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3.7 out of 5 stars14
3.7 out of 5 stars
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on 24 February 2003
If the narrative of this novel confined itself to simply reporting external events, it would probably be no more than 50 pages long, rather than the 400+ pages it actually is. Not that this would be as good thing. The self-conscious, ambiguous narration is enough to make literature students (such as myself) jump for joy. The narrator explicitly acknowledges his own presence, and the limits of his knowledge, and immerses the reader in a hall of mirrors, where he dips in and out of characters' consciousnesses, and sometimes reports what characters think that other characters are thinking! The plot revolves around Boston and New York societies, and the spate of reformist groups in the wake of the Civil War - particularly those championing the rights of women. James subtly probes the finer points of the motives of individuals for engaging in or opposing such movements, and succeeds in creating psychologically real characters. The novel is weighty, not something one can dip in and out of, but close reading is extremely rewarding.
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Firstly I should warn anyone reading this Penguin edition, the print is a bit on the small side and may not be easily read by some people, also if you have never read any Henry James before, this isn't the best book to start with.

This tale came out in 1886 in novel form, after first being serialized. The year saw two James novels come out in print, this one and The Princess Casamassima (Classics), neither of them received very flattering reviews and both of them are now referred to as his 'political novels'. This book has always been more popular on this side of the Atlantic whilst the other one has always been more popular in the US. I won't go into details why this is so but looking at the US site for Amazon I see that this book has obviously gained in popularity.

The story itself is very simple, but of course with most of James' tales it is drawn out. Olive Chancellor feels it her duty to invite her cousin, Basil Ransom to visit her in Boston. Going to one of her radical meetings they both come across Verena Tarrant. Basil disapporves of her views and opinions, after all this is a feminist meeting and he has old world values. Olive on the other hand has the same views as Verena. So more or less starts a fight for Verena's heart and soul by these two cousins.

Why this novel has gained much deeper appreciation in later years is because people are more and more realising that Olive is undoubtedly a lesbian. That you can read this between the lines isn't difficult, but that James is even more open in the text is surprising. You read quite early on that when Olive tries to get close to working class girls they shun her, and as Verena is to all intents and purposes naieve and innocent would account for her not running. It is never made clear whether a definite lesbian relationship is experienced between the young women, but a close reading would seem to suggest that there probably is. But will Olive be able to hold onto Verena, especially after Basil formerly makes his proposal?

You have to wonder whether James went through his life after writing this, chuckling away to himself that he hadn't caused a furore at the time. Richard Lansdown gives a very good introduction here explaining why this is James' most humurous novel, as well as there being two appendices, both extracts, one from de Tocqueville, and the other from James, as well as copious notes.
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on 29 May 2013
What a novel! Henry James writes beautifully about early Boston and its inhabitants, the trials and tribulations. Read read read, must be on your to-do list.
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on 24 September 2015
Only half way though the book so far and, as for all Henry James's writing, it requires very careful reading and time to reflect on the marvellous observation of character, the humour and the use of language. I love his writing but his books cannot be rushed.
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on 28 July 2015
The novel is wonderful, the edition isn't.

This is early(ish) Henry James, so the book isn't as dense as the later novels. It's wonderfully controlled prose, always moving forward and allowing the characters to develop. I found it very gripping.

The Xist Classics edition for Kindle is poor, however. The table of contents is blank. Words and phases that should be in italics are bracketed with underscores instead, _like this_. It seems that the publishers don't fully understand how to prepare an e-book.
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on 21 March 2016
This kindle edition is almost unreadable as lots of the words are run together .
This is a fault in this edition`. It completely spoils the book . I have given up on it.
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on 6 May 2016
GOOD BOOK AND PROVIDES A GOOD PICTURE OF THE POSITION OF WOMEN THEN AND NOW.
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on 19 January 2013
Great book, like any other by Henry James it is well worth a read. Buying for Kindle is so easy, delivery as soon as you turn the Kindle on again, or buy direct from the Kindle.
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on 1 January 2015
More than a little boring.
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on 24 September 2010
As a lover of classics I thought I'd give a Henry James book a go, and as a feminist I thought this would be a good place to start. The book is quite amusing, but the political content is rather weak. The characters are good in that they are well developed but I can't say I was particularly fond of them by the end of the book, which I personally think is quite important. The main strength of the book, apart from the humour, is the descriptions of American society and manners at the time the book is set. This was quite enlightening.
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