Henry James told William Dean Howells that Washington Square suffered because, living in Europe, he “[felt] acutely the want of the ‘paraphernalia’” he needed for a story set in New York. Thus the Slopers house is located near – or perhaps even is – one of James’s childhood homes. Not that it matters much, since James hardly tells us anything about the house.
He tells us a lot, though, about another house that appears only once in Washington Square. Dr. Sloper is investigating his daughter’s lover, interviewing his sister at her
neat little house of red brick, which had been freshly painted, with the edges of the bricks very sharply marked out in white… There were green shutters upon the windows, without slats, but pierced with little holes, arranged in groups; and before the house was a diminutive yard, ornamented with a bush of mysterious character, and surrounded by a low wooden paling, painted in the same green as the shutters. (Ch. XIV)
This, by the way, is my favorite little detail, showing that Mrs. Montgomery is not frivolous with paint, although that vague bush has its charm, too. Two sentences later James says directly that Dr. Sloper concludes that Mrs. Montgomery is thrifty – yes, I saw that for myself, thanks.
James writes up a long description of the parlour, too, which has “clusters of glass drops,” a stove that “emit[s] a dry blue flame” and “smell[s] strongly of varnish.” Honestly, I am unsure why this particular house and room get so much attention. Little else in the novel does. See the clever Chapter XIII for a reduction of the novel - two pages, almost entirely in dialogue, with no other sensory details of any sort.
An outstanding exception is Catherine’s “red satin gown trimmed with gold fringe… which, for many years, she had coveted in secret.” It appears twice, at two parties, and may have been instrumental in attracting the attention of Morris Townsend at the first party in Chapter IV, but it was only when it reappeared in Ch. VII that I grasped its significance. Catherine only owns one dress commensurate with her wealth, one enormously expensive gown. Clothes are another passion stifled by Catherine’s sense, and by her father’s sarcasm.
I have already spent a couple of days on another cluster of detail, all of the fuss about income and inheritance. As important as these details are, they are not actually mentioned very often – I have already used most of their occurences. Trollope’s novels have far more money talk. Balzac’s novels – Balzac can pass the point of absurdity. Search the Gutenberg text of Cousin Bette for “francs.” One thing you will find, somewhere in the middle, is what may be my favorite Balzac line:
“[S]he costs me a hundred and ninety-two thousand francs a year!" cried Hulot.
“She” is a kept woman with a syphilitic husband and a Brazilian boyfriend. The art, or absurdity, of the sentence is of course in the precision of the amount.
Henry James learned a lot from his master Balzac but he clearly also failed to learn even more. Does he ever in his fiction include a Brazilian boyfriend? I seem to have begun to queer the novel, which is easy enough to do – just read it as if Morris actually wants to “marry” Dr. Sloper, with Catherine as a surrogate. Pay particular attention to Ch. XXIII ("he used to smoke cigars in the Doctor's study, where he often spent an hour in turning over the curious collections of its absent proprietor"). What nonsense!
And what fun, Emma! Thanks for the suggestion. My next readalong event looms – Dolce Bellezza invited me to read José Saramago’s Baltasar and Blimunda, as it is known in English. We’re aiming at the end of April. The first chapter features a pleasingly odd omniscient narrator and bedbugs feasting on Portuguese royalty - promising.