Washington Square (novel)

Washington Square is a novel written in 1880 by Henry James about a father's attempts to thwart a romance between his naive daughter and the man he believes wishes to marry her for her money. The novel was famously adapted into a play, The Heiress, which in turn became an Academy Award-winning film starring Olivia de Havilland in the title role.

Washington Square
1880 first edition cover
AuthorHenry James
IllustratorGeorge du Maurier
CountryUnited States
PublisherHarper & Brothers
New York City
Publication date
1 December 1880
Media typePrint: hardcover
Pages266 pp

Background Edit

The plot of the novel is based upon a story told to James by his close friend, British actress Fanny Kemble. An 1879 entry in James' notebooks details an incident where Kemble told James about her brother, who romantically pursued "a dull, commonplace girl...who had a very handsome private fortune."[1][2]

Plot Edit

The story of Washington Square by Henry James is told with a nuanced perspective of characters with individual rationalizations and sometimes undisclosed motivations. There is a subtle ambiguity to the internal logic of the participants in the story and none are altogether depicted as outright villainous.

In 1840s New York City, naive, introverted Catherine Sloper lives with her respected physician father, Dr. Austin Sloper, in Washington Square, a then newly established neighborhood near Greenwich Village. After the deaths of his wife and son, Dr. Sloper raises Catherine with his widowed sister, Mrs. Penniman, who is charged with Catherine's education. Although never disclosed directly to Catherine, the Doctor does not hold her personality or appearance in high regard, finding her a cheap substitute for her mother. This evaluation is never challenged in the narrative and Catherine is depicted as a simple, reserved individual.

Catherine's cousin Marian gets engaged to a man named Arthur Townsend. At the engagement party, Marian introduces Catherine to Arthur's cousin Morris, who flirts with her throughout the party. Catherine slowly becomes acquainted with Morris, who is both attractive and charming, and the two begin a discrete courtship. Dr. Sloper opposes the relationship with suspicions of Townsend's intentions on Catherine's inheritance. At dinner, Sloper evaluates Townsend and decides that he cannot be trusted. Despite her father's protest, Catherine continues to entertain Townsend and Mrs. Penniman invests herself in their relationship as well. When Catherine discloses to Dr. Sloper that they are engaged, the doctor renounces their marriage and threatens to exclude her from his inheritance.

Sloper takes his daughter to Europe for a year, hoping she will forget Townsend, while Aunt Penniman invites Townsend to visit the Sloper home often in their absence. While they are in Switzerland, Sloper attempts once more to talk Catherine out of her engagement, but she refuses to be discouraged, upsetting Sloper with her disobedience. Once the Slopers arrive back in New York, Townsend breaks off his engagement to Catherine rationalizing that without her full inheritance she will be at a disadvantage. It is never disclosed whether his intentions are pure.

Frustrated by her aunt's meddling and unclear of her ex-fiancé's motivations, Catherine continues her life at their home in Washington Square and never marries. She cultivates a life of her own that includes charity work and caring for her aging father. Dr. Sloper informs Catherine that he does not trust that she won't some day marry Townsend and has decided to diminish her inheritance as a final act of conviction against the man he does not trust.

Soon after Dr. Sloper's death, Aunt Penniman orchestrates one last meeting between Townsend and Catherine. Now older and wiser, she rebuffs his advances and continues her life without him. The story ends with no resolution to Townsends true intentions and the reader is left to decide if the tragedy was averted by them never marrying.

List of characters Edit

  • Austin Sloper - Prestigious American physician.
  • Catherine Sloper - Austin's wife, née Catherine Harrington.
  • Catherine Sloper, Ms - Austin and Catherine's daughter.
  • Lavinia Penniman - Austin's sister.
  • Elizabeth Almond - Austin's sister.
  • Jefferson Almond - Elizabeth's husband, a prosperous merchant.
  • Marian Almond - Jefferson and Elizabeth's daughter.
  • Morris Townsend - Ms. Catherine fiancé, abhorred by Austin.
  • Arthur Townsend - Morris' cousin, Marian's fiancée.
  • Mrs. Montgomery - Morris' widow sister.

Literary significance and criticism Edit

James himself did not think highly of the novel.[3] He described it as "poorish" and said, "The only good thing in the story is the girl."[2] Edward Wagenknecht noted that it "has certainly attracted more favorable attention."[4] Critic Donald Hall wrote, "Everybody likes Washington Square, even the denigrators of Henry James".[5]

Adaptations Edit

Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted the novel for the stage as The Heiress, originally performed on Broadway in 1947 with Wendy Hiller as Catherine and Basil Rathbone as Dr. Sloper, and revived a number of times since.[6] The play was adapted for film in 1949, and starred Olivia de Havilland as Catherine, Ralph Richardson as Dr. Sloper, and Montgomery Clift as Morris. William Wyler directed. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won four.[7]

In 1972, Mexican director Jose Luis Ibañez made a movie version of this novel titled Victoria (based on his own adaptation with Jorge Font) and starred Julissa, Enrique Alvarez Félix, Guillermo Murray and Rita Macedo. This adaptation takes place in modern day Mexico City and takes liberties with the original text.[8]

Rudolf Nureyev choreographed a full length ballet based on the novel and set to the music of Charles Ives for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1985. The time period was updated to the early 1900s.[9]

In 1992, Filipino director Carlos Siguion-Reyna directed a film adaptation titled Ikaw Pa Lang ang Minahal (Only You). It starred Maricel Soriano as Adela (Catherine), Richard Gomez as David Javier (Morris Townsend), Eddie Gutierrez as Dr. Sevilla (Dr. Sloper) and Charito Solis as Tia Paula (Aunt Lavinia). The screenplay was written by Raquel Villavicencio.

Polish director Agnieszka Holland made Washington Square in 1997, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, and Ben Chaplin, with Maggie Smith as Mrs. Penniman.

The novel was adapted as an opera by Thomas Pasatieri in 1976.[10]

In 2013, playwright John W. Lowell published a modern gay adaptation called Sheridan Square.[11][12]

American author Hanya Yanagihara's 2022 novel To Paradise was heavily influenced by Washington Square with the first section taking its title from the novel and loosely following the same setup though re-imagined in an 1890s New York where same-sex marriage is legal.

References Edit

  1. ^ Singer, Irving. Cinematic Mythmaking. MIT Press. p. 88.
  2. ^ a b Simpson, Mona (3 June 2013). "Can She Be Loved? On "Washington Square"". The New Yorker. Conde Nast.
  3. ^ A Henry James Encyclopedia by Robert Gale, Greenwood Press 1989, ISBN 0-313-25846-5, p. 797.
  4. ^ The Novels of Henry James by , Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. 1983, ISBN 0-8044-2959-6, pp. 68–75.
  5. ^ Washington Square, Signet Classics 1964, afterword by Donald Hall, p. 181
  6. ^ "The Heiress – Broadway Play – Original | IBDB". www.ibdb.com. Retrieved 13 April 2022.
  7. ^ "The Heiress - Trailer - Showtimes - Cast - Movies - New York Times". 23 November 2007. Archived from the original on 23 November 2007. Retrieved 13 April 2022.
  8. ^ Historia documental del cine mexicano (Volume 15: 1970–1971) by Emilio García Riera, Universidad de Guadalajara, 1992, pp. 210–211.
  9. ^ "Washington square - Nureyev's choreography".
  10. ^ Reviews from Theodore Presser[dead link]
  11. ^ RVA Staff, "Weekend Events 1/25/13 – Live music, dancing, and plays". RVA Magazine. 25 January 2013.[dead link]
  12. ^ Richard Dodds, State-censored sex drives, Bay Area Reporter, 17 April 2014[dead link]

External links Edit