaughter of abolitionists. The novel, and the movie, present the panorama of types associated with women’s rights in the U.S. in the late nineteenth century.
The 1984 movie was produced and directed by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, a couple known in real life for their brilliant filming of classic novels. The costuming and sets are authentic, and much of the dialogue is taken from the novel. Vanessa Redgrave as Olive and Christopher Reeve as Basil head a distinguished cast.
“I asked myself what was the most salient and peculiar point in our social life,” James declared. “The answer was: the situation of women, the decline of the sentiment of sex, the agitation on their behalf.”