Having announced I'm firmly back in with Henry James on the principle that why should a few extra words per sentence scare me off, I was relieved to find that I did get to the end of Washington Square with the book unscathed. I hadn't thrown it across the room in despair, in fact I couldn't wait to pick it up each time I had a spare reading moment, but I did shout at it once or twice.
Published in 1880 and considered a short, witty masterpiece by many but possibly disliked by Henry James himself. According to Mark Le Fanu's introduction to the Oxford edition, when Henry James attempted to reread Washington Square he failed miserably and considered it poor.
How on earth did that happen? He clearly needs a blogger's assistance.
Set in New York society Catherine, motherless but most certainly not fatherless, struggles against the insidious emotional tyranny of the two men in her life, her father Doctor Sloper and her first and only suitor, Morris Townsend. Morris seeks her hand in marriage rather suspiciously after a couple of meetings and a glimpse of the £20,000 fortune.
You and I would have known better than to court any nonsense from a man who suggests,
"that books are tiresome things; only...you had to read a good many before you found it out"
From the off, every time Morris appeared I was shouting 'don't listen to him' and whenever the strangely cruel doctor entered stage left, I'd happily have beckoned a carriage and instructed it to run him over. So the male role models in Catherine's life hardly life-affirming and you can almost predict the future you want her to choose for herself, sad though it will ultimately be.
Catherine's self esteem negligible after a lifetime's exposure to insult and humiliation at the hands of her father, a man described by others as 'shockingly cold-blooded', so how on earth was she supposed to make a wise decision about marriage? Yet in spite of everything I appalled myself by storing up just one tiny gram of understanding for the ghastly Dr Sloper.
As Dr Sloper constantly and arrogantly reminds everyone, because he's a doctor he's a fine judge of character and in many ways you have to admit that he has judged Morris with great accuracy.Even so the denouement remains heartbreaking and you somehow know that, given a better range of emotional tools to work with, he could have achieved his outcomes differently if he had truly loved his daughter.
Does he have his daughter's happiness at heart or is he just being sadistic as he seeks to prevent the marriage?
He must have had a heart because, **spoiler**, in the end it does stop beating, but heaven alone knows where it was.
So many useful insights provided by Mark Le Fanu that have added something extra to the book for me.
Henry James careful use of crying in his female characters for one.
I had never thought about it quite so carefully but indeed there is a skill in knowing when to make a woman cry in the narrative, because lets face it, we hardly know ourselves when it might happen.It takes a good deal of insight to get it right and the unbearable moment in the doctor's study when Catherine pleads for her suitor's cause has the tears timed to perfection.
Mark Le Fanu tactfully refers to Henry James's
'total richness of detail that deepens the portrayal of individual character...strictly in excess of the necessary ...and yet not in excess at all, because it is through such detail that the characters are embodied as living'
and I'm with him on that. I emerged the other side of Washington Square fully satisfied that I had just read a very good book indeed.
Now Henry come along, if I can read it so can you.You have another go.