I'm toting a dumpster-enhanced paperback of "Washington Square" lately. This is the kind of 180 page novel that takes me over a month to finish. It's wittier than I expected. After a 30 page acclimation period the dialogue really started to come alive.
Written in 1880, WS takes a look back to an earlier 1840 New York. Manhattan real estate was expanding north then. One of the earliest events of the book has the main character leaving the neighborhood near City Hall and moving so far north that they won't have to ever move again, north of, in fact, Houston Street!
Henry James philosophy of humanity seems influenced by Montaigne's idea of types. One of the characters gives a little speech explaining how, once you create a system of personality types all it takes is a few minutes of observation to categorize a new acquaintance into a type.
1) The father, Dr. Sloper, is himself a type: ultra-rational, focused, and dispassionate in the way that only a fictional character can be. His main role in the plot is to be defensive of his daughter. He delivers all of the intellectual content, sometimes in conversation with his equally intelligent cousin, a Mrs. Almond.
2)The nearest thing to a villain is Morris Townsend, 30 year old suitor of Dr Sloper's daughter. Morris is an idler, born to aristocracy but spent of his own fortune and seemingly needing to marry into the wealth of the Sloper family. The reader of Washington Square is constantly reevaluating his opinion of this nominal villian. He is a genuinely nice guy, likes everyone to like him, but definitely not attracted in any meaningfully way to Catherine.
3) Lavinia Penniman, a spinster with an enormous capacity for romantic imagination, a meddling nursemaid to the heroine. Handsome suitor Morris Townsend regards the widow Penniman as "fantastic" (in the literal sense) and thinks she is a "dessicated matron".
4) Catherine Sloper, 21, the heroine, is sympathetic if you like guileless simplicity. Catherine is repeatedly described as both plain and simple. But she is sincere, extremely filial, and experiencing young love for the first time. How this dull but utterly good person reacts is, I gradually realized, heroic.
I'm just a bit halfway through and trying to predict how it will turn out. Will the suitor ennoble himself somehow? Or will he turn out to not be the brother of the 5 member family on "the 2nd Avenue", but rather the father of it, the woman of that household being revealed to be not his sister but rather his wife? I'm just guessing. More to come.
(My paperback copy of this is made precious by having been fished out of a steamy bag that fell behind a dumpster at the vegetable market on 181st Street. I could see it through the clear plastic garbage bag. I poked through the plastic and rescued it, making sure it smelled okay before bringing it into the house. Some struggling teen reader, Yulisa Gutierrez, managed to put her name in the cover of the paperback and then heavily mark entire series of paragraphs from beginning to end with an orange highlighter, finally giving up around page 17, only to reappear as the book's owner one last time on page 105 to make a big orange asterisk in the scene where Morris tells Catherine that he would love her even if she were disinherited. I have sympathy both for the teen reader and for the teacher who failed to excite her about this excellent book with its story that offers much portrayal of how to deal with exciting 'bad boy' suitors, a situation more current than the oil painting on this book's cover. )