Nineteenth-Century Morality and "The Decline in the Sentiment of Sex". Henry James’s "The Bostonians" and Charlotte Brontë’s "Jane Eyre"

Essay, 2005

28 Pages



The aftermath of the traumas of the American Civil War saw an unleashing of intellectual, cultural and economic forces, which accelerated the rate of transformation in American society. In post-Reconstruction America, after so much controversy about slavery, social and political reformers climbed on the platform to agitate on behalf of the Feminist movement in an “air [that] was thick with theory and controversy about women” (Habegger 9). When Henry James outlined his general idea for The Bostonians (1886) in his notebook-entry of 1883, he referred to this new ideology, which he perceived as being responsible for the perversion of the confused and uprooted young American society:

I wished to write a very American tale, 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.[1]

The undoing of the differences between man and woman and the blurring of the boundaries between the feminine and the masculine and, in particular, the subordination of the masculine hegemony by “the stirrings of feminism in late nineteenth-century Boston” (Lansdown x) might be the root, or at least a symptom of the problem, which was upsetting both public and domestic affairs.

The novel is a drama between opposing dogmas: progressive Feminism versus conservative Chauvinism, ultimately, between the forces of progress and reaction. The analysis of the ideological conflict between these two extremes is “dramatically focused in a conflict among characters who, James said, were evolved from his ‘moral consciousness’” (McMurray 339). The notebook-entry reveals that the novel represents James’s response to a contemporary phenomenon and furthermore, seeks to investigate the situatedness of individuals in a historical context: his main purpose was to trace the effects of a confused system of morals in the relations between men and women and he chose to exemplify that idea by portraying a group of people in whom the essence of love had become distorted or vulgarized. The conservative James assumed that the epitome of the American problem lied in the decline of what was generally considered traditional ideals surrounding gender, which he evaluated as a potential threat to the equilibrium of forces that had previously regulated society.

Gender Anxiety: James’s Conception of Sexual Difference

Henry James inherited the views of his father, who argued “that the sexes were more or less different species, with opposite natures and social roles” (Habegger 11). His essentialist vision relies on a conception of sexual identity that is grounded in the body and, as Habegger assures, James “shared many of the prevailing views of what it meant to be a man or woman and what kind of behaviour and aspirations were appropriate for women” (24). James most likely believed that both genders have inherent fixed traits, but, in the novel he shifts away from the historical, sentimental notion of ‘idealized woman on a pedestal’. James refers to the breakdown of conventional gender roles as ‘the great modern subject’ and Lansdown writes about the strength of James’s orthodox views:

As a profoundly conservative male, James had grave misgivings about ‘the decline of the sentiment of sex’: the decline, that is to say, of the entire Victorian sexual attitude, involving a chivalric and paternalistic tolerance of the weaker sex (B xxiii). The novel professes to capture the spirit of its time concerning the change in perception of gender(ed) roles. Written as a work of realism, James anticipates what looms ominously in his time - the disappearance of sexual difference, the effacement of sexual identity.

The novel is predominantly a discussion about the validity of patriarchal sentiments, whilst James always maintains an attitude, as Habegger describes it, of “elusive male authoritarianism” (26). The novelist is free to explore different values and norms that oscillate in the narrative and James makes a pointed critique of contemporary American society in “a satiric treatment of New England reformers and especially of feminist movements” (Powers 117). The omniscient narrator analyses the characters from a detached, often ironic and sometimes even sarcastic standpoint that betrays James’s cynicism. The representation of the main characters is often excessive, almost theatrical, and there is an element of ambivalence in the novel, which makes it difficult to determine James’s true convictions, which leads one critic to ask: “Is not James taking sides – switching sides?” (188). Habegger’s critical response is symptomatic of widely divergent opinions concerning James's perceived authorial intent in the novel. I will argue that, In effect, James is examining the influence of his own intellectual and personal inheritance in the belief of the mutual exclusivity of the sexes and the value of opinions that were surrounding gender roles at that time.

Another social phenomenon of the late-Victorian Anglo-American society, the rise of women in professional roles, is articulated and scrutinized in the novel: the ambivalent conceptions about the advent of the woman doctor: "by the mid-1870s when The Bostonians is set, and even more so by the mid-1880s when James composed the novel, American women were firmly, if still uneasily, established in the medical profession" (Wegener 143). The portrayal of Dr Prance seems to be borne out of James’s troubled notions of sexual identity: her unfeminine physical appearance appears to be a regrettable consequence of her emancipation but, nevertheless, in portraying her as a thoroughly professional, self-reliant and self-sufficient character, James pays his respect to the new breed of professionally aspiring women.

The “Emasculated Man” and the Reign of the Feminine Voice

Reactionary prejudices and internal conflicts were part of the author and James states his unease about women’s emancipation efforts in a confession: “I am not eager for the avènement of a multitudinous and overwhelming female electorate and don’t see how any man in his senses can be” (B xxiii). James’s critique of the perceived "feminisation" of American society is expressed in Basil Ransom’s contempt for this “fatuous agitation.” His apprehension is about the decline in sentiment, in particular about the loss of manhood, and he blames the ascent of women in public affairs to be responsible:

The whole generation is womanized; the masculine tone is passing out of the world; it’s a feminine, a nervous, hysterical, chattering, canting age, an age of hollow phrases and false delicacy and exaggerated solicitudes and coddled sensibilities, which, if we don’t soon look out, will usher in the reign of mediocrity, of the feeblest and flattest and the most pretentious that has ever been (B 260).

The nostalgic rant is indicative of the fear of loss, that is, the loss of a clear-cut masculine identity and shows an awareness that the time of great ‘real and pure’ men, who are in charge of public affairs, is over; both men and women are now diluted species. Basil calls the democratic ideal “mediocrity” – something which would have a weakening effect on society – and he has a fierce conviction “that civilisation itself would be in danger if it should fall into the power of a herd of vociferating women” (B 40). A woman trying to acquire male attributes, in particular, striving to be heard in public, would inevitably lose her essential qualities and simply relapse into an incomplete man, a decline from her natural state of womanhood, whereas a effeminacy in a man weakens his essential status as ruler of worldly affairs.

In The Bostonians, there are a number of deteriorated male characters who confuse public engagement with “the cultivation of the great arts of publicity” (B 96). Selah Tarrant dreams of becoming a celebrity, or at least, a noteworthy subject for newspaper reports: "He was always trying to find out what was 'going in'; he should have liked to go in himself, bodily [...] The wish of his soul was that he might be interviewed; that made him hover at the editorial elbow” (B 82). .

The journalist Matthias Pardon is an avid, but insubstantial advocate of women’s emancipation; he is described as rather unmanly with “small, fair features, remarkably neat and pretty eyes”; his exclamations of “Goodness gracious!” and “Mercy on us!” points to the subtle feminization of his character, inappropriate for “the sex whose profanity is apt to be coarse” (B 96). Pardon’s preference for public exhibition of private affairs is criticized as lacking distinction or moral consciousness: “everything to him was very much the same, he had no sense of proportion or quality; but the newest thing was what came nearest exciting in his mind the sentiment of respect” (B 97). His attempt to join the cant and sentimentality of the movement is conspicuous as is his passion for Verena, tepidly stated as “a remarkable disposition to share the object of his affection with the American people” (B 98). His predilection for notoriety means that “he would gladly sacrifice any shred of privacy to the public's 'right to know'” (Zuckert 32).

Ambiguity in James’s Language

The novel is primarily concerned with "the decline of the sentiment of sex" and is fraught with ambiguities and antagonistic conceptions. The novelist’s point of view is a key element in the story, but just as James’s attitude on the topic of gender relations is not made clear, so is his choice of the word “sentiment.” The meaning of “sentiment” hovers uneasily between the words “opinion” – what is believed to the true – and “feeling”, the power of the inner, emotional life or conscience.”[2]

The narrator’s asides can be construed as counter-arguments to what has been said by characters; one can almost draw that conclusion that James sides with the feminist movement after all, considering his aside after Ransom’s emphatic speech about the “womanized generation”: "The poor fellow delivered himself of these narrow notions (the rejection of which by leading periodicals was certainly not a matter for surprise) with low, soft earnestness" (B 260). The sincerity of Basil’s “narrow notions” is an evaluation made by the narrator, which derides Basil’s capacity to emphasize with contemporary concerns beyond his understanding.

Basil denies women the ability to deal with the outside world, or to possess mental qualities, for him, “women have no business to be reasonable” (169). Instead, he emphasizes women’s conventional qualities of being sensitive and compassionate. According to Basil, through these traits women’s influence is indeed profound:

Do you really take the ground that your sex has been without influence? Influence? Why, you have led us all by the nose to where we are now! Wherever we are, it’s all you. You are at the bottom of everything (B 71).

With this platitude, Basil diffuses Verena’s demand for real power and equality, but it is also a wonderfully double-edged remark that suggests on the one hand the superiority of women as the fertilizing ground for the salvation of men. Elaborating on this point, Wasserstrom remarks that "the condition of domesticity was supposed to save a man from the fires of hell and provide him with the hope of heaven because it placed him in the care of a good woman whose job was to assuage but dampen his ardor" (305). On the other hand, being at “the bottom of everything” could be interpreted as the relegation of women to the lowest point on the evolutionary scale: morally, socially, mentally and physically incompetent.

The only saving grace is women’s willingness for self-sacrifice and their altruism provides, for Basil, the foundation of civilization as he knows it. His rigorous views and expectation of women to put men’s needs before their own cause Miss Birdseye, the wise old veteran of the New England reform movements, to ask him sadly: “Do you regard us, then, simply as lovely baubles?” (B 169).

The Defender of Sexual Difference

The patriarchal system has to suppress women in order to maintain supremacy; in Verena’s metaphor, it has to keep the lid on “the box in which we have been kept for centuries” (B 208). Mrs Farrinder, the celebrated champion of women's rights, refers to the discontented women, who seek to broaden their influence and attain a “more adequate conception of their public and private rights” (B 30), with possibilities for engagement and contribution to social issues. Verena demands a reinforcement of society with “the genius, the intelligence, the inspiration of women” (B 207) for the benefit of mankind. Their common goal is to overturn the three precepts, which form the bulwark of contemporary dogma: firstly, the sexes are fundamentally opposite; secondly, nature has designed men as naturally superior to women; thirdly, men’s place is at the centre of the world with women as satellites in a supportive and decorative function.

The sexes as ‘fundamental opposite’ has its male element personified, in The Bostonians, by the reactionary Southerner Basil Ransom, portrayed by James as the stereotype and epitome of masculinity. His chauvinism seems to make him an accomplice for the conservative James, especially when he “informs his readers at the very beginning of the novel that Basil, ‘is, as representative of his sex, the most important personage in my narrative’" (Zuckert 31). On the other hand, it can be argued that “he is in no clear way James’s spokesman,” because James is almost as cynical about Basil’s attitude as he is about Feminism” (Howard in Habegger 190). It can be concluded that characters in the novel do not act as ventriloquists for the author’s opinions, but are embodiments of a given ideology or set of values that are implicitly discussed in the novel.

James makes it clear that he does not share the narrow notions he attributes to Basil and his cynicism relies on the association between Basil's Southern origins, his aristocratic pretensions and the morality of slave-owners, who had claimed their right to rule on the basis of race differences. Having lost the social superiority based on race, Basil still insists on superiority on the basis of birth, i.e. the sexual differences between men and women. James has a sophisticated Bostonian attitude, he “wants to explore the unknown possibilities of the modern age” (Zuckert 38). The description of Basil’s inherent provinciality does not pay a compliment to reactionary views, evident in the tendentious language used when he derides Basil’s artistic sense as “not highly cultivated” (B 14). James has mentally moved away from the ‘cult of chivalry’ and in the presentation of Basil, he mocks at once the adherence to an outdated concept and the degeneration of contemporary society: Basil, “who still, in a slangy age, could pronounce that word [chivalry] with a perfectly serious face” (B 151).


[1] Henry James, The Bostonians, Ed. Richard Lansdown (London: Penguin, 2000) xiv. Abbreviation used in parenthetical references henceforth is B.

[2] “An opinion is an intellectual judgment in respect to any and every kind of truth. Feeling describes those affections of pleasure and pain which spring from the exercise of our sentient and emotional powers. Sentiment (particularly in the plural) lies between them, denoting settled opinions or principles in regard to subjects which interest the feelings strongly, and are presented more or less constantly in practical life” Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913).

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Nineteenth-Century Morality and "The Decline in the Sentiment of Sex". Henry James’s "The Bostonians" and Charlotte Brontë’s "Jane Eyre"
James Cook University  (James Cook University)
Women in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel
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Marker's Comment: A far-reaching and far-ranging discussion of a very high standard - beautifully written and researched.
Henry James, Charlotte Bronte, The Bostonians, Jane Eyre, Nineteenth Century Novel, Morality, Decline in the the Sentiment of Sex, Gender Anxiety, Feminism, sexual identity, Gender roles, Feminist Movement, Emanzipation, marriage
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Dr Sabine Mercer (Author), 2005, Nineteenth-Century Morality and "The Decline in the Sentiment of Sex". Henry James’s "The Bostonians" and Charlotte Brontë’s "Jane Eyre", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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