The idea for Henry James's novel Washington Square (1880) began as a bit of family gossip shared across the table at a fancy dinner party. Fanny Kemble, a famous British actress, told James the true story of her brother's designs on a plain but wealthy girl. The young woman's father disapproved of the match and threatened to disinherit his daughter if the two married. Once convinced of the father's conviction, Fanny's brother ended the engagement, leaving the girl broken-hearted.
James altered the time and place of the story to mid-nineteenth-century New York City using memories of his maternal grandmother's house in the tony neighborhood of Washington Square to infuse the story with realistic detail.
This was a time when Victorian notions about a woman's place in society were colliding with the fledgling sensibilities of the women's suffrage movement. Washington Square's unassuming heroine, Catherine Sloper, reveres her father-a wealthy physician whose wife died shortly after giving birth to the daughter he immediately deemed a disappointment.
Dr. Sloper enlists the help of his sister Lavinia Penniman to help raise the motherless girl and make a "clever woman" of her, but Catherine grows into a placid young lady, neither beautiful nor talented. At her cousin's engagement party, she attracts the attention of handsome Morris Townsend, a distant relative of the groom-to-be. While Aunt Penniman promotes the relationship, Dr. Sloper remains convinced Townsend's interest lies only in Catherine's fortune, and threatens to disinherit his daughter if she marries without his consent.
Hoping filial devotion might win her father's approval of Morris, Catherine agrees to accompany her father on an extended vacation through Europe. Like an irresistible force that meets an immovable object, father and daughter return from their sojourn unchanged, neither willing to concede defeat. Catherine plans to marry Morris, but is ultimately forced to see both men in the harsh light of who they really are.
A timeless story of a woman's desire to please both her father and the man she loves, Washington Square follows Catherine Sloper's remarkable transformation from a meek wallflower to a steadfast woman true to her own convictions.
Dr. Austin Sloper
"For a man whose trade was to keep people alive he had certainly done poorly in his own family.... He escaped all criticism but his own, which was much the most competent and most formidable. He walked under the weight of this very private censure for the rest of his days."
(Austin Sloper's daughter)
"She was not ugly; she had simply a plain, dull, gentle countenance. The most that had ever been said for her was that she had a 'nice' face; and, though she was an heiress, no one had ever thought of regarding her as a belle.. She was excellently, imperturbably good; affectionate, docile, obedient, and much addicted to speaking the truth."
"He had features like young men in pictures; Catherine had never seen such features-so delicate, so chiseled and finished-among the young New Yorkers whom she passed in the streets and met at dancing-parties. He was tall and slim, but he looked extremely strong."
(Austin Sloper's widowed sister, who lives with Dr. Sloper and Catherine)
"Mrs. Penniman was a tall, thin, fair, rather faded woman, with a perfectly amiable disposition, a high standard of gentility, a taste for light literature, and a certain foolish indirectness and obliquity of character."
(Dr. Sloper's younger sister, who lives farther uptown)
"Mrs. Almond was the wife of a prosperous merchant and the mother of a blooming family. She bloomed herself, indeed, and was a comely, comfortable, reasonable woman, and a favorite with her clever brother."
An Interview with Cynthia Ozick on Washington Square
National Endowment for the Arts staff interviewed Cynthia Ozick, a Henry James scholar and author of The Shawl. Excerpts follow from that conversation.
Question: How would you describe Washington Square to someone who hasn't read it?
Cynthia Ozick: Washington Square is about people who pretend to be what they are not. This is a book about lies, people who lie about themselves and about other people. It's also a novel about the abuse of imagination, the abuse of trust, the abuse of propriety and form; about, above all, the absence of pity.
Q: Catherine Sloper is an unassuming heroine. Can you describe her?
CO: She is drab, she is plain, she is profoundly honest. And like an ideal Victorian daughter, she is humble and obedient. But from the point of view of Dr. Sloper, her father, she is a disappointing failure: he contrasts her with his dead wife, who was beautiful and brilliant and lively.
Q: What kind of man is Austin Sloper?
CO: He regards himself as witty, ironic, and satiric, yet the loss of his wife has made him bitter, sarcastic, and cruel-essentially because he sees that his daughter will never come up to the standard of her mother. He will never accept Catherine for what she is.
Q: Why does he object to Catherine's relationship with Morris Townsend?
CO: Dr. Sloper sees in Morris only the canny maneuvers of a man after money and ease. He abuses him unremittingly.
Q: How would you describe Catherine's aunt, Lavinia Penniman, who becomes caught up in the romance and serves as a comic force in the novel?
CO: Lavinia Penniman is a stereotypical character. In the old Greek and Roman plays, the type is known as a Pandarus, the go-between, the one who comes between the lovers and tries either to make a match or otherwise to interfere. Lavinia is, at bottom, a silly and frivolous woman, but the comedy of her obtuseness, as she works to force the impecunious Morris to pursue his courtship, turns to folly when, scorning Lavinia's flighty eagerness, he mercilessly jilts Catherine.
Q: When it becomes clear that Catherine is determined to marry Morris, why does Dr. Sloper refuse to reconsider his decision?
CO: Dr. Sloper is afflicted by a limitation of imagination. And a sign of this limited imagination is to suppose that his daughter has no imagination of her own, and no innate power, and thereby no possibility of flowering. If you look at the bud of a plant, it looks dead, nothing is happening, there is no signal of future growth. But given time, it will bloom. Dr. Sloper stops too soon. He will not permit Catherine to evolve. In the absence of this rigidity, it is at least thinkable that Catherine might have flowered. As readers equipped with imagination's freedom and flexibility, we can see how Catherine's tragic stoicism might have been forestalled; we can see possibility and hope where dry-hearted Dr. Sloper cannot.
Henry James, 1880 (Library of Congress)
Engraving by George Du Maurier from the 1881 edition of Washington Square. (Library of Congress)
A typical 19th century parlor (Keene Public Library and the Historical Society of Cheshire County)