Castle, Terry. 1993. The Apparitional Lesbian. Columbia University Press, New York. iSBN 0-231-07653-3
Chapter 7 – Haunted by Olive Chancellor
Note: because this essay is a work of literary criticism, much of the content is a detailed tracing of parallels and connections between texts that are “in conversation” with each other. By its nature, this sort of analysis is impossible to summarize neatly.
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This chapter tackles the question of the way in which Henry James’s The Bostonians can be considered a “lesbian novel”. The central character of Olive is clearly experiencing and motivated by same-sex desire, and critics of the work regularly dismiss it as concerning “perverse” desires, but the actual “lesbian content” is elusive when pinned down.
James claimed he was merely writing an “American tale” about “one of those friendships between women which are so common in New England.” This is, of course, not at all in conflict with the external analysis of Olive and Verena as a romantic couple of the type that gave rise to the term Boston marriage – the type that James’s sister enjoyed with her “beloved friend” and companion (who otherwise did not at all resemble the characters in the novel).
Despite James’s emphasis on the story as “American”, Castle traces its connections to French decadent literature of the 19th century that treated lesbian relationships far more explicitly. Despite James’s avoidance of any explicit reference to lesbianism, he hints at it through oblique references to Emile Zola’s Nana – perhaps the most notorious work of its type. Castle traces these references in detail.
The chapter concludes with a look at how James than diverges from the underlying logic of the “decadent lesbian” plot (however concealed) to maintain his heroine Olive as pure and virtuous, and as an innocent victim of Verena’s omni-sexual desirability. Olive is betrayed by Verena’s decision to marry her male suitor, but she is not destroyed by this betrayal in the way a more stereotypical lesbian protagonist of the era would be.