Friday, April 13, 2012

Washington Square's paraphernalia

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.


  1. I just finished Osborne's Revenge--a short story by James. After reading Emma's Washington Square review, nothing could hold me back from returning to James, so thanks for the post. Yes it's all in the details!

  2. "Osborne's Revenge," huh? #11 if I am counting right. How was it? Lay a good detail on me - #s 1, 2, 3, 4, and 7 were not all that strong on details.

  3. Guy Savage submitted a good followup comment that I fear has been eaten by the Blogger shark. Here it is:

    It's a wonderful companion piece to Washington Square--although, alas, not heavy on detail. But here's quote regarding the relationship between two very different male characters:

    Disinterested parties were at a loss to discover how Osborne had come to set his heart upon an insignificant, lounging invalid, who, in general company, talked in monosyllables, in a weak voice, and gave himself the airs of one who nature had endowed with the right to be fastidious, without ever having done a stroke of work. Graham's partisans, on the other hand, who were chiefly women (which, by the way, effectually relieves him from the accusation occasionally brought against him of being "effeminate") were quite unable to penetrate the motives of his interest in a commonplace, hard-working lawyer, who addressed a charming woman as if he were exhorting a jury of grocers and undertakers, and viewed the universe as one vast "case."

  4. There it is. I came looking for it earlier and couldn't find it. I thought I was going to have to type the whole damn thing out again.

  5. I'm halfway through Baltasar and Blimunda; such a clever way he has of describing events and emotions. I'm quite impressed, as one is with Saramago, although it's very different from Blindness. Can't wait to discuss it with you in about a week or so.

  6. Ah, you are ahead of me. I was going to ask you about Blindness - I figured this one had to be enormously different.