In the decade after the Civil War, a cynical southern lawyer gets sucked into a role-confused, quasi-love triangle with his liberal Bostonian cousin and a rising star in the burgeoning women's rights movement. It's 1875 and Basil Ransom, a young lawyer from Mississippi, receives an invitation from his free-thinking cousin, Olive Chancellor, to come visit her in Boston. He does not realize how much Olive has changed since he last saw her, or that she has become (what we would now call) a feminist, deeply committed to the liberation of women in a society in which they are still largely held in thrall to male relatives. So, not surprisingly, when Basil arrives she immediately takes him to one of her suffragette meetings. The speaker is a woman named Verena Tarrant. She is attractive and magnetic, while seemingly not all that aware that she is either, and both Basil and Olive find themselves enchanted by her.
Basil admires her youth and beauty, but thinks her "radical" feminist ideas are laughable and probably just as absurd as the "mesmeric" (aka non-scientific) healing methods of her father the "doctor". Olive sees both deeper and perhaps less empathically than Basil does. She sees in her the potential leader of their cause, a woman inspirational enough to mobilize and unite them. But she refuses to allow Verena to consort with men, and as the tangled relationship grows between the two cousins and Verena, this prohibition increasingly means: stay away from Basil. Olive's infatuation with Verena occasionally borders into a kind of nascent lesbianism. It's almost as if Olive herself doesn't quite realize it. And while this lesbianism never manifests entirely, Olive continues to act like a jealous lover. This happens even in situations – as when a male journalist offers to take an active role in promoting Verena as a public speaker –where it undercuts her stated reasons for being so overbearing: which is to preserve and promote the suffragette movement.
Meanwhile, Basil continues to try to win Verena over – or to at least find time for them to spend together, often in secret, away from Olive. He's not very successful in this, but Olive is still not satisfied and maneuvers to abscond to Europe with Verena, who again finds herself being pushed by one or the other of the cousins. While they're gone, Basil works to set up a law firm in New England, but the business struggles and eventually fails. Basil then attempts to become a writer, which is what he wanted for himself all along.
When Verena and Olive return to America, Basil is waiting. He realizes that he is in love with Verena, and convinces her to spend a secret day with her in Boston. She agrees and together they tour the sprawling Harvard grounds. After so long apart, Basil works to be as charming as possible and even proves himself to be more open to Verena's feminist ideas (though you get the sense that he's just better at hiding what he actually thinks). Under this charm assault, Verena realizes that she just might feel the same love toward him.
Olive is highly suspicious of where Verena was off to, and while Verena feels guilty about hiding the truth from her, she doesn't tell Olive about her secret day trip with Basil. Later, Basil arranges for them to meet in private again. It's here that Basil at last declares his love and proposes to her. Verena knows now that does in fact love him, but Basil has also made it clear that marriage to him would mean the end of her public speaking on behalf of the feminists.
Torn, Verena holds off answering. Olive figures out what's going on, and fearful of losing Verena to a man, and least of all Basil, she conspires with Verena's parents – who have another man in mind for her to marry – and bundles her out of the city without saying a word to Basil. Time passes and Basil hears nothing from Verena. He's heartbroken. But then he hears about a speaking engagement in Boston and, lo and behold, the speaker is Verena.
Basil shows up without warning. Before Basil appears, Verena was already incredibly nervous. This public lecture has possibly career-defining implications for her. When she spots Basil before she walks out onto the stage, she loses it completely. His well-meaning surprise ultimately unravels everything. She is too rattled to give her speech and has to cancel it on the spot, which outrages everyone in attendance, implying the disgraceful end to her career. The novel concludes with Verena fleeing the scene in tears – but with Basil, her presumed future husband, right there with her and not at all unhappy about how things played out.
Best part of story, including ending:
While not my absolute favorite James' work (the omniscient narrator existing outside the framework of the narrative really grates at me), it's incredibly fascinating seeing a post-Civil War America wrestling with the growing women's rights movement as well as a hint at a (possibly) nascent lesbianism in Olive.
Best scene in story:
By far the most powerful scene was when Verena and Basil, while touring the Harvard grounds, come across a memorial to the Civil War. Basil fought on the Confederate side, but even he is overcome with awe and respect for this commemorative marker for his fallen foes.
Opinion about the main character:
Basil is ultimately an obnoxious ass. Self-righteous and full of a sneering southern gentility, he's the kind of character you would normally root against...except, here, Olive is even more obnoxious and self-righteous.
This is one book of Henry james' that has been slighted. It is a study of the conflict between a male and female cousin over the place of first standing in a mutual woman's affections. The female wants to use her for her social drive toward women's equal political/legal rights - the male wants her for his wife in an old-fashioned marriage. The male wins. A fantastic book.
The review of this Book prepared by Kelly Whiting