To The Editor:

It is not a matter of great moment, and in no way affects the argument of Richard Grenier’s brilliant analysis of The Bostonians [“The Bostonians Inside Out,” October 1984], but I should like to point out that his reference to Elizabeth Peabody as Hawthorne’s elderly sister is incorrect. She was Hawthorne’s sister-in-law and was known as one of the famous “Three Sisters of Salem.” Another of the sisters, Sophia (a recognized painter in her day), married Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the third sister, Mary, married Horace Mann, the educator, and collaborated with him in his work.

Elizabeth Peabody was only incidentally a feminist. She opened a bookstore in Boston which became the gathering place for intellectuals of the day (mostly male) and there she printed the Dial magazine (a literary journal) and three of Hawthorne’s first books. In later years, her principal interest lay in the field of education, and in 1860 she established the first kindergarten in America.

Claire L. Baron
Rye, New York



To The Editor:

Should we be terribly concerned with Christopher Reeve’s “explanation” of the ending of The Bostonians? According to Richard Grenier, “Reeve feels that . . . Basil Ransom and Verena [will] live a life ‘a lot like’ that of Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda.” I certainly did not receive this impression from the movie. Granted there are any number of distortions of Henry James’s novel in the movie, but let us be fair: this is not one of them. Verena, in choosing Ransom, has unequivocally given up her public life. Throughout much of the movie, Ransom insists on this. Notwithstanding Reeve’s personal wishes, there is no evidence in the movie that might lead us to believe otherwise.

My point in this apparent nitpicking is that in an otherwise fine movie review, one among many Mr. Grenier has written, he fails to distinguish what the movie “explains” from one of the “explanations” given by an actor outside the movie. With all due respect, this appears to be a somewhat deliberate confusion on Mr. Grenier’s part, in order, perhaps, to support his more general argument, an argument that I believe to be valid, namely, the increased politicization we are now finding in American movies. . . .

Adrian R. Valentino
Hicksville, New York



To The Editor:

I have generally found Richard Grenier’s movie reviews emotionally galvanizing and intellectually stimulating, but his article on The Bostonians contains serious flaws in judgment. . . .

What Mr. Grenier fails to realize is that in the triad of major characters—the other two being Olive Chancellor and Verena Tarrant—both Ransom and Chancellor are power-driven egotists who fight to possess the poor victim, Verena. It may be true that Ransom is the conquerer, but so was Attila the Hun. Although James may have shared some of Ransom’s anti-feminist sentiments, he himself admitted that Ransom was “rather vague and artificial, quite fait de chic.” In the novel, James seems to be saying “a plague on both your dogmas.”

Mr. Grenier’s zeal to paint a portrait of James in anti-feminist, conservative colors . . . leads him to bring in irrelevant corroboration in an attempt to buttress his case. For example, he quotes William James’s praise of “martial virtues” . . . and then goes on to cite the revelation by William’s closest friend, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., that his involvement in the Civil War was “the most exalting experience of his life.” I suppose if there is such a thing as guilt by association, then there must be glory by association. I prefer to think that one should rest one’s case on the merits—or demerits—of the subject himself, rather than relying on his family or friends.

Not only does Mr. Grenier misinterpret the hero’s character, he misreads the novel’s message: that Verena’s marriage would be a most tearful one because she would be bullied by Basil and reduced to an identity less existence. Mr. Grenier quotes F.R. Leavis’s hyperbolic—and, in the case of The Bostonians, inane—judgment that The Bostonians and The Portrait of a Lady are “the two most brilliant novels in the language.” James himself admitted that the novel was “too diffuse and insistent—far too describing and explaining and expatiating.” I prefer James’s judgment.

But when Mr. Grenier confines himself to a discussion of the defects of the film (I haven’t seen it yet, and therefore rely on his judgments), he is on solid ground. Anyone who can make Olive Chancellor an attractive figure . . . and then change the ending completely by adding a “rousing feminist speech” deserves forty lashes—correction, make that eighty! . . .

Milton Birnbaum
American International College
Springfield, Massachusetts



To The Editor:

Richard Grenier’s article, which I read after thinking I had enjoyed the movie, led me to have another look at the novel. It turns out that my memory of James’s original was pretty hazy and Mr. Grenier was right about there being significant, even huge, discrepancies between novel and movie. . . . [But] the movie did a little more justice to the novel’s minor characters than Mr. Grenier lets on. He describes Miss Birdseye at great length as a “humanitary hack,” in James’s words, and as just a sweet old lady in the movie. But surely Miss Birdseye appears in the film as something of a dodo. She is shown smiling blithely at Verena and Basil, because she supposes that Verena is converting him, rather than being unconverted by him. Her misguidedness is not totally blotted out, leaving only kindliness.

Similarly, the movie’s Dr. Prance is not devoid of the flinty perceptiveness she exhibits so richly in the novel. Mr. Grenier forgets the scene in the boat where Dr. Prance (Linda Hunt) tells Basil of the suffragists’ hypocrisy in valuing male converts to the cause more than female converts. All in all, I would not have called Miss Hunt’s chilly if good-natured Dr. Prance a performance of “dulcet gentility.” . . .

Mr. Grenier is also a bit off—or F.W. Dupee, whom he stands behind, is—about James’s view of Olive, the proper Bostonian spinster-zealot. . . . It is wrong to say that James had “not the slightest sympathy” for Olive, though, to be sure, he invested her with both personal and political traits that were odious to him. . . . Henry James is nothing if not a genius at conveying a complicated sort of sympathy (he would have italicized it) for his fully realized creations. Olive is one of these. In the novel she jumps eagerly, flails self-consciously, believes too passionately—but the author makes these things touching at times.

Yes, Vanessa Redgrave does exploit Olive to serve her own and the film-makers’ revisionist ends, and this disfigures the movie. But Miss Redgrave is not as untrue to James as Mr. Grenier says she is being when her “sudden surges of emotion and moments of sublime awkwardness” touch fleetingly upon his heartstrings. Unpluckable as Mr. Grenier’s heartstrings usually are, it is surprising that an ideologue-actress played them better than a master novelist did.

Lauren Weiner
Institute for Contemporary Studies
San Francisco, California



Richard Grenier writes:

My thanks to Claire L. Baron, Adrian R. Valentino, and Milton Birnbaum for their compliments. I am also grateful to Miss Baron for the biographical information on Elizabeth Peabody and for straightening out her relationship to Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Mr. Valentino is certainly correct. Statements made by Christopher Reeve in interviews are unquesionably external to the movie. But if Mr. Valentino knows how directors work in the theater and in “quality” films, he will know that they spend a good deal of time explaining to their actors the roles they are about to play. Since Christopher Reeve, whom I have met, is not the least bit stupid, I can only assume that James Ivory’s explanations of Basil Ransom were either nonexistent or grossly inaccurate, as Mr. Reeve issued from the movie making the most ludicrous statements—plainly (my point) without the faintest notion of what either his role or the story was about.

Mr. Birnbaum raises the interesting question of “glory by association.” Now Mr. Birnbaum knows that Henry James was not a political essayist. The reason I quoted his brother William and his brother’s best friend, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was that they articulated values that Henry James shared but never phrased in quite so ringing a manner. Has Mr. Birnbaum read the epistolary exchange between William and Henry James on the subject of Rudyard Kipling—of whom they were both great admirers? Mr. Birnbaum’s “a plague on both your dogmas” thesis regarding The Bostonians is that of today’s more literate feminists (as opposed to the illiterate ones who merely saw the movie). But the view of Basil Ransom as Attila the Hun—or at least as a character of a noxiousness equal to that of Olive Chancellor—I frankly find bizarre. It would mean that James put marriage on the same footing as spinsterhood, motherhood on the same footing as childlessness, and love between a man and a woman on the same footing as love between two women. It simply was not so.

Lauren Weiner, last, is simply clutching at straws. I forgot nothing. Miss Birdseye is not presented in the movie as anything like James’s “humanitary hack,” and the movie’s Dr. Prance has no “flintiness” whatever. I am glad, I suppose, that Miss Weiner thinks I have heartstrings. But, if I may be considered an authority on my own heartstrings, I can confidently say they were not plucked by Vanessa Redgrave. I think she gave an excellent performance. I find Miss Weiner’s suggestion that Vanessa Redgrave was better than Henry James at “playing” on my heartstrings somewhat confusing, as I do not think Henry James’s purpose was to play on my heartstrings, certainly not on behalf of Olive Chancellor. This might be an error of perception on my part, but Henry James, in any event, is not at the top of my list of heartstring writers.



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