Friday, February 22, 2013

Washington Square by Henry James


Washington Square
by Henry James
originally published in 1880
Modern Library, 2002 edition
288 pages

Book description (from amazon):
Washington Square follows the coming-of-age of its plain-faced, kindhearted heroine, Catherine Sloper. Much to her father’s vexation, a handsome opportunist named Morris Townsend woos the long-suffering heiress, intent on claiming her fortune. When Catherine stubbornly refuses to call off her engagement, Dr. Sloper forces Catherine to choose between her inheritance and the only man she will ever truly love. Cynthia Ozick, in her Introduction to what she calls Henry James’s “most American fiction,” writes that “every line, every paragraph, every chapter [of Washington Square] is a fleet-footed light brigade, an engine of irony.” Precise and understated, this charming novel endures as a matchless study of New York in the mid-nineteenth century.

My thoughts:
After seeing The Heiress  on Broadway (starring Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame!), I felt compelled to read the novel behind the play. I'm not sure how long the book has been on my shelf, but the measure is in years rather than months.

My love of the show certainly influenced my reaction to the book, and it often felt like I was watching the play again as I read. As far as Henry James novels go, this seems to be among the most readable. He is famous for long, convoluted sentences, especially in later works, but there was very little of that here. Washington Square is relatively straight-forward and easy to follow.

A description of Catherine:
"She was a healthy, well-grown child, without a trace of her mother's beauty. She was not ugly; she had simply a plain, dull, gentle countenance. The most that had ever been said for her was that she had a "nice" face; and, though she was an heiress, no one had ever thought of regarding her as a belle. Her father's opinion of her moral purity was abundantly justified; she was excellently, imperturbably good; affectionate, docile, obedient, and much addicted to speaking the truth. In her younger years she was a good deal of a romp, and though it is an awkward confession to make about one's heroine, I must add that she was something of a glutton. She never, that I know of, stole raisins out of the pantry, but she devoted her pocket money to the purchase of creme cakes..."  p. 12
and on her character awakening:
"Catherine meanwhile had made a discovery of a very different sort; it had become vivid to her that there was a great excitement in trying to be a good daughter. She had an entirely new feeling, which may be described as a state of expectant suspense about her own actions. She watched herself as she would have watched another person, and wondered what she would do. It was as if this other person who was both herself and not herself, had suddenly sprung into being, inspiring her with a natural curiosity as to the performance of untested functions." p. 104
My rating:



Bottom line:
 Overall, a very readable and enjoyable Henry James novel, but The Portrait of a Lady is still my favorite. The play, however, is highly recommended!

Washington Square is available as a free kindle download.






36 comments:

  1. this sounds tempting. i loved portrait of a lady and struggled with wings of the dove- the movie of which i loved. so i like hearing that this is readable and approachable, because I'd love to try Henry James again!

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    1. Marie - Sometimes it seems to me that Henry James is two different authors. His later work is SO difficult. I tried Wings of the Dove and never made it beyond the first chapter!

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  2. I've read very little of Henry James, but I have loved every single thing I've read. I know this is one of his shorter works, too. Maybe once the TBR Double Dog Dare is over I will get a Kindle. ;-)

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    1. James - I just left you a comment extolling the virtues of my kindle. Maybe it should be your reward for completing the dare!

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  3. Sadly, I am not familiar with this author's works. I try to read a couple of classics every year but last year, that didn't happen.

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    1. Ti - If you decide to give James a try, I'd recommend starting with a short, early work like Daisy Miller.

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  4. Thanks for the tip re the free on kindle book. This is one of the ones I haven't read. Would you believe I only caught on to James after college and not during college?

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    1. Book Dilettante - I read The Turn of the Screw for the first time in college, but only came to love Henry James years later.

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  5. I got to see The Heiress and enjoyed it so much that I resolved to read the book. I still haven't, largely because I'm afraid of those long convoluted sentences. I read two of his novellas: The Coxon Fund and Lesson from the Master, and wasn't too thrilled. With fond memories of the play, though, I'll have to give this one a shot.

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    1. Melody - I haven't read either of the two you mentioned, but be assured that Washington Square is quite readable... and is sure to be even more enjoyable after seeing the play.

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  6. I've always wanted to read this one, and I am kicking myself now that I didn't see The Heiress when I was in NYC in December (i was supposed to see Rebecca but it was postponed, so I just got a massage that night instead). I think Jessica Chastain was in it, wasn't she? And I've yet to watch DA but I do know that Dan Stevens is one of the best audio narrators ever.

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    1. Sandy - Yes. Jessica Chastain, along with Judith Ivey and David Strathairn (Seward in Lincoln) were all fantastic! You really need to get season 1 and start watching Downton Abbey!

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  7. I loved Portrait of a Lady too, and after that meant to read more James but haven't gotten around to it. This sounds pretty good. I didn't realize The Heiress was based on this book. You're so lucky to have seen the play!

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    1. Laura - The play was excellent... such a treat! Daisy Miller is another James novel that I really liked.

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  8. I've always shied away from James but your review makes me think I would enjoy this one.

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    1. Kathleen - I think it's Henry James later work that has given him the reputation of being difficult. Daisy Miller would be a good one to start with, too.

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  9. Now I have to see if The Heiress will still be playing when we visit NYC at the end of March! Sounds great and while I typically like to read the book first, it sounds like seeing the play enhanced your reading of the book. I've been toying with the idea of reading some Henry James--he and I struggle to like each other--but I liked the quotes you provided and may give this one a whirl.

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    1. JaneGS - Just checked the website and the show closed February 9. I've heard good things about the movie too, maybe you could watch that first. Have you read Daisy Miller? I think that's a good place to start with Henry James.

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  10. It would be fun to see Dan Stevens in a play. Observing disappointed Downton Abbey fans making snarky remarks online about his departure from the show makes you realize what a gutsy career move he has made.

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    1. Fay - Dan Stevens was wonderful. It's hard to imagine him playing the role of a villain and speaking with an American accent, but he managed both flawlessly! Most definitely a gutsy career move leaving DA.

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  11. I feel like I'm still discovering Henry James, having only read two of his shorter works, and I've been keeping an eye out for recommendations of what to read next. I already have Portrait of a Lady on the TBR shelves. This sounds like one to add as well.

    I had to laugh at your comment, "I'm not sure how long the book has been on my shelf, but the measure is in years rather than months" - since that describes my TBR shelves to a T!

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    1. Lisa May - And that's the main reason James' TBR Double Dog Dare is SO needed ;-)

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  12. I put this on my list when you first mentioned it, because I am a fan of the man but struggle with the books. But it's a wonderful joy when I find one that I like! (And if I happen to see Dan Stevens' face while I'm reading it, well, so be it.)

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    1. Audrey - LOL! It was such a shock to see Dan Stevens is a villain role... even stranger to listen to him speak with an American accent.

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  13. I too love Washington Square, though it's the only Henry James novel I've read to date (hopefully his convoluted sentences don't turn me off from his others). Like you, I read Washington Square because of The Heiress - the 1949 movie, though, rather than the play.

    The movie is amazing, and I highly recommend it since you liked the book and play. I also saw this revival of the play a couple of months ago on Broadway. What I love is that the book is quite different from either the play or the movie, and the actors in the play interpreted the characters differently from how the actors in the movie did. I love seeing three very distinct versions of the same story.

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    1. Natalie - Thank you for the recommendation - I'll add the old movie to my Netflix queue. I did enjoy the subtle differences between the play and book. Daisy Miller is another short James novel that is easy to read. It was later in his career that he became unreadable (at least for me).

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  14. I would love to have watched that play!! I am pretty sure that I own this book. I bought it on a whim at B&N a few years ago...but, I still picked it up today free on my Kindle!!!

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    1. Staci - Another reason to love a kindle!!

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  15. I'm quite jealous you got to see The Heiress, but I suppose having read Washington Square is some consolation. (A very small one.) I really connected to it on a personal level, and it just might be my favourite James...wait, no. That illustrious title goes to The Turn of the Screw.

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    1. Diana - It's funny, but The Turn of the Screw continues to mystify me. I've read it at least three times over the years and always come away with a different feeling about what actually happened... sigh.

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  16. You saw "The Heiress"! How was Dan Stevens?! It sounds like you really enjoyed "The Heiress". I didn't realize it's based on James' book Washington Square. It's always been one of my favorite of his books (maybe simply because it's easier to read & understand than the others!). I may have to see the show, now!
    The way Henry James' describes people makes me laugh "...she was a good deal of a romp..." wacky! And Catherine's said to be something of a glutton because she bought some cakes! The poor woman!

    I really enjoyed this post, JoAnn, thank you!

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    1. Amy - The show was amazing but, unfortunately I think it closed a couple of weeks ago. We got tickets at the last minute and sat in the second row - quite a view of Dan Stevens! It was strange to see him as a villain and hear him speak with an American accent, lol. The Ambassadors will most likely be my next James novel. I'm glad you enjoyed tis post!

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  17. I remember having a similar reaction to this one. Portrait of A Lady is in my pile of unread books; loved the movie and sounds like I need to get to the book and get over being less than in love with Washington Square.

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    1. Lisa - Washington Square is (so far) my least favorite of the "readable" James novels. You simply MUST read Portrait of a Lady - it is wonderful! I will definitely reread it at some point.

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  18. I have this one on my shelf. Always tempting by being shorter than most classics!

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    1. Stacybuckeye - This is short and readable - always a plus with James. Still, I like both Daisy Miller and A Portrait of a Lady much better.

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