Top critical review
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on 27 May 2010
In contrast to James's earlier novels, where European and American ideals are often embodied in the form of beautiful women of superficiality on one side and less attractive women of substance on the other (with the male figures torn between the respective attractions of each), in Washington Square (1880), James follows his more nuanced and intriguing characterisation of Daisy Miller (1878) with another fascinating female protagonist - a quite plain and ordinary heroine - and finds in her another means to look at social attitudes.
Catherine Sloper is the daughter of an eminent and respected widower doctor who lives at Washington Square in New York. She's not clever, not pretty and a bit of a glutton for cream cakes, but she is clearly good, obedient and docile. These aren't qualities that Dr Sloper believes will result in a distinguished marriage, and he reluctantly accepts the fact, leaving his daughter's upbringing and education in the hands of his sister Mrs Penniman, a widow. At the ripe old age of 22, Catherine, shy, sensitive and of a delicate disposition, remains unmarried and indeed uncourted.
When a young man shows interest in his daughter, Dr. Sloper is initially amused, but suspicious of the fact that Morris Townsend has no money, no position and appears to be living off his married sister, who herself is not at all wealthy, and seeing no attraction in his own daughter other than the dowry and inheritance that she will come into, he takes a great dislike to the young man and opposes any suggestion of a marriage. Mrs Penniman however has romantic ideas about a secret union and tries to encourage both parties to go against her brother's wishes. Poor Catherine seems to be caught in the middle with no will or volition of her own.
Washington Square is not the most impressive Henry James, but it's a slim little novel that is delightfully twisted in its own way, and neatly and satisfactorily wrapped up as ever with James, who never goes against the tone of his stories. It's very much a "talkie" book - everyone has meetings with everyone else and has a frank conversation, believing they are being honest and upfront, with the best interests of Catherine at heart, but in reality, they care for nothing more than themselves, their own sense of self-importance and self-interest and how they are regarded in society if Catherine has no concerns for it herself. It's in the absence of any volition on the part of the rather nondescript Catherine that both Mrs Penniman and Dr. Sloper (and to a large extent even Morris Townsend as well) go as far as enacting on her behalf the passions she appears to lack - passions that prove to be false and misplaced, while Catherine remains true.
Washington Square is a popular James novel for its romantic novelistic touches, even if it was never a favourite of the author himself. It's far from the strongest Henry James novel, not even of his earlier work, but the characterisation is well observed, never giving in to standard expectations, and carried through realistically - and almost cruelly - to the end. Catherine (along with the aforementioned Daisy Miller) is at least one of James's most interesting female characters of this period - one that seems to operate outside the normal binary distinctions one finds in early James works.