Washington Square by Henry James

When I read  The Turn of the Screw by Henry James I was completely engrossed in the book, even with its long convoluted sentences. It’s a dark and melodramatic story, about good and evil and with hints of sexual relations, reflecting the Victorian society of the time.

So I was expecting to be just as engrossed  with Washington Square – especially as I soon realised that the sentence structure is much simpler. It’s much easier to read, but sadly it just didn’t catch my imagination. I found it rather tedious as Catherine Sloper grew older and older, in conflict with her father over whether she should marry Morris Townsend.

It’s all about will /won’t Catherine and Morris get married. Catherine is an adult, living at home in Washington Square with her father the wealthy Dr Sloper. She has money of her own left to her by her mother. It is her father’s money that she will lose if she marries Morris. At first she is completely obedient to her domineering father and is taken in by the handsome Morris who is clearly after her for her money. I think this description of her sums her up so well and her father’s attitude towards her –

‘She is about as intelligent as the bundle of shawls,’ the Doctor said.’

Spoiler alert – if you don’t want to know how the book ends, don’t read on!

But then she does begin to see through Morris, acknowledges her father’s overbearing manipulation and her aunt’s meddling interference and I began to think this is similar to Jane Austen’s Persuasion, but no, this romance just fizzles out as Morris eventually marries someone else, gets bald and fat and widowed. He returns to see Catherine and she finally rejects his advances. She had forgiven him, but she couldn’t forget the past:

‘I can’t forget – I don’t forget,’ said Catherine. ‘You treated me too badly. I felt it very much; I felt it for years.’ And then she went on, with her wish to show him that he must not come to her in this way, ‘I can’t begin again – I can’t take it up. Everything is dead and buried. It was too serious; it made a great change in my life. I never expected to see you here.’ (page 153)

This was number 10 on my Classics Club Spin list, the number picked as the November/December book – not a success for me.

6 thoughts on “Washington Square by Henry James

  1. Henry James is already on my list of Classics authors to read in 2014. I hope to read both “Washington Square” and “The Turn of the Screw.” Thank you for the review. Margaret, I wish you and your family a wonderful New Year!


  2. Margaret – Sorry to hear you were disappointed in this one. Interesting isn’t it how we can be captivated by one book and left rather cold by another.


  3. I’m sorry as this is one of my favourite James. Have you read ‘Portrait of a Lady’? Definitely one I would recommend and if you can get hold of the 1960s television version with Suzanna York and Richard Chamberlain all the better.


  4. I really struggle with Henry James myself, though I did commit to read The Wings of the Dove this year. It sounds like a pretty dull book, actually, and a whiny heroine doesn’t help!


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