Recently I was trying to rearrange my books – well, that’s a lie, I was trying to ORGANIZE my books, which had never been organized – and found a copy of “Washington Square”, by Henry James. It’s a very small novel, “a slip of the tongue”, and was originally serialized, so it’s crisp and quick. (James’ later novels are the opposite: Byzantine, subtle, even the sub-texts have sub-texts, etc. They are wonderful but require deep concentration.) Anyway, I hadn’t read ” Washington Square ”for a decade, and I have deliriously plunged into what Wikipedia calls“ a structurally simple tragicomedy about the conflict between a dull but sweet daughter and her brilliant, unemotional father ”.
While technically accurate, this summary understates the book. It’s a roller coaster. Catherine is the girl in question, and a touching character, even though James compares her intellect to “a bundle of shawls.” The conflict between Catherine and her father centers around an intriguing man who courts Catherine for her money. Catherine’s father sees through this gold digger, but Catherine is the victim of his male tricks. The back of my copy has a blurb by Graham Greene which states that “Washington Square” is “perhaps the only novel in which a man has managed to invade the female realm”, which is offensive to all genres – but a terrific entry in the backhanded compliment Blurb Hall of Fame!
I take the opportunity here to share a curious fact about James which may or may not influence your reading. One of his close friends was Edith Wharton, and many years ago I visited the Wharton Estate in Lenox, Mass. (You can take a walk! The grounds are beautiful.) Wharton has built special guest quarters for James at the mansion, including an en- suite bathroom. During my visit, I couldn’t help but notice that her bathroom did not have a toilet. I’m pretty sure the other bathrooms had a toilet, which is generally considered a bathroom genre staple. Was the lack of a toilet something James had… specifically requested? We must meditate.
To read if you like: Meddling in the affairs of others, “Succession, ” bulldozing hundreds of red flags chasing a crush
Available from: Penguin Classics (or mark a copy on eBay, like I did)
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