Readers of novels in the 19th century expected heroines to be beautiful. Golden or raven tresses, sparkling eyes, an elegant figure and a pleasing countenance – these were what any heroine ought to have if she were to interest a reader. When in 1847 Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre was published, with its plain heroine, many readers felt terribly cheated. This was not what novels were supposed to be about! Who wanted to read about an unattractive female? After all, wasn’t it the first duty of a woman to be decorative?
But Henry James took the idea of a plain heroine one step further. Jane Eyre had been clever, able to match Mr Rochester’s wit with her own sharp intelligence. But Henry James created a heroine who is not only plain, but also far from bright, socially gauche and awkward. She is even “something of a glutton”. He took a big risk! He could have made Catherine Sloper as uninteresting to the reader as she clearly is to her father. But instead, he moves his readers to sympathise with Catherine’s plight, to admire her loyalty and devotion, her sincerity and innate honesty. He creates a powerful story about a woman trapped in a loveless relationship with her father and ‘lover’.
“If a work of imagination, of fiction, interest me at all (and very few, alas, do!) I always want to write it over in my own way.” ― Washington Square, Henry James
When I think of Washington Square what first comes to mind is its ending. It must be one of the most memorable, devastating endings of any novel ever! After the passing of many years, Catherine’s lover Morris comes to visit, still hoping that he might get his hands upon her money. Catherine is quiet and dignified, but requests that he never come again, then she lowers her eyes and waits for him to leave the room. We then get an extraordinary last sentence: “Catherine, meanwhile, in the parlour, picking up her morsel of fancy-work, had seated herself with it again – for life, as it were.” Such a bleak picture, and so powerful! The girl who loved bright red dresses and was full of love for her father is reduced to this shadow in a dim parlour, spending her days working on a morsel.
Washington Square is a moving novel. Its power comes from Henry James’s study of the human mind and its workings. One of Henry James’s easiest books to read, it is a fabulous depiction of wealthy life in New York in the middle of the 19th century. It has always been my favourite Henry James novel. I hope you enjoy it too.
Washington Square by Henry James
Washington Square by Henry James, narrated by actor Jennifer Ehle (who acted Elizabeth Bennet in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice)
Henry James: The Young Master by Sheldon M. Novick
Henry James: The Mature Master by Sheldon M. Novick
Henry James: The Imagination of Genius by Fred Kaplan
The Typewriter’s Tale by Michiel Heyns (a novel about Henry James and the typist to whom he dictated many of his works, Frieda Wroth)
Author, Author by David Lodge
The Master by Cólm Toibín
Washington Square by Henry James. Free downloadable version in various formats including Kindle, epub, pdf and others. If you are unsure of how to add these files to your ereader, look here.
Washington Square by Henry James, narrated by Dawn Murphy.
FIND IN A LIBRARY (You will need to create an account and hold a library card.)
Washington Square by Henry James National Library of Australia free public access to books in libraries at Trove.
A playlist for Washington Square by Henry James including the full 1997 movie adaptation directed by Agnieszka Holland and starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, Ben Chaplin and Maggie Smith.
The Heiress, full 1949 movie directed by William Wyler and starring Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift, based on a stage adaptation of Washington Square.
SBS The Movie Show, with David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz, Episode 26, 1998, Washington Square, reviews the 1997 movie. .