Dangerous Lengths: A 19th Century Review of Henry James’ The Bostonians


June kicks off LGBTQ+ pride month. The LGBT community has made great strides in the 20th and 21st centuries and faced so many battles to have the LGBT identity recognized and respected. I remember as a teenager watching MTV Europe in 1984 and seeing the powerful music video depicting the stark reality of being gay in the 1980s in Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy”. Thankfully, the gay community has come a long way in these last 40 years.

LGBT identities existed in the 19th century, though of course, they were much more covert. I mentioned in my blog post about Boston Marriages and the New Woman “marriages” between women who chose to remain independent and live with other women in a shared household, whether this included intimate relationships or not. One such relationship was depicted in Henry James’ 1886 novel, The Bostonians. The novel was made into a film in 1984 and does not shy away from the lesbian subcontext and won several awards and nominations, especially for Vanessa Redgrave, who plays Olive in the film.

Photo Credit: photo of Henry James, before 1904, H. Walter Barnett, The English illustrated magazine: JB Hoang Tam/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 70 Expired

However, when James’ novel came out, it did not receive a warm reception. Its contemporary themes of the New Woman in the Gilded Age and her fight for women’s suffrage were on the minds of many people and James’ novel gets right into the thick of it. The novel depicts the lives of three characters: Olive, an upper-middle class Bostonian suffragist whose shyness keeps her from being a spokeswoman for the movement; Verina, a young and vibrant spiritualist of a lower class whom Olives gets involved in the movement; and Basil, Olive’s cousin, a conservative Southerner who develops a romantic interest in Verina and becomes hell-bent on “saving” her. The novel is a triangle love story of sorts but in the shadow of the fight for women’s rights at that time.

One contemporary review from The Atlantic in 1886 is interesting in how it shows the attitude of many people toward the suffragist movement and Boston Marriages. The reviewer, Horace Elisha Scudder (a Victorian name if I ever saw one!) isn’t exactly kind toward James or his characters. He seems to take the biggest issue with Olive, describing her in very “masculine” (for the time, based on the separate spheres) terms. He sees her as arrogant and aggressive in the way that would have been expected and welcomed of the Gilded Age man. Verina is equally stereotyped as the “feminine” in their Boston Marriage, a young, twittery sort of person whose spiritualism Scudder considers to be on par with the fake mesmerizers of the time.

Scudder isn’t shy about depicting his disdain for the relationship between Olive and Verina, which makes up the main storyline. He never uses the word “lesbian” but his description of their romantic partnership shows he was well aware of what is going on between them and he doesn’t approve. He uses words like “vulgar” and “repellent” to describe their relationship. He also expresses his distaste for the way that Olive, who offers Verina shelter in her house to develop her skills as a suffragist spokeswoman, is part of the “dangerous lengths” she will go to for the sake of the movement. In his eyes, their relationship can’t be “natural” or “reasonable”. 

What is telling is that Scudder is interpreting the plot of the novel as a love triangle, the fight between Olive and Basil for Verina’s heart. However, he fails to see the real intent of James’ novel. It was not so much the battle of the sexes with Verina as the prize, but the experience of love in Olive’s lonely and isolated life which leads her to at last come forward as a spokeswoman for the suffragist movement. It’s no surprise that a critic with his eye on the separate spheres would fail to see the relationship between Olive and Verina as helping to bring out Olive’s identity. 

The suffragist movement is very much a part of my Waxwood Series as are friendships between women fighting for women’s rights. The box set of this 4-book series is now on preorder here. If you want to get a taste of the series first, you can download Book 1, The Specter, for free at any online bookstore. The links and information are here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to newsletter subscribers here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!


Boston Marriages and The New Woman


This month is LGBTQ+Pride month so let’s talk about Boston marriages. 

These were not really marriages (that is, legally) and they weren’t always in Boston. The term came from Henry James’ novel The Bostonians, published in 1886. This book (made into a film almost 100 years later starring Vanessa Redgrave and Christopher Reeve) tells the story of women’s suffrage and the New Woman from a man’s point of view. In it, the very prim and proper spinster Olive takes under her wing a free-spirited, charismatic speaker named Verena with the intent of educating her and grooming her as a leader of the suffragist movement. Their affectionate and mutually respectful relationship is challenged by Olive’s Southern cousin, a Civil War veteran who is not exactly a believer in women’s lib.

James’ novel is set in Boston and depicts the Olive/Verena relationship as a kind of intellectual marriage of minds — hence, Boston Marriage. But Olive and Verena’s relationship wasn’t exclusive to fiction. In fact, James took the model for their relationship from his own sister. Alice James lived in a Boston Marriage with her companion Katharine Loring for almost twenty years.

Photo Credit: Alice James (reclining) and her companion Katharine Loring, 1890, Royal Leamington Spa in England, unknown source, unknown author: Elisa.rolle/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 70 expired

To understand the appeal of Boston Marriages, we want to go back to the philosophy of the separate spheres that dominated the 19th and early 20th centuries. Women were confined to a very small space and expected to remain there, physically, mentally, and intellectually. Women who had intelligence, wit, and charisma were oftentimes encouraged not to express it, and those who did have the courage to be themselves were oftentimes ridiculed and mocked.

Women who entered a Boston Marriage, which means they created a domestic partnership where they shared a home, finances, and an emotionally attached relationship, sought to be respected and revered for their intelligence. It was no wonder many of them were New Women, as the ideals and values of New Women fit in with the Boston Marriage perfectly. These were women who were independent in mind and spirit, usually financially well off (so they didn’t need a man to support them), educated, and intellectually curious. They knew they had a lot to give and chose to give it to a female partner instead of a male one.

The question debated for years about these domestic arrangements is: Were they lesbian relationships too? Many say there is evidence from passionate correspondences that many did have a sexual component. However, one thing to remember is the line between romance and friendship wasn’t as tightly drawn in the 19th century as it is in the 21st. If you look at letters written between women friends, and even men friends, during this period, you’ll likely find language we would consider appropriate only for a romantic partner nowadays. So romantic language was not always evidence of romance during this time. 

The likely answer to this question is: Some of the relationships were sexual and some were platonic, and because of the taboo put on same-sex love in the 19th and early 20th centuries, we’ll probably never know which ones were and which ones weren’t. 

Boston Marriages were one way out of the conventional path for many intelligent and independent women. They had the companionship they deserved and were able to pursue their own values without being expected to behave in certain ways that they found constricting and inauthentic to them.

Between Adele Gossling, my protagonist for the Adele Gossling Mysteries, and Nin Branch, her sidekick, there exists not a Boston Marriage (Adele lives with her brother while Nin prefers to live on her own) but the same respect and reverence for women’s intelligence and wit. Each woman honors the strengths of the other and encourages her in her talents. They give one another emotional support and comfort throughout the series, especially when faced with the more restrictive mindsets of men like Jackson, Adele’s brother, and the county sheriff.

Book 1 of the Adele Gossling Mysteries is out and you can pick it up here at a special price. And don’t forget to check out Book 2 of the series, which is now on preorder also at a special price!

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here