Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Washington Square by Henry James

Source of book: I own this. My wife found a lovely used Heritage Club edition of this for me.

Henry James is one of those unjustly neglected authors. I suspect that part of this is due to the fact that some of his most famous works don’t really fit with our modern sensibilities. (I’m thinking perhaps of Daisy Miller, which I found to be less interesting than others of his works.) I myself discovered James late in life. For some odd reason, I had an idea that he was a difficult author, which is not the case, in my experience. He isn’t overly wordy, particularly compared to savants like Dickens, Hugo, or any number of Russian authors. Neither are his books all that long. Many are better described as novellas rather than full length novels.

I previously reviewed eight novellas and short stories, including Daisy Miller about four years ago. One of the things that strike me about James’ writing is his amazing command of the English language. He straddled the line between American English and British English just as he straddled both worlds. His use of words is precise, deliberate, and yet endlessly creative. I never tire of his way with words. (Another of my favorite authors, James Thurber, also felt this way.)

Washington Square is definitely a full length novel, but it isn’t terribly long. It also has a fascinating history.

Henry James was an odd person in many respects, but was particularly unusual in that he may have been a genuine asexual. He never had a romantic relationship, at least that left behind any proof, and seems to have had no interest in doing so. He wasn’t antisocial at all, however. He was always out and about, a good conversationalist, unoffensive, and the perfect sort to round out a little dinner party. And, he was always on the prowl for a good story or tidbit to use in his writing.

Washington Square came about as a result of one of these parties. An actress, Fanny Kemble, who apparently had a reputation for running at the mouth, told a tale of her brother’s unsuccessful attempt to marry a plain and dull girl for his money. James wrote down the particulars after the party, and a few years later used the plot for this novel.

Fanny Kemble herself was a bit fascinating too. She was British, married an American plantation owner, and after their exceedingly bitter divorce (in which she, like most women of the era, lost custody of her daughters), wrote an account of her life on the plantation that became an abolitionist classic. Her elder daughter was the mother of author Owen Wister, considered the father of the Western novel.

James followed the plot of the story Kemble told him rather closely, but turned it into a compelling psychological drama between the young woman, her father, and the suitor. There are two books written prior to Washington Square which appear to have influenced James in the direction he took the narrative. The first is Balzac’s EugĂ©nie Grandet, which I have not read. The second is Harry Hotspur of Humblethwait, by one of my favorite authors, Anthony Trollope. In fact, that was the first Trollope novel I read, back in my high school days. I can see elements that match in the stories, but the authors go completely different directions with their characters.

[Warning: this review contains spoilers.]

The stage is set by the history of Doctor Sloper and his family. He is successful, lives a comfortable life, and marries a woman of good intelligence. Alas, she and their son die, leaving only an unexceptional girl, Catherine, who is neither beautiful nor witty. She is a deep disappointment to her father, despite being an adoring, devoted daughter.

The story opens with her at age 25. She meets Morris Townsend, a young man who is a bit of a spendthrift, but who takes a liking to her. Or at least her future fortune, as her father suspects. She falls in love with Morris, her father objects, and threatens to disinherit her if she doesn’t dump him. 

Catherine and Morris. Illustration by Lawrence Smith, from my edition of the book.

So far, this isn’t surprising. After all, Morris is out for her money. So to an extent, her father is right. However, his behavior toward his daughter is the very opposite of loving and compassionate, and it ends up costing everyone in the end.

Early on, Morris and Dr. Sloper have a conversation in which Dr. Sloper expresses his disapproval.

“Did you really expect I would say I was delighted, and throw my daughter into your arms?”
“Oh no; I had an idea you didn’t like me.”
“What gave you the idea?”
“The fact that I am poor.”
“That has a harsh sound,” said the Doctor, “but it is about the truth—speaking of you strictly as a son-in-law. Your absence of means, of a profession, of visible resources or prospects, places you in a category from which it would be imprudent for me to select a husband for my daughter, who is a weak young woman with a large fortune. In any other capacity I am perfectly prepared to like you. As a son-in-law, I abominate you!”
Morris Townsend listened respectfully. “I don’t think Miss Sloper is a weak woman,” he presently said.
“Of course you must defend her—it’s the least you can do. But I have known my child twenty years, and you have known her six weeks. Even if she were not weak, however, you would still be a penniless man.”
“Ah, yes; that is MY weakness! And therefore, you mean, I am mercenary—I only want your daughter’s money.”
“I don’t say that. I am not obliged to say it; and to say it, save under stress of compulsion, would be very bad taste. I say simply that you belong to the wrong category.”
“But your daughter doesn’t marry a category,” Townsend urged, with his handsome smile. “She marries an individual—an individual whom she is so good as to say she loves.”
“An individual who offers so little in return!”
“Is it possible to offer more than the most tender affection and a lifelong devotion?” the young man demanded.
“It depends how we take it. It is possible to offer a few other things besides; and not only is it possible, but it’s usual. A lifelong devotion is measured after the fact; and meanwhile it is customary in these cases to give a few material securities. What are yours? A very handsome face and figure, and a very good manner. They are excellent as far as they go, but they don’t go far enough.”

I quote at length because the dialogue is so good. It is a fine example of the repartee that James writes well, and I love the maneuvering that these two scheming characters engage in.

Dr. Sloper, though, is unmoved. In fact, he is quite unconcerned with the effect this will have on his daughter.

“If Catherine marries without my consent, she doesn’t get a penny from my own pocket.”
“Is that certain?” asked Mrs. Montgomery [Morris’ sister], looking up.
“As certain as that I sit here!”
“Even if she should pine away?”
“Even if she should pine to a shadow, which isn’t probable.”

As will be seen as the story unfolds, this callousness will be the undoing of a relationship.

Adding to the drama is the presence of Dr. Sloper’s widowed, childless sister, Mrs. Penniman. She is a bit of the feckless romantic sort, who fancies herself as having a role in all of this, even though all she does is irritate everyone. She is, however, excellent as comic relief.

Mrs. Penniman’s real hope was that the girl would make a secret marriage, at which she should officiate as a brideswoman or duenna. She had a vision of this ceremony being performed in some subterranian chapel - subterranean chapels in New York were not frequent, but Mrs. Penniman’s imagination was not chilled by trifles - and of the guilty couple - she liked to think of poor Catherine and her suitor as the guilty couple - being shuffled away in a fast-whirling vehicle to some obscure lodging in the suburbs…

All Mrs. Penniman’s attempts to encourage the couple to elope come to naught, however. Catherine finally asserts herself to her father, and one of the most poignant arguments ensues. If one can even call it an argument. Catherine is so meek and quiet that her side of things might barely be called a disagreement, except that she does, ultimately, defy her father in a very quiet and timid way. It is too long to quote at length, but suffice it to say that eventually, Dr. Sloper calls into question Catherine’s very desire to be good - which is really her strongest point. He expects her to trust him completely as to the matters of her own heart - even though she is 25 years old.

“Have you no faith in my wisdom, in my tenderness, in my solicitude for your future?...You make nothing of my judgement, then?”

He explicitly expects her to take all this on a mere faith in his judgment as greater than hers. She finally cannot take the way he disrespects her and her own viewpoint, and she is never thereafter able to have a close relationship with him.

For a while, there is a little tension between them, but she ultimately continues to play the devoted daughter, even while she knows she will never feel the way she did about him. For his part, all this is just more fun.

If the Doctor was stiff and dry and absolutely indifferent to the presence of his companions, it was so lightly, neatly, easily done, that you would have had to know him well to discover that, on the whole, he rather enjoyed having to be so disagreeable.

Catherine, though, has discovered a new reserve of strength. She knows she will inherit a small legacy from her mother’s side of the family, so at least she won’t starve. So, she determines that she will never expect to inherit from her father, because the price of his money - and indeed his approval - is too high. For her, nothing would be better than to be able to leave his house, because as she sees it, if she lives under his roof, she feels obligated to obey him. He agrees with the general sentiment, but is disturbed to see a sign of non-compliance in her.

Predictably, once it becomes completely obvious to Morris that there is little money to be had, and that Catherine is either unwilling or unable to persuade her father to the contrary, he throws her over. Dr. Sloper turns out to be right. And boy, does he ever enjoy it. His sister is horrified that he would gloat at such a time.

“It seems to make you very happy that your daughter’s affections have been trifled with.”
“It does,” said the Doctor; ‘“for I had foretold it! It’s a great pleasure to be in the right.”
“Your pleasures make one shudder!” his sister exclaimed.

Catherine cries a bit in private, and accepts some sympathy from Mrs. Penniman, but she would sooner be damned than show a crack to her father.

Now, this is where the story takes an even darker turn. Dr. Sloper and Catherine continue to live together for another couple of decades. He tries to encourage her to marry a couple of subsequent suitors. One is a widower more interested in her ability to care for his children than her, but the other seems genuinely interested. When she isn’t interested, he assumes that she still carries a torch for Morris.

“[W]hy doesn’t she marry?” he asked himself. “Limited as her intelligence may be, she must understand perfectly well that she is made to do the usual thing.”

Still, even at this point, he remains condescending and insulting. And suspicious. But Catherine isn’t pining for Morris. Rather, she is just damaged.

From her own point of view the great facts of her career were that Morris Townsend had trifled with her affection, and that her father had broken its spring. Nothing could ever alter these facts; they were always there, like her name, her age, her plain face. Nothing could ever undo the wrong or cure the pain that Morris had inflicted on her, and nothing could ever make her feel towards her father as she felt in her younger years. There was something dead in her life, and her duty was to try and fill the void.

Even after this, there is still another twist of the knife. As Dr. Sloper approaches the end of his life, he demands that Catherine promise not to marry Morris. Even though she has no intention of doing so, she cannot bring herself to promise this to her father. She is now nearly 50 years old, and he is still trying to control her, and prove he is right.

“I don’t think I can promise that,” she answered.
“It would be a great satisfaction,” said her father.
“You don’t understand. I can’t promise that.”
The Doctor was silent a minute. “I ask you for a particular reason. I am altering my will.”
This reason failed to strike Catherine; and indeed she scarcely understood it. All her feelings were merged in the sense that he was trying to treat her as he had treated her years before. She had suffered from it then; and now all her experience, all her acquired tranquillity and rigidity, protested. She had been so humble in her youth that she could now afford to have a little pride, and there was something in this request, and in her father’s thinking himself so free to make it, that seemed an injury to her dignity. Poor Catherine’s dignity was not aggressive; it never sat in state; but if you pushed far enough you could find it. Her father had pushed very far.
“I can’t promise,” she simply repeated.
“You are very obstinate,” said the Doctor.
“I don’t think you understand.”
“Please explain, then.”
“I can’t explain,” said Catherine. “And I can’t promise.”

At the beginning of the book, it was hard to like Catherine. I am not really fond of docile women, and Catherine doesn’t come across as terribly interesting. However, her development as time goes on until this crucial denouncement is thrilling. And let me say, this final stroke gave me chills. It is one thing when she rejects her future inheritance when she believes Morris will marry her. It is another thing altogether when she does so for her own self respect. To be able to say to her father that she didn’t give a crap about his money or his wishes if he wouldn’t show her respect is quite the step for her, and it made me fond of her in the end.

Dr. Sloper never does come around. He proceeds to disinherit Catherine, adding in a final insult.

“[H]er fortune is already more than sufficient to attract those unscrupulous adventurers whom she has given me reason to believe that she persists in regarding as an interesting class.”

So in the end, everyone loses. Dr. Sloper dies, having destroyed his relationship with his daughter. Catherine remains an old maid. Morris seems to regret not marrying Catherine despite her reduced fortune. And what has been gained? Dr. Sloper gets the satisfaction of knowing he was right about Morris, but he has been very wrong about his daughter all along. He sacrifices the opportunity he had with her on the altar of being right.

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