I’m never sure about Henry James. That method he has of concentrating on the surface of things while suggesting hidden depths of emotion, can leave much of his fiction feeling brittle, cold and detached. ‘Washington Square’ is often quite hard to love. And yet I ended up being glad I’d read this strange, sad little book.
The characters are certainly hard to love. Doctor Sloper is an unfeeling and unlikeable man devoid of paternal sympathy towards his daughter, Catherine, who in turn is unwilling to display any of the deep emotions she’s feeling. Her gold-digging suitor, Morris Townsend is downright unpleasant. And the interfering aunt imposes her destructive romantic fantasies on her niece.
But the end result of the irony, coldness, miscommunication and refusal to communicate is a sad, sympathetic portrait of a middle-aged Catherine, unmarried and apparently content. Beneath the surface, though, is a woman badly damaged by three manipulative people who’ve failed to treat her as an individual. She’s experienced a world of pain, refuses to show it and reaches a sort of equilibrium by rejecting those who manipulated her.
James offers no solutions and doesn’t mitigate the brutality beneath velvet words and fine manners. Catherine Sloper emerges victorious simply by holding onto her own individuality in the face of emotional blackmail. But it’s not a happy victory; it’s survival.
If this is what Henry James thought of the ‘civilised’ society he inhabited, it’s no wonder he depicts it so coldly and with such cynicism.