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Washington Square

by Henry James

Catherine is an ingénue, a “dull, plain girl”, not particularly bright, who adores her talented, widowed father, the esteemed Doctor Austin Sloper. Tragically, Catherine’s love is unrequited. Doctor Sloper never recovered from the death of his firstborn, a son, and two years later his beautiful and brilliant wife who died just one week after Catherine’s birth. The girl never had a chance. When Catherine is ten years old Sloper’s widowed sister, Lavinia, known as Aunt Penniman, comes to live with them in a substantial house at the up-market New York address in Washington Square. Aunt Penniman is a shallow, conniving woman of whom the doctor is no more fond than he is of his daughter though the three live well enough together. That is until the peace is shattered by the appearance of one Morris Townsend.

Catherine is an heiress. Left an inheritance by her mother and as the main beneficiary of her father’s estate she stands to become an extremely wealthy young woman. This is not lost on Morris Townsend who turns up at a cousin’s engagement party and proceeds to inveigle his way into Catherine’s life. Dr Sloper, rightly, distrusts Townsend’s motives and callously threatens to disinherit Catherine if the romance continues. Aunt Penniman, on the other hand, connives to keep the romance alive and what follows is a truly tragic story of scheming, heartache, humiliation and divided loyalties.

The above précis of this story makes it sound slight but James’s novella, written in 1880, has incredible moral insight, depth of emotion and writing of such finesse that it’s not difficult to understand why he is known as “the master”. If your bookgroup is looking for a classic next time then this must be the one!


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