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Entries in Washington Square (2)



Early on, I said we'd often pay special attention to the beginnings and endings of novels. This one by James is no exception.

Consider this: the novel opens with a scene of involuntary loss. It opens with death--which is an odd place for a novel to open. Specifically, with the death of two members of Dr. Sloper's family--two events over which he has no control but which both deal him great loss.

The novel then concludes with a scene of voluntary loss: Catherine's dismissing Morris and settling into her quiet life of "mild, firm sadness."

No matter what else you think about her fate, it is something she can control. James did not end with Mrs. Penniman's or Mrs. Almond's deaths--two events that could have been quite "natural" for the plot's conclusion. Instead, he has opted for a loss of a different kind: the loss that Catherine herself chooses.

In this, she has moved well beyond her father.



James wrote this smallish novel at what is now considered the height of his first phase of literary output, a period that culiminated with the subsequent novel, one of his unabashed masterpieces, The Portrait of a Lady.

That said, Washington Square is sublime: polished, poised, and succinct. The idea for the novel was suggested to James by his friend, the British actress Fanny Kemble.

Kemble herself was once entangled in a tragic marriage in the United States. She had married Pierce Butler, the heir to an enormous fortune. Butler also inherited his father's many slaves. After seeing their appalling conditions on his plantations in Georgia, Kemble tried to better their lives, much to Butler's dismay. The couple soon separted and eventually were divorced.

To her horror, Butler was given sole custody of their two daughters. Kemble returned to the stage to make a living and was later reunited with her daughters after each turned twenty-one. She was best known in the United States for her solo readings of Shakespeare's plays. From a chair center-stage, she would read an entire play, all the characters, employing various voices and dramatic gestures, to grand applause and in sold-out houses. In the days before youtube, this passed for a hit.

Back in England, Kemble was the toast of London society. There, she met James frequently at swanky dinner parties and the two soon become good friends.

One evening, she recounted to James the story of her younger brother, Henry. According to Kemble, he was beautiful but "selfish and indolent." He courted Mary Anne Thackeray, a plain girl, the only child of George Thackeray, the master of King's College, Cambridge. George Thackeray had inherited a fortune that yielded him in today's money about half a million a year. On learning that his daughter was honoring the suit of a known lay-about, he said that if she dared to marry the young man, he would cut her off.

Mary Anne went to Fanny for advice during the worst of it. The girl then soldiered on against her father. The whole affair soon went up in smoke when Henry himself broke off the engagement, fearing the old man would never relent.

Twenty years later, the don long dead, Henry Kemble returned and proposed again to Mary Anne. This time, she refused him outright, although now a fading spinster. "And yet," Fanny Kemble told James, "she cared for Henry--and she would have married no other man."

As a thank-you for the germ of the story, James put Fanny Kemble into the book--in the "person" of Mrs. Montgomery, the sister of Morris Townsend. However, the advice that James recorded in his dairies as having come from Fanny Kemble to Mary Anne Thackeray was elsewhere reproduced almost verbatim in the text of the book--in the mouth of Mrs. Almond.