Category Archives: James – Henry

The Lesson of the Master by Henry James

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When I read Washington Square by Henry James earlier this year, I was really excited and hopeful that I had found an author whose work I would treasure as much as Jane Austen’s.

The Lesson of the Master is good too. Better than good actually, the writing is beautiful, the pacing is perfect and the story is subtle and comes very close to being exactly right, but I didn’t feel that emotional connection with the main character of with the story that I have with Jane Austen’s characters. This may have been because, as a female, I relate better to Austen’s heroines.

The Lesson of the Master starts with Paul Overt, a young writer who has had early writing success, visiting a country house where he hopes to meet his idol, Henry St George. St George is a celebrated novelist who Paul rates very highly, while acknowledging that St George’s most recent novels are not of the same high quality as his earlier works.

Paul meets St George and his wife who is an invalid. Mrs St George shocks Paul by telling him she has burned books written by her husband which she didn’t think saleable. Paul is idealistic, and despite falling in love with the beautiful Marian Fancourt, he gave her up after St George suggested to Paul he would be a better writer if he doesn’t marry and have children. The implication is that St George has sacrificed his own art to support his family.

Paul goes abroad and writes a masterpiece, but when he returns to England he learns that Mrs St George has died and that Marian Fancourt is now engaged to marry St George.

I finished the book feeling as if young Paul had been scammed by the master, (St George), but I didn’t really care much. Maybe Paul was scammed and maybe he wasn’t, but would he have written his later great work had he become engaged or married to Marian himself? We will never know, because this is a novel and Henry James was the person who determined that particular point. According to the introduction to the story by Cohn Toibin, this story was based on the author’s own experiences and was in part, a justification of his own choice to remain unmarried.

As I’ve written this review, I’ve realised that the plot is cleverer than I originally believed, but still think the characters needed filling out more emotionally. I liked that the characters names were descriptive, for example, Marian Fancourt couldn’t have been anything but a beautiful, literary groupie and Paul Overt is an undisguised, open young man. Even the name of Henry St George has connotations of the saint who died for his beliefs. Summersoft, the name of the country house where the story begins, sounds like an ideal place to sit on the grass with friends on a warm Sunday afternoon.

I won’t give up on Henry James just yet, even if the moral of The Lesson of the Master was ‘do as I say and not as I do.’

 

 

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Washington Square by Henry James

wash

Washington Square is the first book I’ve read by Henry James and already, I think I am going to like his works as much as I like Jane Austen’s. Every word in Washington Square is perfect and is in exactly the right order. Every sentence adds a little more to the story, without any padding or boring bits.

The story is well mannered and gently told. The heroine of Washington Square is a young woman called Catherine Sloper, who is the only daughter of a prestigious New York doctor. Dr Sloper is wealthy and very, very clever. Catherine, to her father’s disappointment is not clever, nor is she pretty, interesting or particularly attractive to men, despite being brought up with every possible advantage available to girls at the time.

When a would-be young man about town, Morris Townsend, starts paying attention to Catherine, she falls in love with him. Her father, Dr Sloper, almost instantly decries Morris as a fortune hunter. Catherine’s Aunt Penniman, who is as silly as Dr Sloper is clever, involves herself in Catherine’s romance, siding with Morris against her brother and constantly meddling, in an attempt to create drama and excitement, which is the opposite of Catherine’s nature.

Catherine wants desperately to please her father. She is known throughout society for her goodness and placidity, although in one respect she is very like her father, as both are intractable, to the point of pig headedness. When Dr Sloper investigates Morris Townsend and finds him to be a waster, he lets it be know that he will disinherit Catherine if she were to marry Morris. Dr Sloper appears to want what is best for his daughter, but his behaviour seems unkind.

When Catherine and Morris become engaged, Dr Sloper takes Catherine off to Europe in an attempt to force Catherine to change her mind. Dr Sloper seems to regard his daughter coldly, studying her feelings and behaviour as if she is an experiment he is involved with. Despite his apparent coolness, one of the most dramatic and forceful moments in the book is between Dr Sloper and Catherine while they are walking on a lonely track in the Alps, when Dr Sloper confronts her about her plans to marry. He seems almost jealous of Catherine’s relationship with Morris, although Catherine comes to believe that her father doesn’t love her at all and that his behaviour is to do with wanting to control her.

Throughout my reading of Washington Square, I kept thinking of the heroine as ‘poor Catherine.’ I felt enormously sad for her, feeling unloved by her father, worrying that Morris was indeed a fortune hunter, and having to cope with the continual annoyance of her foolish Aunt Penniman.

My emotions were manipulated by the author constantly throughout this novel, and I was on Catherine’s side the whole way through. I laughed aloud at some of the descriptions of characters. I felt anxiety for Catherine during social situations, angry with Dr Sloper for his controlling behaviour, frustrated with Catherine’s aunt and hopeful that Morris would turn out to truly love her. I also felt both disappointment and satisfaction for reasons that I won’t say here because they would spoil the plot for would be readers.

During my reading of this novel, I continually found myself closing the book in an attempt to prolong the pleasure of my reading. I could not be happier to know that there are so many more books by Henry James, just waiting for me to read them. Life is good.

 

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