Washington Square by Henry James

Going back to the classics… In this regard, I should probably say that I have written my bachelor-thesis about James’ The Portrait of a Lady. I have aquainted myself with James, not so much through his work (I have only just read The Portrait – and now Washington Square) but about what has been written about his work. And we all know there are several film adaptations out there…

I guess one could talk about Washington Square as a mock romance novel. It parodies a lot of the standards of that genre. It is not surprising to find this kind of criticism in James’ work as the realists liked to criticize the romanticists. And that is not to say that the latter only wrote romance but they wrote romantic and this is something the realists abhorred.

On this line, James creates a heroine who is neither pretty, nor accomplished, she is not charming and she is not intelligent. Catherine Sloper makes for a very dull heroine – on the surface. Her lover, Morris Townsend, on the other hand, is handsome, he is intelligent and has the air of someone who can accomplish great things yet he is paralyzed in his own idle fantasy that he should not have to work for a living. So, he finds out Catherine who is already a wealthy young lady by her mother’s will and will be even more so because her father’s a wealthy physician. But the good doctor does not want to bestow his hard earned money on someone who is as undeserving as Morris Townsend.

While both men are described as very intelligent, they both underestimate Catherine’s potential as a heroine – as James wants them and the reader to, too, it seems. Catherine may not be the most blessed with abilities that heroines usually have but she has endurance and strength and it seems that these wear down the patience of both men. She is, in the end, the one who endures, the one who does not regret and lives her life – a very small and insignificant one – on her own terms. Her father has died, trapped in his own illusion that his daughter might still marry Townsend after his death and unable to prevent it. Townsend stands as a complete fool, urged by Catherine’s aunt, as he tries to reconnect with the woman twenty years after their broken engagement.

Catherine is the only one of the main characters who has evolved at all.

James created great female characters, there can be no doubt about that. And he created Catherine Sloper who is not a great character but quite a marvel. I couldn’t help compare her with Bella Swan maybe because Bella is the heroine of a romance novel, maybe because she is the heroine of a very bad romance novel and therefore the exact polar opposite of Catherine Sloper. She is professedly intelligent (although we never see much of it displayed, most of the time she is decidedly stupid), others think she is beautiful (albeit she does not think so), Meyer established that she is fearless and independent (she at least tells us that Bella is all these things, not that she does a very good job at convincing us that Bella really is all these things). Catherine Sloper is none of the above, she is not supposed to be any of the above. And yet, she can clearly see that when Morris professes his love for her, they knew very little of each other. She says so repeatedly. She is very slow to trust the feelings Morris has, although her father thinks that she falls for him from the first. There is resistance in Catherine, there is a keen eye that surveys the young man and finally finds him lacking. She sees the mask that slides off his face and he cannot redeem himself in her eyes. Yes, Catherine Sloper falls for Morris Townsend’s pretty face and dazzling words, he is a con-man, after all and plays his role very well. But she is not so stupid as to take the man back after she has seen what he really is.

It is interesting to see how Catherine becomes independent. Her father never had a high opinion of her, neither did her aunt Penniman. They underestimate her and it is through this that she finds that she has nothing to lose, at least not their esteem. She is free to develop and she develops herself. This might be debatable but I must say that I like Catherine. She does not have much but she cultivates what little she does have. In the end, she is the one in command, she is the one with the power to say “no” and she exhibits it freely.

Of course, there are restrictions. Her young life is dominated by a tyrannic father, a stupid aunt, and a young man who plays her for a fool. And she cannot break free of this triangle because she is a woman. She is obliged to live under her father’s roof until someone suitable marries her. But she wants to marry someone unsuitable. It is a dilemma and she gets hurt by the obstinacy her father displays and the infidelity that Morris shows. But as I said, she is the one to prevail. In the end, she has created her own world, she is her own mistress and not willing to give that up. Not for Townsend, not for the other two men who are eager to marry her.

I could say a lot more about this anti-heroine James created. I could compare her to Isabel Archer – in detail – and tell you why Catherine is more of an independent woman than Isabel will ever be. And maybe I will at some point return to this question, read even more articles about James’ work – but this is not the time. At this point I only want to say that Washington Square is an interesting portrait of a lady while claiming not to be one.