Washington Square, Henry James (1880)

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!

 

washsquarebookCatherine 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.

washsquare4

Washington Square Park, 1890

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.

My Thoughts

washsquare2If 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
Device: Paperback
Year: 1880
Pages: 159

Challenges: My 2019 Author Reads

The Witches of New York, Ami McKay (2017)

Respectable Lady Seeks Dependable Shopgirl.
Must be well versed in sums, etiquette, tea making, and the language of flowers.
Room and board provided.
Those averse to magic need not apply.

 

witchesny.jpeg
It is 1880 and New York City tea shop owners Eleanor St. Clair and Adelaide Thom are doing a brisk business at their shop, Tea and Sympathy. Eleanor, a hereditary witch with a sympathetic ear makes potions, curative teas and spells that give comfort and insight to the women who come to her for advice. Adelaide, whose past includes sideshow huckster, develops a genuine gift for fortune telling after a devastating acid attack scars her face and causes the loss of her right eye.

 

A shepherdess sees to the care and feeding of her flock, a seamstress sees to the cut of a lady’s dress. Witches see to things best sorted by magic: sorrows of the heart, troubles of the mind, regrets of the flesh. This is what we do. That is who you are. Madame Delphine St. Clair

Though she won’t admit it, Eleanor is feeling the stress of their success with overwork and sleepless nights. Adelaide is concerned, but when she brings up the matter Eleanor cuts her off. So without asking, Adelaide puts an ad in the paper hoping a suitable assistant will appear whom Eleanor won’t refuse. In her small town north of the city, Beatrice Dunn sees the ad and hopes this will be her ticket to a new life. From the moment she enters the city her latent magical abilities emerge. And to Adelaide’s relief, Eleanor takes her ‘gift’ under her wing and Beatrice’s talents blossom. Overseeing the young women is the magnificent raven, Perdu, who sits on his perch high above the actions of the shop. An old, literally talkative soul who belonged to Eleanor’s mother, he sees all and protects the women as best he can.

They meet Dr. Quinn Brody through one of their clients, Judith Dashley, who with her husband, own a well-known hotel. Dr. Brody is an alienist, but has become interested in the after life and communication with the dead. He is anxious to test a device left to him by his father, which he simply called a spiritoscope and though his father’s only experience with the machine was in exposing frauds, Quinn hopes to find a true spiritual medium. When Beatrice admits she can see the dead son of Judith Dashley, Adelaide believes she is the perfect subject for Dr. Brody’s machine and Beatrice agrees. After preliminary tests it is clear the machine through Beatrice is picking up something. They arrange a public demonstration of Beatrice’s abilities at a hall in the Dashley’s hotel, but just before she is scheduled to appear, she goes outside looking for Eleanor, who she can’t find in the audience. A hand closes over her mouth and she is whisked away.

Beatrice is not the only woman disappearing from the streets. A push back against anyone deemed progressive, different, antireligious is in full force. Independent women, especially have been targets of accusations of immorality and witchcraft. Reverend Townsend, a preacher whose demented mind has twisted scripture to construct a one-man army of God against suspected witches in particular has taken it upon himself to bring these women to repentance. He walks the streets in search of prey and tortures the women into admitting their “wrongs.” If they die, it is better that they are off the streets.

His fiery sermons against the immorality of the times has affected one of his flock who is certain evil is going on at Tea and Sympathy and writes to a Mr. Comstock, whose Society for the Suppression of Vice is aimed at cleaning up what goes through the mail as well as what goes on in the streets. People like Sister Piddock write in about their neighbors, shop owners, or anyone they believe are “engaged in questionable activities.”  When agents of the Commission investigate the shop nothing untoward is found, but the women are still on the Piddock radar.

It is Townsend who has taken Beatrice and for days she is suffering his torture in his basement cell. Eleanor and Adelaide are frantic to find her and enlist the authorities as well as people from the neighborhood to help find her. By magic and the visitation of the ghost of one of Townsend’s previous victims, she is able to escape.

Ami McKay has created a very suspenseful story in the way she uses historical details as a foundation for many of the events that effect the characters. In the late 19th century, contact with the dead through private séances and public demonstrations interested many who were grieving over friends and family members. The Comstock Laws of 1873 initially attacked material sent through the mail that had to do with preventing conception, but went on to attack any material or behavior that was considered lewd or lascivious.

Women who needed to prevent pregnancy or end it, could not do so openly. Eleanor and women like her had the recipes, the tinctures, the experience to help in these situations, but their discovery to authorities could prove tragic. It wasn’t uncommon for people to take these laws into their own hands to attack neighbors or others on the streets. McKay populates the book with a range of character types that give the novel a depth of atmosphere. Some are so vulnerable and exposed due to circumstance you fear for their safety against those who want to clean up the streets. Yet, some are so bold that they protect the weak against the hypocrisy of the so-called do-gooders.

cleos.jpeg
Cleopatra’s Needle encased in a massive box crossing train tracks into Manhattan, 1880

When Beatrice boards the train to New York City to apply for the job at Tea and Sympathy, it stops suddenly to make way for a massive box that has stopped on the rails. She is told it contains a great obelisk called, Cleopatra’s Needle and it is making its way from Egypt to Central Park. She has her first mystical experience when she gets off the train to inspect it.

The obelisk is real and its journey to the city in 1880 elicited great excitement. Erected in Egypt in 1450 BC it was sold to the US with specific instructions that it would go to New York City. New Yorkers were enraptured by Egyptomania as merchants and entrepreneurs created specialty foods, costumes and accessories with an Egyptian theme.

Finally, one of the greatest strengths of this novel for me is the friendship between Eleanor, Adelaide and Beatrice. Their support and encouragement of each other’s gifts and purpose even when they have differences in approach is what makes their friendship successful. When Tea and Sympathy is targeted and Beatrice goes missing, it is the good will that the three women have created between themselves and among their friends, the community and even the street people who ultimately come to their defense.

This book affected me in all the right areas: I love its attention to, as well as, bending the historical record; personally, I am on the lookout for a 21st century Tea and Sympathy; and, culturally, I am encouraged by its depiction of community support when any of its members are in trouble.

********

Read more about:

Cleopatra’s Needle, its history and journey to New York City

The Comstock Laws

How, in the aftermath of the Civil War, Spiritualism rose to its apex in the late 19th century:
The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud and Photography, and the man who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost, by Peter Manseau.

______________

My Edition
Title: The Witches of New York
Author: Ami McKay
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Device: Paperback
Year: 2017
Pages: 527
Full plot summary

Challenges: Historical Fiction