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Curiosity about how Washington Square was received at the time it was written lead me to search for a review done at the time the book was published. Expecting that the late nineteenth century reader would have a different view of the work than a late twentieth century reader, it came as a surprise to find that an anonymous review in the February 1881 issue of Spectator related views similar to my own. The reviewer described the book as "dismal," filled with a "leaden-coloured group of emotions," while still conveying a "genius" for "painting character, and genius for conceiving unalloyed dismalness of effect, without tragedy and without comedy" (Gard 88-90). While I agree that the book was dismal and lacked a certain depth of emotion, I did not think it was without tragedy in the character of Catherine, or comedy courtesy of Aunt Penniman.
The anonymous reviewer asks the question: "why is the whole painted against that blank, leaden sky, not merely of absolute hopelessness, but absolute indifference to hope?" (Gard 89) To me, this clearly referred to Catherine for whom hope is an alien concept. Her everlasting endeavors to please her father who perceived her as inferior because of her gender and her singular lack of distinction, eliminated hope from her reservoir of emotions. The tug-of-war between Townsend and her father over Catherine, not for her own sake, but for money, robbed "her of her admiration for her father" (Gard 89), and a fickle fiancée. These loses she suffered behind "her ancient facility for silence" (James 216). Catherine lived her life trying to please others in a bid for love and approval, and ended up without love from anyone or the hope of acquiring it, which made her a tragic figure.
Others might consider having to live with Aunt Penniman ad infinitum to be a tragedy. Aunt Penniman did, however, offer some moments of comic relief with her "silly love of intrigue" (Gard 89) and her romantic flights of fancy. Who could not be amused by Aunt Penniman describing Morris Townsend as an "imperious" man "of great force of character," and saying to herself , "That's the sort of husband I should have had!" (James 38)
The anonymous reviewer indicts James as showing genius in creating his characters, but showing no caring for their fate, which leads to his final comment on the book, "If you desire a consummately clever study of perfect dreariness, you have it in
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James, Henry. Washington Square. New York: Signet, 1964.
Rev. of Washington Square. Henry James: The Critical Heritage. Ed. Roger Gard. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1968.