Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Nineteenth-Century Novelist Henry James Predicted Twentieth-Century Feminism

In 1914, a newly painted portrait of American novelist Henry James was attacked by a suffragette wielding a meat cleaver. It’s not clear whether the target was the painting or the novelist himself. It’s possible that the suffragette had been enraged by James’s 1886 masterpiece, The Bostonians, a work that rivals the writings of Ernest Belfort Bax as the Anglosphere’s most prescient nineteenth-century analysis of the doctrine of female supremacism.

Henry James (1843-1916) was, in the early 20th century, easily the foremost living English-language novelist; he was considered the writer who had brought the realistic novel to its highest peak of achievement. Born in the United States, James had spent much of his adult life in Europe, often depicting in his fictions the contrast between American and European character types. His novel The Bostonians explored how the zeal of Massachusetts Puritanism found expression in the movement for women’s emancipation.

In 1913, friends of James had commissioned John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), a respected American portrait and landscape artist, also a chronicler of the transatlantic social scene (and friend of James) to paint James’s portrait in celebration of his 70th birthday. After approximately 10 sittings, the oil portrait was completed to James’s satisfaction (he declared it “a living breathing likeness”), and was exhibited for the first time in early May, 1914 at the Royal Academy in London, a prestigious and storied privately funded centre for the promotion of art.

Henry James

There, a “sweet-seeming silver-haired” older woman, suffragette Mary Aldham, attacked it with her meat cleaver, breaking the glass over the picture and making three deep gashes in the canvas, particularly around James’s left eye and upper lip, before onlookers disarmed her. Her act was only one of many suffragette attacks on works of art at various English galleries, including the National Gallery of London, the Birmingham Art Gallery, and London’s National Portrait Gallery.

I have not found any source stating that Mary Aldham attacked the James portrait because of James’s literary work. She is quoted as saying in a letter that “[She] tried to destroy a valuable picture because I wish to show the public that they have no security for their property nor for their art treasures until women are given their political freedom.” Curator and lecturer Helena Bonett, in “Suffragettes and the Summer Exhibition,” speculates that “The portrait—painted by an elder statesman of the artistic elite celebrating a well-established writer for his seventieth birthday—was understood as representative of the social stagnation that the suffragette movement was challenging.” Researcher Philip McCouat, in “Why Did Suffragettes Attack Artworks?” thinks the subject matter of the painting had “no special significance” beyond representing male authority, and even asserts that “Henry James was seen as having broadly sympathetic feminist views.”

Whatever James’s private views—almost certainly not pro-feminist—he was definitely no public supporter of feminism. In fact, his anti-feminist novel The Bostonians is the most damningly comprehensive account of the feminist movement ever written, one that should be known by every anti-feminist in the world for its remarkable incisiveness and predictive power. Henry James is a novelist’s novelist—stunningly detailed and intricate—and not to every reader’s taste. For those who do not wish to immerse themselves in his complex prose, a film version of the novel does exist, though it doesn’t do justice to James’s presentation. In the remainder of this essay, I will provide a flavor of the novel.

The Bostonians is essentially a love triangle set in 1874 against the backdrop of Boston’s progressivist culture. Two characters, Olive Chancellor, a wealthy Boston feminist, and Basil Ransom, a southerner from Mississippi, compete for the love of a beautiful and gifted younger woman, Verena Tarrant. Verena is a platform speaker on the subject of women’s rights; she was raised in a left-leaning family devoted to causes and fads. Her father is a mesmeric healer, and her mother was an anti-slavery activist. One of the first things that Verena tells her new friend Olive is that she believes in “free unions,” in other words, in the doctrine of free love. She has been immersed since earliest childhood in all the most enlightened emancipationist theories.

Olive Chancellor is not a free love adherent. She is a descendent of the Puritans, a representative of the austere, absolutist wing of feminism with a strong lesbian undercurrent. Some of the most fascinating scenes in the novel, for our purposes, describe the intoxicating fervor at the core of feminist ideology as Olive presents it to Verena. Of course, a novel is not, a simple mirror onto reality: it is a representation that encodes its author’s biases and idiosyncrasies. But James’s view certainly seems, in my opinion, staggeringly accurate in its grasp of the pleasures and perils of victimhood ideology.

Before we even meet Olive in the novel, we hear a description of her by her sister. “She’s a female Jacobin,” she says to Basil, comparing Olive to the French revolutionaries who slaughtered their political opponents in the thousands. “Whatever is, is wrong, and all that sort of thing,” Olive’s sister summarizes flippantly.

And this assessment isn’t particularly unfair. Olive Chancellor is, the narrator tells us early on, “a woman without laughter” (p. 15) so passionate is her commitment to her cause. We learn that her heart is filled with images of suffering women for whom she imagines she has been “born to lead a crusade” (p. 33), and James’s description makes clear how her total identification with this imagined masse of ever-persecuted women blots out all other understandings of history. Here is one such description of her:

“The unhappiness of women! The voice of their silent suffering was always in her ears, the ocean of tears that they had shed from the beginning of time seemed to pour through her own eyes. Ages of oppression had rolled over them; uncounted millions had lived only to be tortured, to be crucified. They were her sisters, they were her own, and the day of their delivery had dawned.” (p. 33)

This is the vision that Olive presents to Verena in order to indoctrinate in her the same single-minded fervency.

The novel shows how together, Olive and Verena find “a source of fortifying emotion [gained from] the history of feminine anguish,” which they peruse, we are told, “perpetually and zealously” (174). They dwell on the idea of female suffering until that is the only reality: “All the bullied wives, the stricken mothers, the dishonoured, deserted maidens who have lived on the earth” (p. 174-175). Their deep empathy with female suffering throughout history becomes all-consuming.

James highlights the fanaticism and hatred in Olive’s worldview, which is based on the false idea that only women have suffered and that only men have caused, and even taken pleasure in, that suffering: “[Olive] had made up her mind that it was women, in the end, who had paid for everything.” (p. 175)

This belief that only women have suffered is contradicted in Olive’s own personal life. Born of a wealthy Boston family, she has been extremely well educated, occupies a respected position in her society, has never had to work for her living, never been under any compulsion to marry, and never been mistreated by any man. Her two brothers both lost their lives in the American Civil War, fighting on the northern side. Her cousin—and eventual rival—Basil Ransom risked his life in the same war on the southern side and lost everything in consequence. But the reality of male suffering is immaterial for Olive in contrast to the luminous power of the feminist narrative.

It is a vision so totalizing and sacred that it can demand any retribution against men; the novel again evokes the language of bloody revolution to emphasize Olive’s yearning for avenging justice. She thinks,

“This was the only sacred cause; this was the great, the just revolution. It must triumph, it must sweep everything before it; it must exact from the other, the brutal, bloodstained, ravening race, the last particle of expiation!” (p. 33).

The novel shows how Olive tells and retells to Verena the story of female victimhood until Verena too, though never quite as convinced as Olive, at last agrees that men deserve to suffer:

“Olive poured forth these views to her listening and responsive friend; she presented them again and again, and there was no light in which they did not seem to palpitate with truth. Verena was immensely wrought upon; a subtle fire passed into her; she was not so hungry for revenge as Olive, but at the last […] she quite agreed with her companion that after so many ages of wrong […], men must take their turn, men must pay!” (p. 175-176).

Thus James puts his finger on the psychology of the nineteenth-century feminist movement, showing how feminist conviction is passed from one woman to another through the distorted reimagining of the past as a record of everlasting female suffering and brutal male subjugation.

And James takes the analysis further, showing how Olive’s belief in female persecution not only justifies any punishment against the enemy man but also excuses women from whatever bad actions women might themselves commit. As she imagines it, women have already “paid the price” for wrongdoing “in advance.” James here encapsulates the peculiar logic of feminist attributions of guilt and innocence, whereby women are always already innocent because of their alleged past sufferings—and remain innocent indefinitely into the future.

“[Olive] was willing to admit that women, too could be bad; that there were many about the world who were false, immoral, vile. But their errors were as nothing to their sufferings; they had expiated, in advance, an eternity, if need be, of misconduct.” (p. 175)

Here James shows how feminism leads to remarkable distortions of individual morality based on group membership; whatever a man does as an individual, he is always already guilty; whatever a woman does, she is always innocent. So much for First Wave Feminism being about equality.

In opposition to Olive, the novel pits Basil Ransom, an impoverished southerner who has come north to make a career in law. He can offer Verena little other than his sexual love and his own compellingly masculine, determined self, complete with his rock-steady conviction that the dogma Verena has been taught is nothing more than “third-rate palaver” (308). Basil feels no inclination to apologize for being male; neither, as a Stoic, does he protest the injustices and sufferings of men. But he is alarmed by his recognition that “the masculine tone is passing out of the world” (322). Here is what he says to Verena about the change he sees in American culture:

“I am so far from thinking, as you set forth the other night, that there is not enough woman in our general life, that it has long been pressed home to me that there is a great deal too much. The whole generation is womanized; the masculine tone is passing out of the world; it’s a feminine, a nervous, hysterical, chattering, canting age, an age of hollow phrases and false delicacy and exaggerated solicitudes and coddled sensibilities […]. The masculine character, the ability to dare and endure, to know and yet not fear reality, to look the world in the face and take it for what it is […], that is what I want to preserve, or rather, as I may say, to recover.” (p. 322)

In place of feminist platitudes, Basil proposes to Verena the “old truths”: that “We are born to suffer and to bear it, like decent people” (222). No movement can abolish suffering, but fantastical beliefs about male evil and female moral superiority can destroy what is good and necessary between men and women. Most of all, Basil believes that Verena has been deceived into devoting her life to a sham. He tells her that she is “made for love,” and that “In the presence of a man she should really care for,” the false ideology she has embraced “would rattle to her feet” (319). We learn later that “The words he had spoken to her […] had sunk into her soul and worked and fermented there” until they “had kindled a light in which she saw herself afresh” (370). She is transformed by her understanding of what it means to be loved, as a woman, by a man. And that, the novel suggests, is more powerful than feminist fantasy, at least for a woman who is herself capable of love. For the Olive Chancellors of the world, the novel suggests, there is no redemption.

Perhaps the suffragette with her meat cleaver hated James’s romantic ending; or perhaps it was simply chance that she chose to attack his picture. After the incident, the elderly novelist wrote to a friend that his attacker “got me thrice over before the tomahawk was stayed. I naturally feel very scalped and disfigured.” He also courteously wrote to a librarian that he owed “the vicious hag” “a good mark for having led to my hearing from you.”

Philosophical and witty as always, though not averse to calling a “hag” a “hag,” James was uninterested in the opportunity for victim posturing the occasion might have offered. And fortunately, the portrait was able to be repaired.

A decade and a half after suffragettes made their raids on British art galleries, the leader of the suffragettes, Emmeline Pankhurst, was memorialized in bronze by sculptor Arthur George Walker, and displayed in the 1929 and 1930 Summer Exhibitions of the Royal Academy. The woman who had incited and refused to criticize suffragette destruction of art was now welcomed into the gallery as a subject of art. As was often the case, the allegedly ever-repressive patriarchy found itself ill-equipped to respond except with understanding and conciliation to the hysterical claims and unseemly actions of ideologically possessed feminist women, and soon the great fortress of presumed conservatism, the Royal Academy, was celebrating one of its most vociferous enemies.

This is what happened generally in the twentieth century, as every bastion of the patriarchy admitted women, often feminist women, who did not by any means stop their attacks on the culture men had built, and who set about transforming every institution they infiltrated until each one became appropriately apologetic and hostile to male ways of being.

Henry James could have predicted this too. He saw feminism’s implacable anger and its conviction of female blamelessness early on. In James’s artistic assessment, only an unapologetic, loving refusal of feminism and resurrection of masculinity could ever hope to defeat it.

                                            Janice Fiamengo

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