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A blog about everything: Abraham Lincoln, birds, Jewish history, Elton John, classic literature (Henry James, John Steinbeck vs. Upton Sinclair), America's gun problem, and who-knows-what-else.


Washington Square and The Aspern Papers by Henry James

by Elizabeth J. Rosenthal

Recently, I trudged, annoyed but hopeful, through Henry James’s irritating novella, Washington Square, only to have my expectations of a tolerable ending dashed.

(SPOILER ALERT: This essay gives the whole plot away.)

According to the editor’s note in an unabridged Dover edition, James decided in February 1879 to base the plot on an anecdote told him by his friend, Fanny Kemble, which comes close to the synopsis of the story: “Mrs. Kemble’s brother, it seems, had courted a ‘dull, plain, common-place girl’ entirely because of the fortune she stood to inherit. He had abandoned her when her father threatened to disown her, but resumed his pursuit upon her father’s death. Mrs. Kemble … had advised the young woman ‘by no means to marry her brother.’”

Catherine Disappoints Her Father

In Washington Square, the “dull… girl” was Catherine, her father the brilliant Dr. Austin Sloper. Dr. Sloper was regarded as one of the best physicians in America by those within his social and professional circles and among the most popular men in New York, what with his wit, knowledge, and sophistication. He was also very lucky to have snagged one of the most coveted, Manhattan debutantes, Catherine Harrington, who, as it happened, came with a very large dowry – not that he cared, of course, since he “married for love.”

But bad things started happening early in their marriage. Their first child, a boy of “extraordinary promise,” as Dr. Sloper believed, died when barely out of toddlerhood. The next child was a girl, named Catherine after his wife, but, due to her gender, he immediately found her disappointing. Things got worse. His beautiful, young wife died just a week after giving birth to baby Catherine, and he lived the rest of his life under a “private censure” for failing to prevent these losses (that is, he blamed himself). But his social standing actually improved. The people around him found that “his misfortune made him more interesting, and even helped him to be the fashion.”

Dr. Sloper raised his daughter at their Washington Square, Manhattan, home without remarrying, although his sister, Lavinia Penniman, did come to live with them after her husband died young. Aunt Lavinia was charged with making a “clever” girl out of Catherine, especially since she lacked her mother’s beauty. Dr. Sloper did not actually think much of his sister’s or daughter’s intellect, probably because he did not respect the intelligence of women in general. His daughter admired, loved, and feared him, and always sought to please him. Nevertheless, he was unappreciative of her devotion and regarded her as “decidedly not clever,” though morally pure, as well as “affectionate, docile, obedient, and much addicted to speaking the truth.” But did she have a mind of her own, or dreams that were worth encouraging? No. (Sure, women were second-class citizens in the Victorian era – in fact, for most of recorded history – but Catherine’s father treated her with near-contempt.)

Enter Morris Townsend

Naturally, by the time shy Catherine turned eighteen, she was as susceptible to falling in love as any other young woman might have been. She attended a ball at a relative’s with Dr. Sloper and Aunt Lavinia, and it happened. A young man named Morris Townsend, brother to the betrothed of one of Catherine’s cousins, walked over to Catherine instantly upon seeing her and struck up a long conversation with her in which he did virtually all the talking. Later, they danced a polka. He also spoke with Lavinia for a while, but their only topic was supposedly her niece, Catherine.

Catherine was quickly smitten with Morris’s tall, slim form and handsome face. She was impressed with his manners and the care with which he addressed her needs and concerns.
From here it was all uphill – or downhill, depending upon your perspective. It wasn’t long before Morris visited the Slopers’ Washington Square home, first with his brother, then without, although Lavinia was always present. The problem with Lavinia, who was at least twice as old as her niece, was that she had her own romantic notions. As the author explained: “[S]he had a passion for little secrets and mysteries…. She would have liked to have a lover, and to correspond with him under an assumed name in letters left at a shop.”

Aunt Lavinia Sticks Her Nose In

It’s not that Lavinia tried to wrest Morris away from Catherine, or discourage their budding relationship. But she did meddle. Dr. Sloper, on the other hand, decided fairly quickly that he would not allow the romance to go forward; if the two youngsters were to marry, he would cut his daughter off from her inheritance – not the modest amount she was entitled to from her late mother, but the additional, very substantial, riches that he had earned as a physician.

What was Dr. Sloper’s concern? That Morris was only interested in Catherine’s money – ironically, it was probably the elder Catherine’s money that attracted Austin Sloper to her in the first place, despite what he told himself – and, as a designing man with no employment prospects, Morris was not to be trusted. There were warning signs. Morris, who was living with his sister and her children, had claimed that he was tutoring them, thus saving his sister the expense of sending his nieces and nephews to school. But, in fact, he was not tutoring them. And he had spent the entirety of his own small inheritance on a trip around the world. If the two married, he might be tempted to squander Catherine’s large inheritance, too.

From here, the story takes on the structure of an elaborate, but sloppy, board game, in which all of the main characters – but one – look to gain whatever they can from the controversy without thinking much, or at all, of the impact of their actions on the others. With the exception of Catherine, they all come off rather despicably.

Catherine’s Father Asks Around

Dr. Sloper hoped to find out some damning facts about Morris from Mrs. Montgomery, the young man’s sister with whom he lived. After he beat down her sense of dignity, and told her that he would feel great “moral satisfaction” if she could disparage Morris’s character, she finally cried, “Don’t let her marry him!” Those words gave the doctor the “moral satisfaction of which he had just spoken, and their value was the greater that they had evidently cost a pang to poor little Mrs. Montgomery’s family pride.” When Catherine told her father that she wished to see Morris again – but just once, for the present – he called her “an ungrateful, cruel child,” and when she began sobbing, he ignored her outstretched arms and shoved her out of his study.

Aunt Lavinia was excited at the prospect of being an intermediary between two lovers in an illicit romance: “Mrs. Penniman took too much satisfaction in the sentimental shadows of this little drama to have, for the moment, any great interest in dissipating them. She wished the plot to thicken….” She set up a meeting with Morris at a restaurant away from Washington Square and there suggested that he elope with Catherine. Lavinia tried to convince him that if he married Catherine without an expectation of her father’s fortune, Dr. Sloper would probably bestow it on the married couple, anyway, when he was satisfied that Morris was not actually in it for the money.

But Morris was in it for the money, and was tired of corresponding with Lavinia daily and having to satisfy her requests for meetings to discuss the state of his situation with Catherine: “He was in a state of irritation natural to a gentleman of fine parts who had been snubbed in a benevolent attempt to confer a distinction upon a young woman of inferior characteristics, and the insinuating sympathy of this somewhat dessicated matron appeared to offer him no practical relief.”

When Catherine did not react well to her aunt’s latest clandestine meeting with Morris, Lavinia, who was only satisfying her craving for intrigue even if she couldn’t admit it, snapped: “…I shall certainly never again take any step on your behalf; you are much too thankless.”

Catherine is the one sympathetic character in this story, even if one wished that she would defy her father and make demands on him for a change – although, had she done so, there might be less of a story to tell. As it is, she was a victim of everyone else’s selfish deviousness. Her father was especially culpable, responsible for her low sense of self-esteem, and cold to her most of the time, no matter how deferential she acted toward him. And he seemed to view his daughter’s relationship with Morris as a contest he, her father, must win – never mind how Catherine felt about it.

Getting Catherine to Forget Morris

As we have observed, Morris was mainly interested in taking advantage of a guileless, young woman. He may have had some affection for her, but that’s not what drove his conduct. And Lavinia viewed her role in this as a well-meaning participant in a dramatization of a romance novel. It wasn’t really real to Lavinia – just really fun, and kind of thrilling!

Dr. Sloper attempted to get his daughter’s mind off of Morris by taking her on what turned out to be a year-long sojourn of the world. But the trip had no effect. Unbeknownst to him, she had been corresponding with Morris regularly – with Aunt Lavinia’s assistance – and hoped to resume her relationship with him upon their return from abroad.

Unbeknownst to Catherine, while she and her father were away, Lavinia had continued her frequent visits with Morris. Upon returning to Washington Square, Dr. Sloper was as obstinate about Morris as ever, while Catherine patiently (as ever) waited to see if he might change his mind. Finally, during one of his secret meetings with Lavinia, Morris declared that he wanted to break up with her niece, ostensibly so he could embark on “something brilliant.” He asked Lavinia to smooth the way for the break up. Shockingly, in his presence, Lavinia wondered aloud whether this “something brilliant” might mean “another marriage” – that is, as she hinted strongly, her own marriage to Morris! It is unclear whether this idea had just occurred to her or whether it had been on her mind all along. Morris scoffed at Lavinia’s hint; she “felt disappointed and snubbed,” and never did facilitate Morris’s broaching of the subject of breaking up with Catherine. But he continued to see Catherine with an expectation that Lavinia would inform her about the impending change in their relationship.

They Break Up

After waiting weeks for Lavinia to come through, Morris finally fell back on one of the oldest devices in the annals of human relations, picking a fight with his fiancée to precipitate a split. This fight, in turn, led to a contretemps between Catherine and her aunt, who let it slip that a separation between the two youngsters had been “agreed upon.” At this late date, real anger welled up inside Catherine’s breast. They had made an agreement about her relationship without involving her! She verbally tore into her aunt, who deserved all of the rage Catherine could muster against her.

Decades went by. Catherine continued to live with her father and Aunt Lavinia, and never married. Her father was perturbed until his dying day about this; he didn’t understand that she had given up all thoughts – and all affection – for Morris Townsend and apparently had lost all taste for romance as well. Nevertheless, Dr. Sloper almost completely cut Catherine out of his will, on the off chance that she would realize his greatest fear and someday reunite with Morris.

Time passed. The author explains that Catherine “became an admirable old maid…. She regulated her days on a system of her own, interested herself in charitable institutions, asylums, hospitals and aid-societies; … and mingled freely in the usual gaieties of the town, and she became at last an inevitable figure at all respectable entertainments.”

But Lavinia couldn’t keep from trying once again, long after Dr. Sloper’s death, to reunite Catherine and Morris. Catherine got her revenge on them both by acting as uninterested as she actually was in resuming even a friendship with her now-divorced, middle-aged, pudgy, former suitor. In a sense, then, by thwarting her father’s expectations that she would marry someone (anyone, as long as it wasn’t Morris), and rejecting the little scheme that Lavinia and Morris had lately devised, Catherine defeated the blameworthy people in her life, and did it her way. This meant that her life never improved. It just continued, with no further acrimony.

The Poet Jeffrey Aspern

Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, a novella that I read a couple of years ago, is shorter than Washington Square and worked better for me. Maybe this is because Aspern is not a story of romance – not principally, anyway – and there is no Catherine-like protagonist who allows the people closest to her to manipulate her. This doesn’t mean that there was no amoral trickster in Aspern. In fact, the protagonist, an unnamed literary critic whom we’ll call “Mr. L. C.,” was obsessed with obtaining the ancient love letters written by the celebrated, long-dead, poetic genius Jeffrey Aspern to the now-elderly and ailing Miss Juliana Bordereau. The old woman was American, but lived reclusively with her equally American niece, Miss Tina, in a gigantic but barely-furnished Venetian palazzo which they rented for very little money. Mr. L. C. decided that the only way to get a glimpse of the love letters would be for him to win the trust of the “Misses Bordereau.” What better way to do that than to appeal to their sense of poverty and rent some of their empty rooms? If all else failed, he would “make love to the niece.”

(ANOTHER SPOILER ALERT: I give away the entire plot in this one, too!)

A main attraction of Aspern is, of course, James’s eye for detail. As Mr. L. C. took a look around the palazzo, he found that it had a “gloomy grandeur, but owed its character almost all to its noble shape and to the fine architectural doors, as high as those of grand frontages which, leading into the various rooms, repeated themselves on either side at intervals. They were surmounted by old painted faded escutcheons, and here and there in the spaces between them hung brown pictures, which I noted as speciously bad, in battered and tarnished frames that were yet more desirable than the canvases themselves.”

Miss Tina Gets No Respect

More impressive than James’s eye for detail was his insightful portrayal of psychological intrigue, similar to that in Washington Square, in which, yet again, only one character comes off as sympathetic. Here, that would be Miss Tina. The elder Miss Bordereau, to whom Miss Tina was completely devoted, treated her niece with no respect, calling her “ignorant” (an opinion with which, when it came to money, Miss Tina embarrassedly agreed) and remarking that, although her niece had a “very good education when she was young…, she has learned nothing since.” Later, Miss Tina explained to Mr. L. C. that her aunt “takes care of me. She thinks that when I’m alone I shall be a great fool and shan’t know how to manage.”

(One suspects that Miss Tina was the out-of-wedlock daughter of the great Aspern and her ostensible aunt, given the concern of Miss Juliana for Miss Tina’s financial stability and the fact that some lawyer in New York sent Miss Tina a regular allowance for no apparent reason. But this suspicion is never confirmed.)

Mr. L. C. commenced his campaign to win the trust of the Misses Bordereau; he regularly had bouquets of flowers sent up to their quarters from the palazzo’s formerly neglected garden, the restoration of which he had arranged in a wise hiring decision. After three months of little interaction, Mr. L. C. and Miss Tina found themselves in the rehabilitated garden at the same time; he revealed that the flowers he had been sending up were for Miss Tina, too, not just for her aunt. He had won the younger Miss Bordereau’s trust. Thus, her need for companionship spurred her to pour out private things about her life with her aunt in Venice, and about her aunt’s past. Mr. L. C. described the lonely and innocent Miss Tina as not turning away when embarrassed. Instead, she “came closer, as it were, with a deprecating, clinging appeal to be spared, to be protected…. From the moment you were kind to her she depended on you absolutely….” It was only a matter of time before she began talking to Mr. L. C. about the Aspern papers. Eventually, he confided that he’d like to see or have them. By then, he had become quite the companion to Miss Tina, taking her out to some of the romantic corners of Venice and often meeting her in the palazzo’s garden. When Miss Juliana’s health took a turn for the worse, Miss Tina boldly searched for the papers and told Mr. L. C. that she had done so, for him, but that they were not where she thought they were.

Mr. L. C. Attempts to Purloin the Letters

Then came the climax, when Mr. L. C. thought the elderly Miss Bordereau was asleep and he snuck into the unexpectedly open quarters of the Misses Bordereau to find the papers on his own. Somewhat predictably, Miss Juliana awakened and caught him in the act, calling him a “publishing scoundrel,” and collapsing into the suddenly present arms of Miss Tina.

Shocked and fearful, Mr. L. C. temporarily fled Venice. When he returned, he learned of the death of Miss Juliana, and found that her niece was willing to see him. But his selfishness didn’t lay dormant for long. He worried to himself that Miss Tina would believe that “there would be no reason why – since I seemed to pity her – I shouldn’t somehow look after her.”

He couldn’t help but bring up the papers, which she admitted she now had in her possession; she had finally learned where her aunt kept them. But Miss Tina couldn’t just give them to Mr. L. C. There was a condition that she hoped he would satisfy. She meekly uttered some of her idea: “If you weren’t a stranger. Then it would be the same for you as for me. Anything that’s mine would be yours, and you could do what you like. I shouldn’t be able to prevent you – and you’d have no responsibility.”

Mr. L. C. realized she meant marriage. Again, he fled in cowardice. When he returned the following day, belatedly thinking that he would be willing to pay such a price for possession of the papers, it was too late. Miss Tina, grief-stricken over the loss of her aunt and of Mr. L. C., had burned every last letter, one at a time. While posterity didn’t deserve this, Mr. L. C. certainly did. Yet the Aspern ending is more satisfying than that for Washington Square; at least the jerk here experienced a real sense of loss. A picture of Jeffrey Aspern, which Miss Tina had willingly given Mr. L. C., now hung above his desk at home. “When I look at it,” said Mr. L. C., “I can scarcely bare my loss – I mean of the precious papers.”
(c) Elizabeth J. Rosenthal 2016, all rights reserved

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