Class convenes. Professor C. comes at last to Henry James. A natural fit, no? To all the new readers, welcome. Professor C. is my papa.
Why didn’t Henry James include Washington Square in the great New York Edition of his works (1907-09), a massive project of choosing, commenting and revising that he looked on as his ticket to posterity only to be disappointed by a tepid public reception? Even Jamesians more inclined to the dense intricacy of the late novels would agree that Washington Square – the story of a very shy, very plain heiress, Catherine Sloper; of her cruel and viciously attentive father, Dr. Austin Sloper, always comparing Catherine unfavorably to her late mother; and a handsome, suspicious suitor, Morris Townsend — is a short masterpiece. Why then not include it? But James discovered he couldn’t even reread it. “I can’t” he said.
Jamesian questions are freighted. Maybe no American writer takes up more space on library shelves. Commentaries, biographies, criticism lie thick on the ground. I have read only the smallest part. But I think the editor of the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Washington Square has an answer to the problem of the novel and its exclusion from the New York Edition. Having offered structural reasons why the novel might have resisted revision, Adrian Poole then tiptoes up to another kind of reading: “There are of course other possible reasons tied up with James’s personal involvement in the past in which the novel is set: some of the raw matter lurking beneath the surface might have been simply too painful.” Just, I suspect, so.
Washington Square is a painful read. Pick up the narrative anywhere, and you are caught in a society where everything is under scrutiny all the time, everyone is watching everyone else, every introduction (Catherine is embarrassed by introductions), every farewell, every gesture, every word is accountable. And, at the center, Miss Sloper, “shy, uncomfortably, painfully shy,” suffers most. Here is what the claustrophobic world of Washington Square is like. It is a family evening at Dr. Sloper’s sister’s. He leaves the room briefly and, coming back, sees Catherine seated on a small couch next to the newly-arrived Morris Townsend. A distinguished medical man, proud of his diagnostic skills, Dr. Sloper “saw in a moment, however, that his daughter was painfully conscious of his own observation. She sat motionless, with her eyes bent down, staring at her open fan, deeply flushed, shrinking together as if to minimize the indiscretion of which she confessed herself guilty.”
Of course it is Morris who has “lost as little time as possible in seating himself on a small sofa, beside Catherine.” That does not excuse her in her own eyes or those, she imagines, of her father. On the Web I find an article called “The role of shame, guilt and embarrassment in online social dilemmas.” No need to read it: Henry James got there first, just not online.
James goes against the American grain. When I was in graduate school (long ago) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, American literature was the province of three bull elephants on the English faculty who saw themselves as being, first of all, not “old Europe” (in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, Princeton,1954). One exceptional Americanist, much different in temperament and a student of James, had died before I arrived. As a result, “American Studies” seemed to me a religion of toughness; or pseudo-toughness. American “exceptionalism,” that fetish of the contemporary right (and not just the right), reflects even at this distance a cultural mythology. The heroes of American Studies were the likes of Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, James Fenimore Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, Dreiser, Hemingway. Women were admitted only through the back door of “regional literature”: Willa Cather or Sarah Orne Jewett.
James did not fit the model. So it happened that I read him for the first time in a summer class, taught not by one of the local faculty but by a visitor from Columbia, the civilized, eclectic, humane Fred Dupee. After his death, Mary McCarthy wrote a tribute: “ ‘He’s French, you see,’ Edmund Wilson used to emphasize in his roaring voice.” In fact Dupee came from the middle west, but his sensibility did not resemble those of the elephants. “Fred wrecked many pretentious and ill-considered schemes in the department” – these the words of a younger colleague at Columbia – “just by sighing at the right time in a meeting.” He was the right interpreter of James. Early in that summer I read Washington Square. What I remember is a feeling of menace, a sense that this was all more than I could handle. I think I understand now what that feeling was about.
Early in the novel is a deeply strange passage in which Henry James the narrator addresses Henry James himself who was born in 1840, the very moment of the novel’s setting, in his grandmother’s house at 21 Washington Place, off the Square:
“It was here that your grandmother lived in venerable solitude, and dispensed a hospitality which commended itself alike to the infant imagination and the infant palate; it was here that you took your first walks abroad, following the nursery-maid with unequal step and sniffing up the strange odour of the ailantus-trees which at that time formed the principal umbrage of the Square, and diffused an aroma that you were not yet critical enough to dislike as it deserved; it was here, finally, that your first school, kept by a broad-bosomed, broad-based old lady with a ferule, who was always having tea in a blue cup, with a saucer that didn’t match, enlarged the circle both of your observations and your sensations. It was here, at any rate, that my heroine spent many years of her life; which is my excuse for this topographical parenthesis.”
Here is raw and painful matter beneath the surface: disingenuously, James calls his digression “topographical” but it is hardly that. Has a novelist ever cast his lot so nakedly, so painfully, so personally, with his “heroine?” Years later, in the first volume of his autobiography, A Small Boy and Others (the title reveals a lot), James compares himself and his formidably talented older brother William: “what comes to me is that I … hung inveterately and woefully back.” Hanging “inveterately and woefully” back could be a description of poor, shy Catherine Sloper. That is why I think Adrian Poole may be right: that Washington Square is not in the New York Edition because the story cut so close to the bone.
Catherine’s story ends sadly, as you would expect. Her father takes her to Europe, the customary treatment to discourage daughters from undesirable suitors or to conceal out-of-wedlock pregnancies. It doesn’t work, but Morris Townsend bows out, knowing that Dr. Sloper will disinherit Catherine if she marries him. Years later he returns, a widower, his good looks mostly gone but hoping to renew his attentions. Catherine, who has refused to promise her father she won’t marry Morris after Dr. Sloper’s death, nonetheless turns Morris down. The last we see of her, after this final visit, she has returned to her needlework, seating herself with it – “for life, as it were.” “As it were,” the very last, very Jamesian word. Even so, in Catherine’s steadfast spinsterhood (she has turned down a suitor or two), she emerges from the ordeal stronger than anyone else, her father included. As James himself would do, she sticks to her needlework.
Washington Square was turned into a play, “The Heiress,” and the play was turned into a film (1949) by William Wyler, with Olivia de Havilland, Errol Flynn’s frequent on screen partner, submerging her own beauty as Catherine; Montgomery Clift as Morris Townsend; and Ralph Richardson as Dr. Sloper. De Havilland won the Academy Award; Richardson was nominated for best supporting actor and surely should have won for his chilling performance (who remembers Dean Jagger in “Twelve O’Clock High”?); and the film was a big success. Adapting James takes very good acting indeed. How to translate (for example) the dark, obscure cruelty of Catherine’s father: “”you would have had to know him well to discover that on the whole he rather enjoyed having to be so disagreeable” So much of the James manner depends on adverbial qualifiers: “on the whole he rather enjoyed having to be so disagreeable.” It seems untranslatable, but watching the film, then looking back to James’s text, you recognize the perfection of Richardson’s performance.
Small touches enhance the story. In the novel, Morris tells Catherine, “I sing a little myself … some day I will show you. Not to-day, but some other time.” In the film (as I imagine in the play), he plays and sings “Plaisir d’Amour.” I wondered if that was an anachronism, but no, “Plaisir d’Amour was composed in 1790. Its foreboding theme, that love’s pleasures are for a moment, its sorrows for a lifetime, matches the events to come. The musical score alludes to the tune from the start, sometimes heavy-handedly (it’s said William Wyler thought Aaron Copland’s allusions in the original score were too sophisticated for a film-going audience), but for the musically unsophisticated (myself), often oblivious to film scores, it captures the ear.
The film (and I’ve been told, the play) takes big liberties with James’s ending, but if the result is a different story from the original, it doesn’t seem entirely out of line. Morris Townsend has not to our knowledge been married when he returns; he is not “fat and bald,” as Dr. Sloper describes him in the novel; Catherine has had no suitors in the intervening years; and she has grown vengeful. She encourages Morris to think she will marry him but bolts the door when he comes to claim her. The dish of revenge has seldom been served more cold. Having just finished the final stitch of the final letter “Z” on her fancy-work, she goes up the stairs of her house as Morris pounds at the door desperately. The film substitutes a noisy ending for a quiet one, melodrama for resignation. Myself, I wish Wyler had reverted to the original quiet ending, as Scorsese did in “The Age of Innocence.” But after all that Catherine has been through, it’s hard to begrudge her recompense.
Washington Square, via Penguin Classics, Henry James’ study via Mantex, Washington Square in the 1880’s via Ephemeral New York, James at 16 via Answers.com, The Heiress poster via IMDb, Ralph Richardson via actoroscar, Oliva de Havilland via The Ticket Booth.