The late 19th Century American novelist Henry James commented on the emergent First-wave Feminist movement in his novel The Bostonians. In 1984, James’ book was adapted into a movie. Itself a selection of the Merchant Ivory school of period piece dramas, the film promises more than it provides, but is a minor gem nonetheless. James was a skeptic of Feminism and feminists, revealing both to be nothing more a collective of than uncompromising, ideologically polarizing fussy old maids. However, the author is also highly critical of the counter-weight to these passionate reformers, the charming, but manipulative Mississippi lawyer and frustrated writer, Basil Ransome. We will be formally introduced to him later in this review.
Olive Chancellor (Vanessa Redgrave) is the stereotypical First-wave feminist: unsmiling, a repressed lesbian, and devoid of a personality. To some extent, that portrayal persists into the current age, even some 135 years later. Her feminist protégé, young Verena Tarrant (Madeleine Potter), is the daughter of an eccentric faith healer. Verena has developed quite a talent for public speaking and has begun selling out dates in lecture halls. Her fellow women’s rights advocates clearly expect much of her in the years going forward. This personal charisma and suggestion of greater things to come is what attracts Olive to Verena in the first place. Her attention is rapturous, emotionally overwrought, and full of lesbian subtext.
Also attracted to Vera’s oratory if not her words, is Southern gentleman and political conservative Basil Ransome (Christopher Reed). His view of the rights of women is decidedly less forward thinking. He and Olive spend the entire movie competing for Verena’s attention, underscoring the obvious symbolism of this struggle. Romantic desire is a complementary strong motive sparking the conflict between the two. Basil wants to marry Verena and for her to take a traditionally submissive and secondary role as his wife. Should they be married, he intends to force her to stop public speaking altogether. Olive wants to continue advising and mentoring Verena, raising her own profile in the process. And, of course, Olive wants Verena for herself. Both relationships, it must be said, are controlling to some degree or another. It seems that each wants Verena to achieve his or her own ends.
Basil pursues the indecisive Verena from place to place. The effect produces spectacular fights, emotional anguish on the part of Olive, and reconciliations between Basil and Verena. Women during this time were supposed to be ruled by their emotions to the detriment of the rest of their daily duties. This was, in fact, an argument advanced by anti-feminists to deny women basic freedoms. In any case, what Ransome cannot discover through charm alone he obtains by persistence. We’d consider his advances excessive now, but no one objects to them then. Basil pursues Verena to shifting locations in Boston and to the summer home of an older feminist, who reveals Verena’s whereabouts, sympathetic to his plight. With time, he begins to break down her resolve.
One minor character provides James’s attitudes towards Feminism of the time. She notes that it is curious that a movement based on gender equality rejoices more when a man joins than when a woman joins. For all of his arrogance, Basil does have female supporters who agree with his traditional view of the rights of women. Though I doubt this particular terminology was used then, Ransome is an ardent anti-feminist. Those allied with him believe that the movement has gone too far and must be kept in check. At the time, this was called “the woman question” and those devoted to solving it were as fragmented back then as is true today. James implies that the movement itself was a mish-mash of quack science, charlatanism, and self-righteousness. Should one observe the criticisms of today’s feminism, it is easy to observe how views in opposition have evolved in the same fashion.