Almost exactly half way through Henry James' The Bostonians Basil Ransom gets to spend a few hours alone with Verena Tarrant. It is a crucial moment in the rivalry between Ransom, a penniless Mississippian seeking to make his way as an attorney in post-Civil War New York, and his Boston-born and -bred cousin Olive Chancellor for the heart -- and soul -- of Verena. He has called at the home of her parents. While waiting for her to come down to the parlour, he "possessed himself, according to his wont, of the nearest book . . . and spent ten minutes turning it over. It was a biography of Mrs. Ada T. P. Foat, the celebrated trance-lecturer, and was embellished by a portrait representing the lady with a surprised expression and innumerable ringlets." After reading a few pages, Ransom "threw it back upon the table" with a gesture of contempt as he wondered to himself "whether this was the sort of thing Miss Tarrant had been brought up on." (Chapter 24) Ransom knows the answer to his own question for, on the occasion of their first meeting, she was introduced to the company as "the mesmerist's child." On that evening Verena spoke at a gathering of "reformers" and feminists. Or, as Verena's father, the roguish Dr. Selah Tarrant, explained, a "voice" spoke through her. Verena was, when Ransom first met her, herself a "trance lecturer." Her hope, much encouraged by her father, was to be another Mrs. Ada T. P. Foat with whom, James informs the reader, Mrs. Tarrant suspected her husband had had a sexual "association."

Who was the "celebrated" Mrs. Foat? She was, down to the "surprised expression and innumerable ringlets," Mrs. Cora L. V. Hatch.1 That, at least, was her name when a twenty-year-old James attended one of her lectures in October of 1863. ". . . in the evening," he wrote his friend Thomas Sergeant Perry, "I went to listen to the preaching of Mrs. Cora V. L. [sic] Hatch" at the suggestion of his cousin Bob Temple. "She holds forth in a kind of underground lecture room in Astor Place. The assemblage, its subterraneous nature, the dim lights, the hard-working, thoughtful physiognomies of everyone present quite realised my idea of the meetings of the early Christians in the Catacombs, although the only proscription under which the Hatch disciples labour is the necessity of paying 10 cents at the door."

Once inside, the members of the audience, under the guidance of "a kind of fat showman," chose a committee "to select a subject for Cora to discuss." James wrote his friend that he "wittily" suggested that the "showman" was "probably Mr. Chorus V. L. Hatch." The witticism rested in part upon schoolboy Latin -- first declension nouns are feminine and end in -a; second declension nouns are masculine and end in -us. There may have been more to the play on words. Hatch liked to end her "discourses" with a chant. One, published in 1858, went:

Mortals, join the chorus,
From the spheres of love;
Angels ever singing, --
Mortal friends, good-night!
Good-night, good-night, good-night.

James gave no hint in the letter he had read any of Hatch's works and explicitly disavowed staying to the end of the lecture. Indeed he indicated no personal interest in Hatch. Instead he portrayed himself as a victim of his cousin's curiosity. The date of the letter is significant. It was written three months after Cora Hatch's husband, Dr. B. F. Hatch (pictured left), filed for divorce. The case was notorious, not least because it was the second time one Hatch had so sued the other. She had filed in 1858. Then the daily newspapers had devoted dozens of column inches to her charges which included physical and emotional abuse, financial misdealings, and infidelity. They devoted as much or more to B. F.'s pamphlet, The Inquities of Spiritualism Revealed: The Facts about the Notorious Hatch Divorce Case, in which he presented his side of the story. Then, without public explanation, Cora dropped the case. B. F. publically announced he would no longer attempt to interfer with his wife's career or personal life. In August 1863, however, B. F. sued, charging Cora with a string of infidelities. She countersued, reiterating her earlier charges. B. F.'s suit was discharged for lack of evidence, but not before Cora received a divorce in Brooklyn which was quickly revoked when that court learned of B. F.'s pending, and prior, case in Manhattan. Cora then sued her attorneys, winning the right to recover the fee. What happened next is unknown. The Manhattan court records show there was no divorce in that jurisdiction. The Brooklyn court records have not been preserved. But, something happened somewhere since Cora married three more times. James' "witty remark" about Mr. Chorus V. L. Hatch was freighted with meaning. But, was it intended? Would he have known the story? Yes, just as James assumed that his correspondent knew about Cora Hatch. He made no attempt to explain who she was before launching into his account of attending her "preaching." Nor would he have needed to. She was one of the most famous women in America. Everyone knew her story.

What they knew was that Cora Lynn Victoria Scott married Benjamin Franklin Hatch in August 1856, four months after her sixteenth birthday. He was past fifty. In the next fifteen months she became, in the words of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, "the greatest intellectual curiosity of the day." Leslie's explained her renown:

The public hear of table-tippings and spirit-rappings and miraculous manifestations in response to very insignificant questions, and when all this marvelous interposition stops at such petty results, the world says half in disappointment, half in contempt, "Is this all?" "Do spirits leave their homes of light to tell us only this?"

The busy world turns away from these insufficient results, and wrapt in more absorbing interests, forgets for a while the spirit world and its mediums. Then comes the singular, the incredible announcement that a young girl, one that was but yesterday an untaught rustic maiden, blooming unnoticed in a country village, has been inspired by voices from the spirit world to become a medium of instruction to the seekers of truth. Then some curious inquirers find a moment to learn how this novel pretender will acquit herself of such daring promises.

The curious numbered in the thousands, and they thronged the largest halls all along the East Coast to hear Cora Hatch or, as she preferred to have it, to hear the Spirits through her. She/they would discourse on the "nature of faith," the relation between human agency and Divine omniscience, and similarly weighty issues. Neither she nor the spirits chose these topics. Instead the audience would elect a committee, typically composed of such local luminaries as school principals or ministers. The committee would determine the topic. Leslie's wrote that, as the committee chosen by the audience debated over the precise wording of the topic, "a fair and slender girl, on whose flowing ringlets seventeen summers sit with light and easy grace, is visible in the background. She remains seated with upraised eyes fixed in an expression of intense but confident invocation. As the questions to be discussed are stated, an indescribable change steals over her face.It is a look of rapt entrancement, such as our fancy would depict for the Pythoness or Sybil of classic faith. It is a masterpiece of acting -- if acting it is."

A key element in Hatch's "discourses" was their spontaneity. the committee selected the topic. A stenographic reporter took down each "discourse" verbatim. They were then published in unedited form. Were the spirits actually speaking through Mrs. Hatch? The reader, like the auditor at one of her lectures, could judge. The Banner of Light, a spiritualist newspaper published in Boston, quoted N.P. Willis in its October 24, 1857 edition:

"Believe what you will of Mrs. Hatch's source of inspiration," says the editor of the Home Journal "whether she speaks her own thoughts, or those of other spirits -- it is as nearly supernatural eloquence as the most hesitating faith could reasonably require. I am, perhaps, from long study and practice, as good a judge of fitness in the use of language as most men; and, in a full hour of close attention, I could detect no word that could be altered for the better -- none indeed (and this surprised me still more) which was not used with strict fidelity to its derivative meaning. The practiced scholarship which this last point usually requires, and the curiously unhesitating and confident fluency with which the beautiful language was delivered, was critically wonderful. It would have astonished me in an extempore speech by the most accomplished orator in the world."

Willis' comments became the standard way of describing Hatch. The Newburyport (MA) Herald commented in November of 1857:

Mrs. Hatch, the Spiritualist, closed her lectures or experiments, on Wednesday evening, and met with complete success. There was no failure in any thing she attempted, no hesitation in answering any question upon any subject, and all answers were satisfactory to the persons submitting the questions. It only remains to know by what means she speaks and acts. To say that she does it of herself, is to invest her with understanding, information, cultivation and taste, possessed by no person that we have ever seen or heard of, while it is obvious to every one that she is not above ordinary intellects, and her years preclude the possibility of her being conversant with all the topoics that come before her. First, it is noticeable that her use of language is most perfect. All that N. P. Willis said of her was proved here. The closest observation of the best scholars in town, did not discover the misuse of a single word; and her utterance was as beautiful and perfect as the language.

. . . we are satisfied, and we believe that nine in ten at least of all who heard her were satisfied, that she was not in a natural state. We are driven to this conclusion, or we must admit, what appears to be more questionable, that mentally she is superior to any other person. If not in a normal condition, then by what influence does she speak? She claims it is a spiritual power. If she is not right, by what power is it? If we deny her affirmation, we feel bound to give some other explanation more rational, and that explanation we have not. The blind man in olden times, refused to say by what power his blindness had been healed, but the fact he asserted, that whereas he was blind he could see; and that is all he had to say about it; the facts are as we have stated, and five hundred persons each evening were witnesses thereto, but by what influence they were so, we leave to each person to say for himself.

Six years later, Hatch still followed the same protocol. The night James attended, the committee chose the topic: "the Evidence of the continued existence of the Spirit after death." Hatch, he continued, "remained motionless" for some time. "Then she began to speak. Well, the long and the short of it is, that the whole thing was a string of such arrant platitudes, that after about an hour of it, when there seemed to be no signs of a let-up we turned and fled. So much for Cora." [James to Thomas Sargeant Perry, 1 November 1863]

Should we take this dismissal at face value? James scholars have.2 Arguing against doing so are the intriguing parallels between the youthful Cora Hatch and the Verena Tarrant Basil Ransom and Olive Chancellor first encounter. The parallels between her "arrant platitudes" and the dicta of Henry James, Sr. are at least as intriguing.

James describes Verena's speech on the occasion Basil and Olive first see her as a "performance." She began hesitantly but presently "was in possession of her part. She played it with extraordinary simplicity and grace." Ransom's first impression was:

He had never seen such an odd mixture of elements; she had the sweetest, most unworldly face, and yet, with it, an air of being on exhibition, of belonging to a troupe, of living in the gaslight, which pervaded even the details of her dress, fashioned evidently with an attempt at the histrionic. If she had produced a pair of castanets or a tambourine, he felt that such accessories would have been quite in keeping.

Cora Hatch had such a face. Her "innumerable ringlets" and "surprised expression" betokened the child-like, one who was "but yesterday an untaught rustic maiden, blooming unnoticed in a country village." Yet she had, by sixteen, achieved the celebrity Dr. Tarrant envisioned for his daughter and which Ransom would come to fear. Cora Hatch actually was "on exhibition" night after night. She did belong to a troupe. She did live in the gaslight. Her dress tended toward the "histrionic." Her publicity portrait shows her with bare shoulders, lace or silk straps, and a cross around her neck. The dress was better suited to the opera house than the lecture hall. But who would wear a cross with such a dress? Most of all, Cora Hatch "had the sweetest, most unworldly face." James knew her face, knew it so well that he could summon it up decades later. Her portrait, reproduced above, "embellished" a volume of her Discourses published in 1858. But James could have seen it almost anywhere in New York in the late 1850s. He had Ransom imagine Verena's portrait reproduced on posters announcing her lectures and himself seeing it in every storefront. James could hardly have avoided seeing Hatch's portrait, that same portrait, in all of those places during the winter of 1856-57 or 1857-58.

Hatch's "preaching," James wrote in 1863, consisted of "a string of . . . arrant platitudes" to which he could finally no longer bear to listen. Verena's "harangue" -- James's word, not Ransom's -- struck Ransom in a similar way way but had a much different effect:

He was the stiffest of conservatives, and his mind was steeled against the inanities she uttered. . . . It made no difference; she didn't mean it, she didn't know what she meant, she had been stuffed with this trash by her father, and she was neither more nor less willing to say it than to say anything else; for the necessity of her nature was not to make converts to a ridiculous cause, but to emit those charming notes of her voice, to stand in those free young attitudes, to shake her braided locks like a naiad rising from the waves, to please everyone who came near her, and to be happy that she pleased.

"I know not," James continued in his authorial voice, "whether Ransom was aware of the bearings of this interpretation, which attributed to Miss Tarrant a singular hollowness of character. . . ." James for his part attributed a singular hollowness of intellect to Mrs. Hatch. His description of himself as bored beyond tolerance presumably accounts for the lack of interest James scholars have taken in her. What were these "arrant platitudes" whose banality supposedly drove him to flight? A fair sample is her A Discourse on the Immutable Decrees of God, and the Free Agency of Man, which she delivered in the City Hall, Newburyport, Mass., Sunday, November 22d, 1857, and which was phonographically reported by James M. Pomeroy.

These are our conceptions. Man is free to do right or wrong. The truth has been presented to him, error has been presented to him; he is free to judge which he will take; but only free inasmuch as Deity is Infinite Goodness; and as there is no infinite principle of evil, he cannot go in that direction beyond the moral limits of the soul, whilst in goodness he can go onward forever, to Jehovah. He is here to judge which he will take, right or wrong, but at the same time he is not free to make the wrong permanently triumphant, for it can never be so. The right is the infinite, and consequently it always predominates over ignorance, error, and darkness. [pp. 22-23]

It is easy to track the source of these "platitudes." They derived from William Ellery Channing, a leading Unitarian minister and the founder of Universalism. Hatch and her "spirit guides" acknowledged as much:

"But," says one, "that is Universalism. It is simply the doctrine that Universalists preach." We are not aware, precisely, what are the views entertained by Universalists, upon this subject. But, most certainly, it is our opinion, whether it be Universalism or the belief of any other class of men. It is certainly our fixed belief.

Later in her long career, in an authorized biography, Hatch, by then Cora L. V. Richmond, would affirm that she had spent her life advocating the ideas of the Rev. Adin Ballou, a Universalist minister and founder of the utopian community of Hopedale, Massachusetts, where Hatch had lived for some months with her family while a child. Ballou edited The Practical Christian, a reform newspaper which advocated woman's rights, abolition, temperance, the water cure, regular exercise, and a host of other causes in addition to Universalism. Cora's father was a great admirer of Ballou and brought his family to Hopedale in the hope of receiving his imprimatur to launch a similar community in the West. In the authorized biography she would claim Ballou's son, Adin Augustus, who died at nineteen, as one of her two principle spirit guides.

What Hatch added to Channing and Ballou was a dose of Swedenborg, the eighteenth-century Swedish scientist and mystic who wrote that there was a spiritual analogue to each and every temporal reality. Swedenborg inspired virtually every Spiritualist of the mid-nineteenth century. One can gain an understanding of how they adapted his ideas via her rendering of the Experiences of Judge J. W. Edmonds, in Spirit Life. Swedenborg's popularity extended beyond the Spiritualists. Emerson discussed him in several of his lectures and did much to popularize his ideas. One of the most prominent American Swedenborgians was Henry James, Sr. whose The Secret of Swedenborg: Being an Elucidation of his Doctrine of the Divine Natural Humanity was published in 1869. The younger James might well have found Hatch's ideas platitudinous. He had been listening to variations of them all his life. Or, as William James wrote several weeks after their father died, "Father's cry was the single one that religion is real." William repented his own "rather hard non-receptivity of his doctrines as he urged them so absolutely. . . ." He would himself try to get "a little more public justice done them. . . . The thing is so to 'voice' it that other ears shall hear, -- no easy task but a worthy one."3

Why cry out that religion was real? An extended note on the devolution of doctrine among "advanced" thinkers

Henry James, Sr. ignored Emerson's dictum that it was "inspiration" and not "instruction" one soul could receive from another. It was instruction he intended to provide. Such was also the case with Cora Hatch. The differences between them lay, not in the substance of their message but in their manner of presenting it, and in their success. Cora Hatch, not the senior James, became one of the wonders of the age. It was the "rustic maiden," not the pedantic philosopher, who packed halls all up and down the eastern seaboard. It was the "artless" girl of seventeen who won plaudits for her perfect use of language. William Dean Howells expressed the common view of the senior James' work on Swedenborg. It "had sometimes a collective opacity which the most resolute vision could not penetrate."5 She had actually achieved that William James set out to do for his late father, to "'voice'" his ideas so "that other ears shall hear." Especially striking was her success with those who came to scoff: an extended note on the triumphs and disasters of Cora Hatch.

Of course, Cora Hatch was a fraud. She belonged to the world of table rapping, seances, mesmerism. She belonged to the world of Selah Tarrant. And she was connected with the very scandal the senior James spent much of his career seeking to live down, his one-time support for the idea of "free love." That was the chief "iniquity" her husband revealed in his pamphlet about their divorce case. Spiritualists, he claimed, believed that each soul could develop a special "affinity" with another. Only unions between two such spirits was a true "union." And, since the sign of such an affinity was a strong attraction to one another, sexual desire carried its own justification. Cora Hatch vigorously denied that she believed in, much less ever acted upon, the doctrine of "affinity." The senior James, on the other hand, had in 1848 looked forward to a time when every man and woman would be entirely free "to follow the bent of their private affections." If this should lead to "an exclusive alliance all their days," so much the better. But it might also justifiably lead to "a varied alliance." Mere "technical fornication" could actually be "spiritual marriage."6 In 1848 this represented a daring line of thought, part of the general fascination with the ideas of Fourier which had inspired Brook Farm and other experimental communities. Within a few years, however, "free love" would lose that cachet. It would become associated with what James scornfully termed "the great irregular army of nostrum-mongers," the world of Mrs. Ada T. P. Foat.

If Mrs. Ada T. P. Foat was based upon Cora Hatch, who, we might pause to ask at this juncture, inspired Dr. Selah Tarrant? To Basil Ransom, who hated him on sight, "he was simply the detested carpet-bagger"; he was, that is, "false, cunning, vulgar, ignoble; the cheapest kind of human product." (Chapter, 8) James lost little time in sanctioning this judgment. Selah Tarrant was part of "the great irregular army . . . domiciled in humanitary Bohemia." He had even enlisted his wife as confederate "in those exciting days of his mediumship, when the table, sometimes, wouldn't rise from the ground, the sofa wouldn't float through the air, and the soft hand of a lost loved one was not so alert as it might have been to visit the circle." Mrs. Tarrant, he added, had a hand "just soft enough for the most supernatural effect." This had been in the days when Dr. Tarrant had been "associated" with Mrs. Foat. Later he had (re)turned to his career as a mesmeric healer. (Chapter 10) In all of these respects, Dr. Tarrant resembles no one so much as Dr. B. F. Hatch.7 Hatch too was a lifetime member of the "irregular army," a permanent dweller in "Bohmia," who had had an intense "association" with the most celebrated trance speaker of the age. He too specialized in mesmerism. He too hoped a "trance speaker" young enough to be his daughter would make his fortune for him. He too was a practiced rogue.8

Clearly James' dismissive "so much for Cora" will not do. Her story stood behind much of The Bostonians. She provided a part of the inspiration for its central character -- James initially intended to call it Verena. Her first husband provided a model for its most memorable villain. Yet Cora Hatch was as much a fraud as B. F. Hatch or as Selah Tarrant. Verena Tarrant is, despite her theatricality, entirely genuine. On this point James is insistent. Of this neither Basil Ransom nor Olive Chancellor have the slightest doubt. The only character permitted to doubt her is Olive's sister, Mrs. Luna, and she is never right about anything except the latest fashion. But, if Verena is genuine, the whole novel consists of a battle, not just for her allegiance, but for control over her. Olive and Basil both want to take over and run her life. Both intend to think her thoughts for her, feel her emotions for her. What sort of genuineness is this?

It is genuineness of a very particular sort. Verena is, as the novel begins, a trance speaker. A "voice" speaks through her. This, of course, is Dr. Tarrant talking. Yes, but also no. It is Verena who first remarks, "'It isn't me, mother." These are her first words in the novel. It is Dr. Tarrant who explains that the "voice that spoke from her lips" wanted to urge woman's rights. Verena "let it come out just as it would -- she didn't pretend to have any control." (Chapter 7) Verena's is the genuineness of the medium. In early 1857 Cora Hatch, while in a trance state, allowed an otherwise unidentified group of "fifteen scientific gentlemen," to interrogate her "for the purpose of investigating certain philosophical questions connected with the Spritual phenomena." Would the "spirits" describe the nature of mediumship?

There is a force which Spirits use in the concentration of their power upon the mind; this force possesses qualities and capacities which allow the Spirits to use their forces in the concentrated form of raps. . . .the human soul is like the germ of a flower; plant it in the form, and under favorable circumstances it outworks those powers and properties it contains in itself, but it must be strengthened by Spirit-life. This is our theory; you may term it truth if you desire.

Q. - Is it possible for a Spirit to communicate with as much ease through a medium possessing views distinctly different from herself?

A. - Certainly not; because an opposition is at once created. No Spirit can present through any medium communications, thoughts, ideas, which that medium's organization has not the capacity to comprehend. The idea itself may never have entered the mind of the medium, but the capacity must be there.

Olive Chancellor and Basil Ransom both seek to become the "voice" that spoke through Verena. But, while Verena would continue to have no control over what the voice would say, it could never say anything "distinctly different" from her own ideas and feelings. Since, according to Dr. Tarrant, Verena had taken an interest in the woman's movement from childhood, Olive had the initial advantage. When Verena and Basil meet at her parent's home, he asked her if she still made speeches.

'Still' Why I should hope so; it's all I'm good for! It's my life -- or it's going to be. And it's Miss Chancellor's too. We are determined to do something.'

'And does she make speeches too?'

'Well, she makes mine -- or the best part of them. She tells me what to say -- the real things, the strong things. It's Miss Chancellor as much as me!' said the singular girl, with a generous complacency which was yet half ludicrous. (Chapter 24)

Basil's ideas are "distinctly different" from Verena's. He has to appeal to a "capacity" of which Verena is unaware but which she nonetheless can comprehend. This is her capacity for sexual attraction. When he first met her she was still a girl. James noted her "flat chest." But, when he calls upon her at her parents' home, she had "developed and matured." Basil, James tells us, was convinced Verena "was made for love." She was herself

"profoundly unconscious of it, and another ideal, crude and thin and artificial, has interposed itself; but in the presence of a man she should really care for, this false, flimsy structure would rattle to her feet, and the emancipation of Olive Chancellor's sex (what sex was it, great heaven? he used to profanely ask himself), would be relegated to the land of vapors, of dead phrases. (Chapter 34)

As Basil's "merciless devotion" to Verena begins to succeed, James takes us inside her reflections:

It was simply that the truth had changed sides; that radiant image began to look at her from Basil Ransom's expressive eyes. She loved, she was in love -- she felt it in every throb of her being. Instead of being constituted by nature for entertaining that sentiment in an exceptionally small degree (which had been the implication of her whole crusade, the warrant for her offer of old to Olive to renounce), she was framed, apparently, to allow it the largest range, the highest intensity." (Chapter 38)

There was, to paraphrase an 1869 Nation editorial, "such a thing as sex." There was not, on the other hand, such a thing as a medium. Cora Hatch was a fraud. What if she were not? What if, despite spending her childhood in "Bohemia" with a raffish mesmeric physician old enough to be her father and an ineffectual mother, she had remained innocent? What if, when the mesmerist sought to exploit her gift by presenting her as a "trance speaker," she had somehow not been a party to the fraud? What if this gift for speech, this uncanny ability to charm and beguile, were simply that, a pure gift? What if the face in the portrait told the truth? If all this could be so, Cora Hatch would be Verena Tarrant.

Why create such an unlikely character? James wrote in his notebook:

I wished to write a very American tale [his emphasis], a tale very characteristic of our social conditions, and I asked myself what was the most salient and peculiar point in our social life. The answer was: the situation of women, the decline of the sentiment of sex, the agitation on their behalf.9

James scholars have long wrestled with his harsh treatment of that agitation. Most have followed the lead of Leon Edel in looking to the domestic politics of the James household for clues. It is not for nothing, however, that this approach is sometimes termed the "pathetic fallacy." The treatment of the woman's movement in The Bostonians may or may not draw upon the idiosyncratic views and practices of the James family. What needs emphasizing is something quite different, however. The Bostonians deals with the "woman question" in a thoroughly conventional way. The Nation editorial, "Is There Such A Thing As Sex?", anticipates James' handling of the subject is great detail.

At the core of this conventional wisdom is the notion that "Apostles of 'a-sexualism,' if we may so name it, are abroad in this generation, suggesting that the old distinction between men and women may be an ancient delusion . . . ." These "zealous champions of the hitherto 'suppressed sex,' persuaded that the admission of sex has been the ground of the 'suppression,' . . . see no way of securing for woman her rights short of disavowing the existence of the quality that has all along been supposed to constitute her a woman." Of the suppression itself, The Nation was "fully sensible of the fact that they are laboring to throw off burdens of great oppression, to correct the errors of centuries. . . . We wish them every fair success in their enterprise. But laws are laws, distinctions are distinctions, and facts are facts." The obvious question is: How are women to throw off these burdens, if not by insisting that "civil life must recognize no difference between masculine and feminine"? The answer deserves quoting at length:

The more deeply human nature is searched, the more sharp and trenchant is found to be the line that cuts it into two halves. The fact of sex is comprehensive, complete and exhaustive. The unlikeness between men and women is radical and essential. It runs through all spheres. Distinct as they are in bodily form and feature, they are quite as distinct in mental and moral characteristics. They neither think, feel, wish, purpose, will nor act alike. They take the same views of nothing. The old statements that one is passive, the other active; one emotional, the other moral; one affectionate, the other rational; one sentimental, the other intellectual, are likely to be more than verified by science. Of course these statements, whether verified or not, do not justify the imposition of arbitrary limits on opportunity or enterprise. It still remains to be determined what place each shall fill, what work each can do, what standard each can reach; and these nature should be left to determine. But that both cannot occupy the same place, do the same work, or reach the same standard, ought, we think, be assumed. Nature has decreed it so. The exigencies of life demand that it should be so. More emphaticially still, if that could be, the amenities of life, the sentiment, the romance, poetry, personal, domestic, social delight and charm of life insist that the distinction be preserved. . . . So long as the suffrage and other revolutions are regarded as experiments designed to tell after the lines and limits that sex claims for itself -- so much and only so much -- no harm need follow. The spirit of reform is then scientific. But if it is taken as accepted that sex has no lines or limits, but is a name to which no deep reality corresponds, immense harm will be done; for then the apparent failure of reform will be traced to the wrong origin, and will yield no fruits but those of fanaticism.

Consider in this context James' handling of Dr. Prance. Why is it that she is treated so sympathetically? Why is it that Basil Ransom, whom one would expect to disapprove of an independent woman on principle, instead likes and admires her. The Nation editorial provides an answer:

Male and female may divide employments without quarrel or question, nor would it be difficult to assort them even now in advance of experiment. The learned professions have their masculine and feminine aspects. In medicine there is a very broad and well-marked department where the feminine qualities of patience, sympathy, tenderness, tact, perception, nicety of touch and manipulation, administrative care and sensibility, can render admirable service--departments which fairly belong to women.

Dr. Prance functions in The Bostonians as a balance to Olive Chancellor. Olive is an "asexualist." Dr. Prance is a "scientific" reformer. Olive can think only of abolishing distinctions. Dr. Prance cares nothing for talk of "rights." She is devoted to her work, work which "fairly belongs to women." The conventional wisdom of The Nation -- and of Henry James in The Bostonians -- is that it is perfectly permissable for women to undertake "experiments designed to tell after the lines and limits that sex claims for itself." What is dangerous is the delusion "that sex has no lines or limits." Like medicine, there is a role for women in the ministry and perhaps in the law. "Politics, it must be confessed, appear thus far to be prevailingly and stubbornly, if not incorrigibly, masculine."

Consider also in this context the speeches Basil makes when wooing Verena. What does he tell her? His message is that of The Nation, "the amenities of life, the sentiment, the romance, poetry, personal, domestic, social delight and charm of life insist that the distinction [between the sexes] be preserved." Why did this charm Verena? Why did she find "truth had switched sides" and now gazed out of Basil's "expressive" eyes? It is because "the old statements" about the distinction between the sexes were true. Verena is passive, and Basil active. She is emotional, and he is moral. She is affectionate, and he is rational -- he gets his first published article accepted by the Rational Review, after all. She is sentimental, and he is intellectual. The point is not that James carried a clipping of this editorial around for years before writing The Bostonians. Quite the contrary. The ideas about sex in the novel are deeply conventional. The fact that James scholars have not generally recognized this speaks to their fascination with the psychodynamics of the James family and to their comparative disinterest in the conventional.

An extended, self-paced tutorial on how Americans understood the "spheres" of men and women

Sex means all of the antiphonies listed by The Nation, but it does also mean sexuality. The attraction between Verena and Basil is intensely physical. Further, as Olive Chancellor reflects, Verena "had grown up among people who took for granted all sorts of queer laxities." Verena herself had expressed an "off-hand . . . preference for 'free unions.'" Nonetheless, "she had kept the consummate innocence of the American girl, that innocence which was the greatest of all, for it had survived the abolition of walls and locks." (Chapter 15)

Cora Hatch embodied that innocent sexuality. But she was a fraud. On one occasion in Chicago, B. F. Hatch claimed in his divorce suit, she took herself to a "house of assignation" three times on the same day! She was in the city in 1863 so that the spirit of Stephen Douglas could, through her "organism," urge his former constituents to support the Union. She even haunted the dreams of other spiritualists. Thomas Lake Harris, who founded both a utopian community and then his own church, depicted her in verse as a temptress:

"I am a daughter of the sea;
My virgin name is Harmony.
O lover, lover, follow me!
Green are the vales of Arcady,
And life is sweet, and love is free.
There all the festal graces dwell,
And lips, as red as any shell,
Sweet as the rose or cowslip's smell,
Invite thee to the shady dell,
And kiss, and kiss, and never tell.

Verena is no temptress; James cannot even bring himself to describe her as flirtatious. Olive, he wrote, "had no means of taking the measure in another of the subtle feminine desire to please." And Verena herself was so unself-conscious that she did not know either. (Chapter 15) Yet James emphasized again and again that it was Verena's "nature" to please. In her sexuality takes the conventionally feminine form of yielding to male desire. It is passionate acceptance. Verena is as Cora Hatch seemed.

 

John F. McClymer
Assumption College