Lately I’d been realising that it had been a while since I’d picked up anything from within the classic cannon to read. That’s not to say that I haven’t been reading lot of things from the past, as I have been picking up an awful lot of historical fiction, yet all of these have been fairly newer releases and not anything actually written in the past. I always find myself drawn back to the genre of classic fiction, and with many of these unread books on my shelves it’s always hard to decide which one to pick up next. In the end the book I settled on was Washington Square by Henry James. I’ve read one other book by James, arguably his most iconic novel, The Turn of the Screw. I really enjoyed The Turn when I read it a few years ago, and I thought picking up something a little bit different from this author would be quit telling as to whether I did really like his writing style.
Whereas The Turn is a Gothic read, Washington Square can be seen as a tragicomedy. It follows events relating to Dr Sloper and his daughter Catherine. When Catherine falls in love with the handsome Morris Townsend her life is complete, yet her father will never reconcile himself to the thought of his daughter marrying someone such as Morris, a man he is certain cares more for Catherine’s inheritance than her personality. The catch is great, for if Catherine defies her father’s wishes he makes it clear than she will not see a penny of his considerable fortune. For Catherine her love is worth more than any amount of money, but does her would be suitor truly feel the same?
The thing which really struck me so forcibly throughout this whole reading experience was just how different this short novel is compared to The Turn of the Screw. Whereas the Turn of the Screw is a horror novella designed to set readers nerves alight and to draw us into the many thrills and ambiguities of the text, here Washington Square is much more of a straightforward story on the surface. It deals very explicitly with the characters and the social context of New York society at the time, and it’s hard to believe that someone could write a story about ghosts and possibly demented governesses, and the write one surrounding marriage, love and wealth. The plots themselves may be drastically different, but James’s writing is just as clever and readable as I remember The Turn being, which really does show the versatility of the author.
On the surface this book has quite a simply plot which is very linear in its movements and keeps on pushing forwards towards its conclusion. Yet I would argue that whilst the plot is entertaining to keep up with, it is not really even about the plot at all. What really sustained my interest was the characters themselves, for this is undeniably much more of a character study and a look at the wider society than it is of the events themselves or even the love which Catherine feels for Morris. We keep reading because we want to know what the characters are going to do or say next; are they going to fall into the pit of stereotypes and meet our expectations or might they defy us?
Although Catherine is the lady in love, the book is very dominated by the men in her life; her father, Dr Sloper, and her lover, Morris Townsend. In fact, you can see it as a battles of wits between these two individuals, with Catherine the unknowing victim in-between them. I read somewhere that Catherine is the only honest and straightforward character in the novel, and I would agree with this statement, even going so far as to say that it is this which makes her fall into the background somewhat. You know what you see is what you get with this young woman, whereas both of the other men invite us to try and decipher their hidden meanings and the subtle context within their speech and actions. I also just found Dr Sloper in particular thoroughly entertaining, with his great sense of irony and subtle humour making for a great multilayered personality, even if he isn’t the most likeable of people.
Whilst I’ve mentioned above that Catherine’s character falls into the background, it is interesting to see her undergo a transformation of sorts. It may not be a grand or brilliant one, but we do see her begin to gain some perspective and to learn to see things as they truly are. Catherine has always taken people how she herself is, taking their words and actions at face value. It is this which puts her in her predicament with Morris in the first places and gains her father’s displeasure, yet by the end of the novel there is an understanding within her that people are perhaps not what they might outwardly appear. The ending isn’t what I would call happy or ultimately satisfying, but I did take pleasure from seeing her grow and having her maintain her own authority against those who would take advantage, including family.
I found my reading experience of Washington Square quite bizarre. It’s a short little book which is fast paced and easy to get through, whilst there is also a sense that not much happens across the whole span of the book. Even so, I found myself really enjoying this read in terms of both the simple surface level plot as well as the subtler contexts within. I think this is definitely a book which would get even better with consecutive reads and further chances to really explore and analyse the many meanings within. If anything though, it has made me sure that I really do enjoy Henry James’s work and that I want to pick up more from this author in the future.
Publisher: Penguin English Library