What Catherine knew

I have tried to read over Washington Square& I can’tand I fear it must go!”, Henry James wrote to his friend Robert Herrick in 1905. James was preparing the New York Edition of his novels and tales, from which Washington Square was excluded, along with some other novels largely from the same period of his career – The Europeans, Confidencethe slightly later Bostonians Whereas he maintained (and revised) the earlier Roderick Hudson and The American. Yet Washington Square has continued to be one of the most popular of his novels, as well as one of the most accessible and most successfully dramatized. Adapted for the stage in 1947 as The Heiress by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, it had honorable runs in both New York and London, then became a film two years later, directed by William Wyler, with Olivia de Havilland, Ralph Richardson and Montgomery Clift in the leading roles. And then again, with a return to the original title, as another (less convincing) film in 1997, directed by Agnieszka Holland, with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, Ben Chaplin and Maggie Smith. James’s perpetually thwarted ambition to be a successful playwright was fulfilled posthumously by way of a novel he claimed not much to like.

James’s failed theatrical experience led him – it was at the time he was writing What Maisie Knew in the 1890s – to what he called his “scenic method” in composing novels, by which narrative “summary”, recording passages of time, should lead to “scenes” in which characters act out their wants and their beings in overt and dramatic conflict . He was nostalgic for the grand gestures of French Romantic drama of the 1830s and 1840s, and enormously impressed by Ibsen, who, translated by James’s friend William Archer, stormed onto the London stage in the 1890s. On rereading Washington Squareone finds the scenic method already at work in a drama that curiously has quiet and even silence at its heart.

stage Adaptation, The Heiress, takes place on a single set that represents the principal rooms of Dr Austin Sloper’s house on Washington Square, where this story of heartbreak, deception, recognition and resignation will play out. (The novel will leave that house only briefly for a European tour.) But there could be no more undramatic figure than Catherine Sloper, the doctor’s daughter – her beautiful and brilliant mother died giving birth to her. Catherine is stodgy, seemingly unresponsive, overdressed, socially inept and always at a loss for words. She is characterized above all by her silence. Those around her carry on the conversation: the loquacious and foolish Aunt Penniman, who would like to breathe into Catherine something of Emma Bovary’s aspirations for a life derived from romantic fiction, but can’t manage to do so; the smooth-talking Morris Townsend, who seems incapable of anything beyond talk; and the incisive Dr. Sloper, whose penetrating insight and diagnostic skills at times reduce his daughter to an impaled insect in his mental collection.

Catherine seems an unlikely heroine. I think we come to appreciate her, if we can, precisely because of her quietness. Amid the babble of social voices her inability to join the conversation eventually appears a kind of strength. She is the anti-theatrical heroine of an intense but deadly domestic melodrama. Her inner life remains opaque. We know that Townsend’s protests of love and his proposal of marriage turned her utterly into desire and passion. When her father threatens to disinherit her should she marry Townsend, she doesn’t flinch: she’s become a heroine of romance. But when Townsend proves unworthy of the hero’s role – he backs off when her inheritance is in doubt – we discover at the last that she has an analytic ability to pierce the façades and disguises of others, including not only Aunt Penniman and Townsend, but her father.

Mrs. Penniman’s real hope was that the girl would make a secret marriage, at which she should preside as brideswoman or duenna. She had a vision of this ceremony being performed in some subterranean 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, where she would pay them (in a thick veil) clandestine visits…” Such is James’s way of mocking the operatic and gothic – “subterranean chapel ”, indeed – while nonetheless imagining certain melodramatic possibilities arising from the situation he has created. A more chilling example comes when Dr Sloper and Catherine go walking in the Alps, and in a “hard, melancholy dell, abandoned by the summer light”, the father suddenly turns on the daughter to ask if she has given up Townsend. When she answers no, he pronounces himself angry: “I am very passionate; and I assure you I can be very hard. Catherine wonders if he means to startle her into a retraction by means of “dread” in this desolate spot. There was a kind of still intensity about her father which made him dangerous, but Catherine hardly went so far as to say to herself that it might be part of his plan to fasten his hand – the neat, fine, supple hand of a distinguished physician – in her throat. Nevertheless, she receded a step.”

This is another way to have your melodramatic cake while denying you indulge in such things. That “neat, fine, supple hand” is fastened to Catherine’s throat only hypothetically, but like the Alpine scenery it heightens the drama. Later on, when Catherine finally understands that Townsend will not remain faithful to their engagement if she has lost her fortune, she indulges in her one outbreak of grief: “At least, she never indulged in another that the world knew anything about.” But this one was long and terrible… it seemed to her that a mask had suddenly fallen from his face. He had wished to get away from her; he had been angry and cruel, and said strange things, with strange looks. She was smothered and stunned.” For all her social awkwardness and lack of worldly wisdom, there is in Catherine a certain emotional perceptiveness. It’s not her father’s cruel surgical analysis – he admits to his pleasure when his daughter is jilted because it proves him right – but something both more astute and more fragile. It’s one of the triumphs of this novel that James protects Catherine’s inner life from Dr Sloper’s intrusive manipulations, Townsend’s treachery and Aunt Penniman’s hysterics. Her quietness, her lack of worldliness, by the end seem a moral advantage.

James once praised Balzac for understanding the importance of granting his characters their freedom to act themselves out. It is finally a kind of inward freedom from the demands of others that we sense in Catherine, and that James evidently finds admirable in his taciturn heroine. He in fact learned his trade from Balzac more than from anyone else, and Eugene Grandet has often been mentioned as a model for Washington Square. The plots are very similar: a young heiress is courted by an adventurer disapproved of by her wealthy father, and eventually abandoned by her suitor from mercenary motives. But James’s treatment is far different. Where old Grandet is a rapaciously acquisitive merchant, landowner and classic miser, Dr Sloper is a very intelligent, if often heartless, man of science. James is at pains to point out that the profession of doctor carries more prestige in the States than in England. Dr Sloper is known as a brilliant diagnostician – when he falls ill late in the novel, he accurately diagnoses his own coming death – whose judgment that Townsend’s interest in Catherine is mercenary is fully ratified by what happens. But his accuracy of judgment is coupled to an attitude toward Catherine that borders on the sadistic.

James is over and over interested and appalled by the abuse of children by parents; What Maisie Knew is the most compelling instance. Dr. Sloper finds his daughter’s fidelity to her suitor, despite the obstacles he has put in his way, an “entertainment”. He combines the role of a prudent father concerned for his daughter’s happiness with that of a heartless tyrant who eventually – after that scene in the Alps – convinces her that he despises her. His worldly intelligence fails in the appreciation of what is lovable in his daughter. For all his sophistication, he may in the end be as limited in his emotional perceptiveness as old Grandet.

In the final meeting between Catherine and Townsend – some years later – Townsend discovers a new “her ancient faculty of silence”. By this point her silence is conceived as a “faculty”, comparable to speech. It’s what allows her to resist Townsend’s renewed demands on her, to maintain an inner sense of identity against the noisy world. This “faculty” offers no overt consolations, only the sense that, in the catastrophe of her life, Catherine survives. The last line of the novel offers its particular version of James’s repeatedly renunciatory conclusions: “Catherine, meanwhile, in the parlor, picking up her morsel of fancy-work, had seated herself with it again – for life, as it were”. The reader is left to guess at what that might mean for her inner life. And that’s the point: James understands that Catherine works as a character only because, unlike her father and aunt and suitor, he does not attempt to violate her inwardness. His readers, likewise, are persuaded to treat her with respect.

Washington Square follows James’s first popular (slightly scandalous) success, Daisy Millerand immediately precedes his leap to something he knew at the time to be more ambitious and substantial: The Portrait of a Ladywhich seems the first work of his novelistic maturity. Washington Square, like the place itself, which has a kind of “established repose” in the “long shrill city” of New York – James’s grandmother lived there; he was born in adjacent Washington Place and lived as a child in nearby Fourteenth Street – must always occupy a special niche in the Jamesian oeuvre. Despite his retrospective unkindness to the novel, readers have always responded to its quiet clarity of vision.

This Washington Square, like the other novels thus far published in the Cambridge Edition of the Complete Fiction of Henry James, offers textual variants, publishing history and some 115 footnotes to the text: annotations generally useful, though to my mind too often interpretative rather than simply explanatory. It is handsomely printed in a readable format. The downside is the price Cambridge has assigned to the volumes: £89.99 for this one, £88.99 for Bostonians£131 for The Portrait of a Lady. You could get all three in the Library of America edition for $32, though there the type is cramped and the paper is thin. One wonders who Cambridge conceives as its audience, other than libraries, professors and students who need the latest and most scholarly editions. The scholarship contained within their covers clearly is not addressed to Everyman, which seems a bit of a pity.

Peter Brooks is the author of Henry James Goes to Paris2008, and Seduced by Story: The use and abuse of narrative, published last month. He is Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Yale University

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