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.