112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

The Impact of Maternal Bonds on Homosocial Desire in Henry James' The Bostonians

Dino Kladouris, University of Washington - Seattle

I shall explore two gaps in current scholarship of Henry James’ The Bostonians. I argue that the novel’s lesbian pairing between Olive Chancellor and Verena Tarrant is informed by maternal absence in the political sphere; each suffer from hysteria partly due to their desire to recreate maternal bonds. Because the novel’s protagonist, Olive Chancellor, was based on Alice James, this reading may reveal that James blamed their mother for his sister’s hysterical nature and queerness.


This paper will reexamine Henry James’ agenda in his portrayal of the central lesbian pairing in The Bostonians (1886). In the novel, Olive Chancellor and Verena Tarrant develop a lesbian relationship via their participation in the nineteenth-century feminist moment, and suffer from hysteria, characteristics that signify their queerness. Critics have yet to link the significance of maternal figures to the text’s instances of same sex desire and female political endeavors. In the novel, Olive is driven to form same sex bonds to recreate a lost maternal attachment; when these bonds are dissolved, she re-experiences the emotional distress of losing her mother. Deceased, absent, and emotionally detached mothers populate the novel, while substitute mother figures are made equally suspect. James interrogates the political ramifications of a disconnected mother-daughter generation, marking maternal figures with physical illness that is paralleled in the hysterical nature of their daughters. Maternal figures represent an obsolete generation, who are incapable of developing emotionally significant relationships with their daughters and who fail to provide healthy guidance for their daughters’ navigation of the political sphere. These portrayals contradict contemporary ideals toward the cult of motherhood in the Post-Civil War environment, which paradoxically indicted females as capable of evoking social change, but also privileged their normative role as homemakers. Addressing this gap in the scholarship reveals not only James’ socio-political investment in the pitfalls of maternal ambivalence and disconnect, but also a deeply personal one.

Henry James was thoroughly sympathetic to his sister’s lack of social mobility, and Alice James is known to be the primary inspiration behind James’ representation of Olive Chancellor’s queer identity in The Bostonians (1886). I will examine the significance of Alice’s private letter and diaries in order to extract a more direct and authentic understanding of female queer identity. These writings went unpublished in Alice’s lifetime, and demonstrate her desire for self-expression in spite of her social limitations. Recently, feminist critic Susan S. Williams identified a critical dichotomy between male authorship and female writing; she argues that scholars privilege the literary merit and range of male authors, but categorize female writers as observational and myopic. Alice James has been reduced to the latter category, and the sublimation of her voice has been perpetuated by her brother’s reinvention of her experiences in The Bostonians. Looking at Alice’s private compositions, I argue that James appropriated her experiences to malign their mother, whose ambivalence he blamed for his sister’s maladapted psyche. James’ inability to properly work through his relationship with his mother caused him to redirect his resentment towards her by misidentifying his mother as responsible for his sister’s gendered anxieties. In writing The Bostonians, James was aware that Alice’s alternative femininity resulted in her bouts of depression and suicide attempts, preventing her from becoming fully integrated into the public sphere. James crafted a voice for Alice as a means of inventing public space for queer females to occupy, but undermined her capacity for self-expression.