Father: The principal thing that we know about this young man—leads us to suppose that, however much he may value your personal merits, he values your money more….If Morris Townsend has spent his own fortune in amusing himself, there is every reason to believe that he would spend yours.
Daughter: That is not the principal thing we know about him…He is kind, and generous, and true…and his fortune—his fortune that he spent—was very small!
Catherine Sloper is the only child of Dr. Austin Sloper, a well-respected physician among the upper classes of New York City. Mrs. Sloper died a week after giving birth to Catherine and left her a large inheritance. Upon Dr. Sloper’s death, her inheritance will greatly increase. In this lies the tension between the two.
When Catherine is 10 years old, Dr. Sloper’s widowed sister, Lavinia, comes to live with them as a companion and confidante to Catherine with the expressed mandate from Dr. Sloper that she “make a clever woman of her.” But that order is an utter failure and instead, Catherine grows into an extremely modest young woman with a dullness of wit and creativity. In social situations she prefers to lurk in the background which has given her a lack of romantic as well as general experience of the world.
These character traits put off young men, even with the expectation of a large fortune, so Catherine is rarely courted. Disappointed that he produced an unremarkable child, her father acknowledges, at least, her faithfulness and affection to him. Catherine is not aware of the specifics of his disappointment, but makes up for what she feels by having developed the sense that all her decisions in life must please her father and in that sacrifice resides her own happiness.
But the unexpected happens when Catherine meets Morris Townsend, a friend of her cousin, who has recently returned from Europe. He begins courting her with Aunt Lavinia encouraging the couple to the irritation of Dr. Sloper. Townsend has no job, which is suspicious enough since he just returned from abroad. His intuition tells him not to trust Townsend, but Catherine has fallen in love.
Dr. Sloper is aware that his unworldly daughter would always be prey to fortune hunters, so it is with an eye trained to ferret out these deceivers that he sees Townsend. To prove his intuition, he goes to the home of Townsend’s sister, with whom he lives, and discovers not only did he spend what little inheritance he received from their parents in Europe he has no money or interest in getting a job. As poor as the widowed Mrs. Montgomery is, she supports him. After a difficult and lengthy conversation in which Dr. Sloper shares his reservations about his daughter marrying her brother, she acknowledges his fears and parts with these words, “Don’t let her marry him!”
When Dr.Sloper lays down the law that Catherine is not to marry Townsend, she is distraught. She cannot disappoint him and is convinced he just needs time to get to know Townsend. And so begins a battle of wills, a game cat and mouse over who will break first. Catherine’s duty to her father is just as strong as her desire for Townsend. In a bid to rid Catherine of her affection for Townsend Dr. Sloper takes her to Europe for an entire year. They rarely bring up Townsend’s name, but upon their return her father is stunned at her anxiousness to see him. When he threatens to disinherit her, leaving only her mother’s money if she marries him, she responds with, “if only you would get to know him…”
Would it help her father’s argument to tell Catherine of his conversation with Townsend’s sister and the true motive of his interest in her? It might, but he doesn’t. His pride dictates that Catherine’s duty and faithfulness to his wishes must be the only reason she gives up Townsend, not the evidence of an ulterior motive. To make matters worse and more complicated Townsend is persuaded by Aunt Lavinia to wait it out for she too believes Dr. Sloper only needs “to get to know you.” Townsend urges Catherine to elope, but she puts him off several times. Such an act is a betrayal of her father she could never commit. He has finally had enough of her hesitation and leaves her; whether for good, she is not sure.
If this sounds like a melodrama, you’d not be far off. In true Henry James fashion the reader is privy to all the internal strife and conversations each character experiences in his or her mind. This is a hallmark of any of his novels, long or short, and in this I am always reminded he is the younger brother of the great 19th century psychologist William James. But in this novella the mental processing works very well making this simple story richer, with the actors fully fleshed by their thoughts.
The narrative moves fast despite the psychological wrestling. This device may not be to every reader’s liking, but it gives a depth to a character’s internal process and struggles making their actions clear. There is never a doubt as to why a character in a James novel acts the way he or she does!
The obvious question is, of course, did Catherine marry Townsend or not? It took discipline not to jump to the end to find out. I was surprised!
Title: Washington Square
Author: Henry James
Publisher: Bantam Classic
Challenges: My 2019 Author Reads