Washington Square by Henry James

I really like Henry James. In Washington Square we are introduced to Catherine Sloper, an average girl with average looks who is quite close to her father. Her mother had died when Catherine was small, leaving her to live with her father and her father's sister, the widow Mrs. Penniman. Catherine has inherited her mother's estate and will inherit her fathers upon his death or her marriage, whichever comes first.

Enter Morris Townsend; a young man who has spent all of his fortune on travel and frivolities and now lives with his widowed sister. Of course he is immediately drawn to Catherine when they meet at a party and, like Catherine's father, we are lead to believe he is only interested in Catherine's wealth .

The majority of the novel takes place in Manhattan's Washington Square, where Catherine and her father, Dr. Sloper, live. There is something to be said about this old New York; something romantic and exciting. "I know not whether it is owing to the tenderness of early associations, but this portion of New York appears to many persons the most delectable."

Of course Catherine's father despises Morris and forbids Catherine to marry him, threatening to disinherit her from his fortune. Thus Catherine is left with the timeless dilemma of choosing between her family and true love.

What I liked best about this novel was that James lets the reader decide the intentions of Morris Townsend. We are never given a true glipse into his underlying purpose and must decide for ourselves whether he is truely in love with Catherine or if he is just in it for the money. Dr. Sloper does not think very highly of his daughter and can't understand how she would attract such a handsome man, leading him to decide Townsend's intentions must be callous. The doctor tells Townsend, "My dear young man, you must be very susceptible. As Catherine's father I have, I trust, a just and tender appreciation of her many good qualities; but I don't mind telling you that I have never thought of her as a charming girl, and never expected any one else to do so."

As I mentioned earlier we aren't ever told whether or not Townsend truly loves Catherine or if he is a mercenary. But perhaps the readers confusion is a reflection of the character's confusion. Maybe Townsend himself isn't even sure of his intentions, leading to his ambivalent nature. I really loved this book and looking back, I'm not even sure why. I think Henry James is a genious, as he was able to make me somewhat ambivalent toward the story but all the same completely engrossed in it, much like Townsend himself. James is a terrific writer down to the very last word and I look forward to reading more of his works.

Publisher: Harper & Brothers, 1881


  1. Henry James is one of my favorites!

  2. Kathy, He is quickly becoming one of mine too!

  3. I've never read anything by Henry James, but I've wanted to for a while and this novel sounds really good. Thanks so much for stopping by my blog - I've started following your blog. I really like it. :)

  4. Brenna, firstly, I wanted to thank you for stopping by and visiting my Thomas Hardy poem; that was very nice of you, and I'm glad that you enjoyed it. Second, this is an excellent review of "Washington Square." When I was in my early twenties (many, many years ago), and in the U.S. Coast Guard, I went through a Jamesian phase and read approximately 2/3rds of his entire oeuvre. I very much enjoyed the experience, but I eventually came to the conclusion that he wasn't for me. I have to say that find his earlier work better than his later stuff. I guess I did finally get maybe a bit tired of his prose (longish sentences and paragraphs). A friend somewhat aptly characterizes James as 'an author that is superb at writing a 500,000 word short-story.' Maybe a little unfair, but not altogether untrue.

    Anyway, great review, Brenna! I look forward to coming back and visiting you here! Cheers! Chris

  5. Thanks for the review Brenna. I found my Henry James book to read.

  6. Shannon, This was my first Henry James and I think it's a good one to start with!

    Christopher, Thank you. That's really interesting you read a lot of James. What was your favorite? I could imagine getting tired of his prose, it is quite lengthy. You need to break it up!

    BookQuoter, Good to hear! Let me know what you think.

  7. This is on my TBR -- I'm glad you think it's a good one to start with!!

  8. This sounds great. Can you believe I've never read any Henry James?!? I'll have to add him to my list. Thanks for the review.

  9. Coffe and Book, It is! Like I said it was my first and I enjoyed it very much. Happy reading :)

  10. I really enjoyed your review. I have only started reading James this year myself and have not read this one. To be honest Brenna I have only tackled the smaller novellas so far so really have to read one of his longer works soon and from your review Washington Square sounds like a good one to try.

    One of my favourite books this year has been "The Master" by Colm Toibin, a novel based on the life of James. It is awesome, and paints a fascintating portrait of the man himself. If you are interested I reviewed The Master here:


    Thanks for interesting review :)

  11. The only James I've read to date was The Turn of the Screw, but I feel he's an author I could really love if I devoted more time to him. Thank you for this fabulous review.

  12. I read this book a long time ago—nearly 10 years—and I remember not enjoying it. I suppose I should revisit it. Yes, add it to the pile.

  13. Henry James rocks! So glad you wrote a review of this book - I just bought a copy of it (talk about good timing!). I loved the way you described Jame's ability to create such an engrossing novel, even though you weren't sure about how much you enjoyed it. Definitely shows what a talented writer he was! Great post, Brenna!!

  14. everybookandcranny, This was my first! YOu've got to add him to your TBR.

    Mel, Thanks for directing me to this review it sounds quite interesting.

    Nymeth, I think I'm going to read The Turn of the Screw next. It sounds really good.

    Kenneth, Maybe you should give him another try!

    Nadia, Great timing! You've got to let me know what you think.

  15. Brenna,
    Thanks for stopping by and following my blog. I've gotta say I'm not a big fan of James, although the only two things I've read by him are "The Turn of the Screw" and "The Portrait of a Lady," and I much preferred the first one. "Portrait" was a bit too dull for my liking, but it's possible that I'd like him better if I read more of his shorter works (as you may know, I like short stories). "Washington Square" might well be one of them.

  16. Brenna, I just wanted you to know that I have linked this review on my blog in a "Friday Five" posting. Keep doin' what you're doin'. Cheers! Chris