In this fourth and final installment of our summer conversation series, we discuss Henry James’s classic novella Washington Square (1880), along with William Wyler’s film adaptation, The Heiress (1949). Catch up our previous discussions here, here, and here.
We hope you’ve enjoyed these readings and screenings as much as we have!
I gave you a hard time earlier this summer about how you’ll refer to Dante at the drop of a hat. But, if I’m being honest, I have a similar obsession: Henry James. Baroque syntax and secret-filled plot? Jamesian, I say! Silly character names? Might I introduce you to Fanny Assingham from The Golden Bowl?
So of course I’m delighted to conclude our series with James’s 1881 novella Washington Square. It’s not my favorite book by James. It wasn’t James’s, either. In his introduction to The New York Stories of Henry James, Colm Tóibín quotes a letter the young writer sent on the eve of publication. The tale is, James writes, “a poorish story in three numbers—a tale purely American.” Coming from James, “purely American” is hardly a term of praise. Yet minor James is major pretty much anyone else. Besides, it’s partly the minorness of Washington Square—its clear, compact story; its low style, at least by the high standards of late James; its embrace of delightful wit over chasm-like interiority—that makes it so enjoyable.
As Washington Square opens, our heroine Catherine Sloper is a meek character whose defining feature is how minor, how unworthy of notice, she seems. “She was not ugly,” James writes bitchily, “she had simply a plain, dull, gentle countenance.” “She was not abnormally deficient” in intellect, he considerately adds, though “she occupied a secondary place” in the 1840’s New York City scene. Catherine is not spirited like The Portrait of a Lady’s Isabel Archer; she lacks the dazzlingly cold intelligence of Kate Croy in The Wings of the Dove.
Yet Catherine does have one thing: a goodly income. And when her father Dr. Sloper dies in years to come, she’ll have something else: an even goodlier inheritance. Enter Morris Townsend: handsome and slick, a playboy who has wasted away his little resources and is keenly interested in getting (and spending) more. He quickly sells the unsuspecting Catherine not just on his fineness but on his goodness—and on his genuine love for her.
Dr. Sloper, though, a cynic who deprecates romance in the name of rationalism, sees through Morris and makes his skepticism known. Catherine, despite fearing her domineering father, stands up for herself and her love. Wills are re-written and Morris’s commitment is tested. It, of course, fails, leaving Catherine alone—estranged from her father and expelled from the land of innocence where she resided at the story’s beginning.