Book Review

Washington Square by Henry James

a mediocre short novel

I wrote about two of Henry James’ novels in my undergraduate dissertation, waaaay back in 2010. Since reading Portrait of a Lady and Daisy Miller multiple times, I haven’t ventured back towards James in the decade since, though have always considered him a writer I kinda like.

I enjoyed Washington Square, reading it over a single lazy day while out of the city for a few days in late June, but I think any book read beside a beautiful, forested lake in thirty degree heat will tend to be enjoyable unless, of course, it is irredeemably awful. Case in point: Role of Honor [sic], which was appalling but I still managed to enjoy, a bit. Of course, James’ 1880 novel (serialised in a magazine, then published in book form the following year) Washington Square is not a bad book, flirting with this risk only in its literary faux pas, but it is also far from perfect, and severely lacking in several key elements which keep deep enjoyment somewhat at bay.

Maybe these faults exist in all Henry James, and I was merely blind to them a decade ago.

What has changed in all that time?

More in the last few years than in the years before it.

Shortly after finishing my degree in Cardiff, I moved to London where I lived mostly in the same house until the Spring of 2017. I then leapfrogged around the city for a year, spending significant chunks in Brixton, Wapping and Seven Sisters, before moving to Barcelona for the best part of 2018 and then crossing the Atlantic to Toronto, and then, alas alas alas, the pandemic arrived and with it the social unrest and the time to be spent seeking solidification and permanence of thought and opinion.

In that decade, I have read a lot. I have written a lot, too.

I have had a lot of wonderful experiences, but also some shit ones.

I no longer approach the books I read and (I hope!) the “serious” writing I do with ignorance, with naïveté or with confusion. I know what I am hoping to gain from the books that I read; I know what I want, and I know that when I fail to obtain that, sometimes it is the fault of my misjudged hope, but sometimes it is the fault of a miswritten text. With Washington Square, in contrast to how I remember feeling about Daisy Miller and Portrait of a Lady, it is the book that misfires.

In claiming to write a character study of a young and then middle-aged woman, James fails to deliver any real sense of Catherine Sloper’s inner life, ideals or hopes. Rather than a complex individualised human, Catherine is an expensive if not beautiful object: as a rich, unmarried, heiress, she attracts a suitor who only wants her for her money, which her father recognises, and goes out of his way to break them up.

Washington Square doesn’t delve into the emotional responses Catherine has to these men trying to outwit each other because of her money: she is indecisive but committed and falls through the gap between the two men’s desires. Is she in love with the young bounder? Is she in awe to her father’s decrees? Perhaps “yes” to the first question, but definitely “no” to the second.

Catherine’s father wants his rich daughter to be happy and to be free, but the freedom he offers her is not the freedom to make mistakes, only the freedom to offend, to lose his respect. She can make decisions he disapproves of, but in doing so he withholds his affection and his interest in her, as well as the parts of her fortune over which he maintains control.

The failure to evoke the consciousness and the felt humanity of the heroine is the biggest failure of the text, a failure to humanise characters which is repeated through James’ – even in 1880 – old-fashioned inability to treat servant characters as people. This dehumanising of the “staff” is, of course, a failure in the characters, but it is a failure in the narrator, in the author, too.

Every character is rich and has “domestics”, but no line of dialogue is uttered towards their butlers and maids, and – of course – no line of dialogue is directed from the staff to their employers. None of the servants are named or differentiated: they are their role, their job, and nothing else. In a work of fiction from the USA in 1880, even if it isn’t about class and race and politics, by failing to allude to these important issues, James is displaying an unpleasant truth. His novel is set thirty years before, which means he was writing about the period just before the American Civil War from a period a little over a decade beyond it.

James wrote his novel after slavery existed in the USA, but set it beforehand. Even if this was an accidental act, it is significant and pretty damning, imo.

In writing a novel about a young woman that fails to transmit any idea of her personhood, while consciously avoiding writing about [arguably] the most significant historical event[s] of the USA’s history, Henry James unfortunately fails to fulfil the promise and the intent of Washington Square. This feels like pretty arid fiction: though there is humour, there isn’t enough depth to these characters to create any real emotional or actual peril: because Catherine Sloper barely exists, I had no involvement with her romantic predicament.

A disappointment. Maybe James is a writer of the canon best left in rose-tinted, undergraduate, memory.

Give this one a miss.

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