Reading Challenges

December 17, 2010

Washington Square-Henry James

My book club's current bi-monthly read is Henry James' Washington Square, a novella that follows the 19th century drama surrounding the engagement of Catherine Slope and the rift it creates with her widowed father, a doctor.  Add to the mix Lavinia, Catherine's meddlesome aunt, and Morris Talbot, Catherine's suitor whom Dr. Slope suspects has eyes only for Catherine's generous financial holdings. 

A few notes, mostly linked to architectural themes used in the book:
I appreciated the use of intimate (and most often) static space of Catherine's home as a setting that parallels the situation she finds herself in--a very claustrophobic world composed of her small family circle that implements a lot of pressure (both societal and personal demands) and oversteps boundaries (overly eager Aunt Lavinia).  Catherine is most often stuck inside, so the home interior is also Catherine's interior that she struggles to come to terms with (family, gender roles & societal expectations, etc.). Finally she masters this "space" and becomes master of her own home.
I also appreciated imagining how quickly New York's topography was shifting in the 19th century.  The migration uptown is a pretty obvious (albeit none the less interesting) commentary on the idea of upward mobility that we find examples of in the book (also note the family name Slope) and this too enforces the claustrophobic aspects of the home I mentioned above: in contrast with New York's bustling urban environment and neighborhoods in constant transition, Washington Square remains the bedrock of the story and little on the surface changes there. At first we have the feeling that life sweeps past Catherine on Washington Square, leaving her behind as a prisoner, but later her firm resolve strikes me as stable and unmoving, just like her family home that remains central throughout.
Overall, Washington Square was a quick and enjoyable read.  I did cringe a few times reading Henry James' descriptions of the female sex, particularly Catherine's appearance (her undesirable "broad back", etc.), but alas, I can remain critical while still appreciating the good things that such books have to offer...and of course HJ isn't the worst in that way, not by a long shot.
The book can be legally downloaded to your computer or e-reader for free courtesy of Project Gutenberg: HERE
There's also an interesting snippet about the real Washington Square in an article about literary landmarks of New York at The Dusty Shelf.

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