Thanks to all of you who participated in tonight’s discussion of “Washington Square.” It was one of our liveliest to date. Feel free to comment and raise additional questions this week. I’ll be checking in from time to time. Our next book club selection will be announced shortly.
Welcome one and all to our discussion of “Washington Square.” This is the book club’s first time choosing Henry James, a selection made in conjunction with the opening of “The Heiress” on Broadway, the 1947 adaptation of the novel by the husband-and-wife team of Augustus and Ruth Goetz, who also provided the screenplay for the William Wyler film two years later.
A regular discussion with Ginia Bellafante.
Interestingly, when the Goetzes produced their first draft of the play, a producer persuaded them to reconceive the story with a happy ending that James does not supply. In this version, the diffident heroine Catherine Sloper is reunited with her suitor. The play opened in Boston, failed and was reworked for the New York stage with an ending less cheerful. “The Heiress” became a hit, running for 410 performances, and it was revived in the 1990s, with Cherry Jones receiving a Tony Award for her performance as Catherine.
I hadn’t read “Washington Square” in years — since high school, in fact — and if you’d asked me about it before I revisited it for this discussion, I would have said it was about a cunning and desperate effort at social ascension. Or really something simpler: a cunning and desperate effort at money. And of course the book is about those things.
But what strikes me now is the centrality of parental cruelty as a theme, a subject James would explore again to even more devastating effect 17 years later, in his novel of embittered divorce, “What Maisie Knew.” Maisie is a clever girl. Catherine isn’t. Her father, Dr. Austin Sloper, a wealthy Manhattan widower who was left a comfortable fortune by his wife, is above all contemptuous of his only child — frustrated by her lack of sophistication and beauty, and by her simple-mindedness.
The story revolves around his efforts to keep her from marrying Morris Townsend, a spendthrift who is after Catherine for her money. Catherine is the turf over which two men, similarly motivated, battle: both Townsend and Sloper are gold diggers. Sloper, after all, married Catherine’s mother for what she could provide.
I have not seen the current production of “The Heiress,” so I’m eager to hear what people think of it. When I spoke to the actor Dan Stevens a few months ago, as he was rehearsing for the role of Townsend, he told me that he held a nuanced interpretation of Townsend. He was interested in the question of whether Townsend could love both the girl and the money; maybe the two things weren’t mutually exclusive. I’m interested in hearing from those of you who’ve seen the play about whether that comes through, whether there’s sympathy to be felt for Townsend.
The Goetzes intended for Catherine to feel empowered by her tragedy, her loss of Townsend, but it’s hard to feel that way about the Catherine we know in the story. The last line of “Washington Square” never fails to chill. Years after she and Townsend have parted, years after Sloper has won that dimension of the war, we find her in the parlor, after Townsend has made a new attempt at securing her: “picking up her morsel of fancy-work.” She had “seated herself with it again — for life as it were.”
Please weigh in here with thoughts on the novel and the play, on New York as it is depicted in this particular iteration of James and of his peculiar locution in regard to street names: Someone please tell my why when going to see Townsend’s sister, Sloper refers to visiting her “in Second Avenue.”