Few writers capture the staid correctness, the quintessential New England respectability, of classic Boston like Henry James (1843-1916).
In his 1886 novel The Bostonians – the story of a wealthy, self-righteous do-gooder and the poor but charismatic young woman she co-opts into the suffragette cause – James encapsulates the world of the “ladies of Beacon Hill”: by whose good opinion a man of rank might stand or fall.
Today, the quiet streets of Beacon Hill – all gas-lamps and red brick private houses – and the nearby grand thoroughfares of Back Bay – where mansions abut private members’ clubs – evoke that same sense of careful, bourgeois comfort. It’s not the wild excess you might find on Manhattan’s Millionaire’s Row – glass, chrome, $100-million apartments snatched up by oligarchs – but rather the world of Olive Chancellor – James’ utterly Bostonian anti-heroine – all tea in parlors and polite conversations and quiet readings-out-loud: as Olive and her friend Verena do throughout the novel.
There is much of James to be found in Boston. In Beacon Hill, Parker House (now a hotel) was once the meeting-place of the Saturday Club: where literary luminaries such as James, Hawthorne, Alcott, and others would meet to debate and discuss their work.
Park Church on Park Lane was one of James’s spots. He led a campaign to save it from destruction in 1904, calling it “exemplary of a charm [of historic Boston] we know and love”. And the current Orpheus Theatre was once Hamilton Hall: the Music Hall where the climactic finale of The Bostonians plays out before all Boston high society. Henry James called it “exemplary of a charm…we know and love”
As I walk through Back Bay with my friend David, he points out a Gothic church: renovated behind modern glass. “See, this is what I love about Boston,” he says. “The history. Other American cities, they're only a few decades old. But here, you can really see the layers of history. Hundreds of years of architecture, side by side.”
Boston’s heart is a place that – stalwart and defiant – refuses to change.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Sleep in the Parker House Hotel and feel like Henry James!