Back thisaway, while I was idly speculating that I might someday read a word or two more of the writing of Henry James, Emma of Book Around the Corner suggested that I read Washington Square (1880). Son article fait ici.
Her suggestion was a kind one. First, Washington Square turns out to lightly borrow some of its plot and structural features from the greatest Balzac novel, Eugénie Grandet (1833), which was a treat. Second, the novel is so easy to read. Where are the heavy, twisty, foggy James sentences of legend? In other books, I know – heavy James is a strange beast, but a real one. Washington Square is friendly by design: only four major characters, paired off in every variation, plus a witty narrator with a light touch; chapters just a few pages long, 35 of them in a 196 page book; huge quantities of springy dialogue; almost no descriptive passages.
A reader over-familiar with Wuthering Expectations might wonder if the last two items on that list are included in an entirely friendly spirit. They do make the book a breeze to read.
Dr. Sloper, quick and clever, perhaps poisoned by his ironic view of the world; his adult daughter Catherine, plain and dull; her suitor Morris, who is interested in Catherine’s money, yes, but how interested, or exactly why, there is a mystery for a novelist to explore; a pushy aunt who lives vicariously through her niece. Every pair of characters is interesting – the open enmity between the protective doctor and the sly suitor, for example, or the aunt’s open pursuit of Morris in the name of her niece.
Catherine is the center, though, Catherine struggling with everyone else. The true characters of the doctor and Morris and Aunt Lavinia are revealed to the reader when they knock up against each other, even as they conceal themselves from each other. Catherine’s character is revealed and changes. One of the changes is that, like the reader, she learns to read the other characters correctly. Catherine turns out to be more complex than she first seemed; everyone else turns out to be as narrow, or narrower.
The “pure essence of great literature,” Emma calls the novel. I believe this is what she means – correct me, please! A few characters and a minimal plot are all that a perceptive writer needs to make original and exciting discoveries.
One strong dissenter from Emma’s judgment was Henry James. He is writing to William Dean Howells:
What is your Cornhill novel about? I am to precede it with a poorish story in three numbers – a tale purely American, the writing of which made me feel acutely the want of the “paraphernalia.”
From Letters: Vol. II 1875-1883 (1975), ed. Leon Edel, Jan. 31, 1880, p. 268. I want to return to the “paraphernalia” later. It was clear, poking around in the letters, that James had quickly moved on, in his imagination, to his next book, The Portrait of a Lady, a big and ambitious book, a reputation-maker. Still, “poorish” is pretty funny. Emma is a lot closer to the truth than James.
Emma – anyone, I guess – what else should I write about? The money, definitely. There is something funny going on with the money. I want to revisit James’s detail work. And that leaves an open day. Should I Queer the novel? Does anyone still talk about that? This book turns out to be an easy one. Suggestions welcome, although I promise nothing. great choice, Emma!