Monday, March 23, 2015

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

“WASHINGTON SQUARE” by Henry James (first published 1880)

A couple of years ago on this blog, writing about Henry James’ Roderick Hudson , I explained what my basic attitude to Henry James was and still is. I admired and enjoyed the novels of James’ early and middle periods, but I could never get my head around those rambling, ruminative, frequently pompous and often otiose dissections of the wealthy and the privileged that made up his last period. I recycled the old joke about James the First, James the Second and James the Old Pretender – and I still can’t stand the Old Pretender. From The American up to Portrait of a Lady – fine. From there on to the likes of The Awkward Age and The Golden Bowl – no thanks.
What I neglected to note in my dyspeptic comments were two very important points. First, that the earlier James had a sly sense of humour, and it should never be underestimated. Second, that he wasn’t always the best judge of his own work.
I take as my example of these two things the wholly delightful early piece of James, the very short novel Washington Square (154 pages of text in the paperback edition on my shelves). James himself did not think highly of it. He excluded it from the collected edition of his works that he oversaw late in life. And maybe this was a good thing. James had the unlovely habit of tinkering with, and rewriting, bits of his earlier novels when they came to be collected - and I’m glad Washington Square escaped this fate.
Part of the delight of Washington Square is that it is often so funny, even if it has sometimes been interpreted as a domestic tragedy.
Plain, untalented, and in fact not particularly bright, young Catherine Sloper lives with her widower father Dr Austin Sloper in New York’s fashionable Washington Square. Dr Sloper is a wealthy man and naïve Catherine will obviously inherit his money. The lively and handsome young fortune-hunter Morris Townsend takes an interest in her. Catherine believes he loves her for herself and believes she is in love with him. She is encouraged in this delusion by her aunt Lavinia Penniman, whose view of young lovers is moulded by the drivelling romantic fiction she reads, and who acts as letter-carrying and assignation-making go-between behind Dr Sloper’s back. But Dr Sloper stands in the way of the union of his daughter and the young man. He knows full well that Morris Townsend, without a profession or means of support, has only a mercenary interest in Catherine. He is all flash and no cash.
Given his stern demeanour, given the patronising way he treats his daughter, given the downright cruel things he sometimes says about her lack of both talents and good looks, Dr Sloper could easily be seen as nothing more than a villainous, tyrannical father. He frequently remarks that she has none of the beauty, poise and wit of her mother, who died giving birth to her. But the nuanced thing is that he is absolutely right about lively, charming Morris Townsend. The young man really is interested only in Catherine’s inheritance; the father has read the situation more accurately than the daughter has; and for all his unkindness, the father really is protecting the daughter from making a match that can only end in unhappiness.
In the novel this plays out as Catherine only gradually being undeceived. Realising that he will never get his hands on Catherine’s money, Morris goes off on a “business trip” from which, despite his protestations to Catherine, he never returns. The years go by, and Catherine (whose father has died in the interim) slowly comes to realise that Morris never loved her and has deceived her. This, as she continues to live unmarried with her aunt Lavinia, becomes the great psychological fact in her life. She was not loved for herself. She was cheated by a young man with his eyes on her inheritance.
After about twenty years, Morris Townsend returns to New York. Foolish Aunt Lavinia arranges for him to meet with Catherine, much against Catherine’s will. When she lays eyes on him (in the novel’s last chapter) “[Catherine] would never have known hm. He was forty-five years old, and his figure was not that of the straight, slim young man she remembered.” Morris, clearly having made nothing of his life, wants once again to court her for her money. Catherine is not moved and firmly tells him to be on his way. He leaves. Catherine goes back to her crocheting, and the novel ends.
There are some scenes in which Catherine defies her father even when she has come dimly to understand the truth about Morris; but if she has grown in any way, it is simply in a very limited self-knowledge. She now knows that she is not attractive to men, she will never marry, and her lot is to sit out life quietly in the residence her father has left her.
The novel is told in the third-person. James lets us share the thoughts of Catherine, Dr Sloper and Aunt Lavinia; but Morris is seen from the outside only. The tone is consistently ironical, witty, barbed. We pity and sometimes laugh at Catherine’s naïvete, but we are never encouraged to see her as a tragic heroine. Dr Sloper’s cruel comments about Catherine are often cruelly funny (Chapter 13 – a minor character asks of Catherine “Doesn’t she make a noise? Hasn’t she made a scene?” to which Dr Sloper dryly replies “She isn’t scenic.”)
So this is, first and foremost, a sad little social comedy, perfectly proportioned.

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Okay, gentle reader, I have been leading you on a bit here. In deciding to write about Washington Square this week, I was really looking for the excuse to tell you what the movies have made of this dry, ironical, witty little domestic tale.
For years I have had a DVD copy of William Wyler’s 1949 film The Heiress, based on the stage adaptation of Washington Square by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, which had already wowed Broadway before the film was made. I have seen this film a number of times.
When I was a film reviewer, I saw on its first release Agnieszka Holland’s 1997 film version of the story, called Washington Square. I recently borrowed a copy of it from my local video library and watched the two films once again. And – goodness – it did tell me something about the difficulties of adapting this sort of literary source to the screen.
Take The Heiress first of all. Filmed in crisp black-and-white, it follows James’ plot fairly closely, but manages to turn James’ ironical social comedy into a sort of hothouse Racinian drama, focusing almost exclusively on the four main characters. 28-year-old Montgomery Clift is appropriately charming as Morris Townsend, and his habitual tentativeness (and bewildered Method Acting stare) makes it credible that he has half-convinced himself that he really loves Catherine for more than her money. Miriam Hopkins flutters around effectively enough as silly Aunt Lavinia. The outstanding performance is by Ralph Richardson as Dr Sloper – stern and mocking of his daughter, but very sly in the way he interrogates Morris and ironically cuts the young man down to size. At this point I note how amusing Old Hollywood always was in its habit of casting English actors in American roles that required some gravitas. But there is the big problem of Catherine herself. How can you get a really young actress (Catherine is about twenty years old for most of the story) to carry the story with the proper nuance? The Heiress has 33-year-old Olivia de Havilland in the role. To her and the producers’ great credit, she is deglamourized and is made as credibly “plain” as Catherine is supposed to be. She acts well (she won an Academy Award for her turn here). But – alas – all the time we are aware that this is a grown woman, far too old for the role and pretending to be a giddy and innocent 20-year-old.
Then there is the ending. The Heiress makes it far more melodramatic than the novel. Morris arranges to elope with Catherine, but he discovers he will not gain as much money as he thought he would out of such a manoeuvre. Catherine sits up all night waiting for him to snatch her romantically away. He never turns up. She realises that he has deceived her. But the film-makers want to give her heroic status by showing that she is capable of turning the tables on him. Some time later (but when he is still young and attractive – not middle-aged) Morris turns up again, seeking her hand in the hope of at least getting a comfortable life out of her. Catherine pretends to be ready to go with him. He dashes off to get his things, but when he returns, she has barred the house door to him and ordered the servants not to let him in under any circumstances. The film ends with her, stoic and grim-faced, climbing the stairs away from the door upon which Morris is hammering futilely and which we know she will never open to him.
So, as seen in The Heiress, Catherine has got her revenge, even if she still faces an unhappy and loveless life. (And might I add that that fade-out shot of Montgomery Clift hammering on the door and shouting “Catherine! Catherine!” reminds me of another Method Actor, Marlon Brando, a couple of years later at the end of A Streetcar Named Desire wailing “Stella! Stella!” to the wife who won’t let him in.)
It is a very good film, the acting is fine, it works well as a tightly-structured melodrama and I have enjoyed it thoroughly a number of times. But it is not the ironical thing that Henry James wrote.
Turning to the 1997 film Washington Square, we find a very different sort of beast. It more-or-less follows James’ story, but from the opening shots we know that this version (scripted by one woman, Carol Doyle, and directed by another, Agnieszka Holland) is going to do its darndest to turn Washington Square into a feminist tract. We begin with a shot of Dr Sloper’s wife dying in childbirth, with blood smeared all over the sheets (so, dear viewer, see what women had to endure in those days when fathers ruled households). Later there is a scene where Catherine, as a child, is so frightened at having to sing a song in public that she urinates on the carpet. (See the cruel things little girls were forced to do in these male-dominated households.) Following the tradition of gravitas-seeking Old Hollywood, most of the leading roles in this American story are played by English actors – Albert Finney as Dr Sloper, Maggie Smith as Aunt Lavinia and 28-year-old Ben Chaplin as Morris Townsend (a comely enough lad but – as even heterosexuals such as I can see – not as gorgeous a chap as the young Montgomery Clift). And once again, when the main part of the story finally gets going, we have an over-aged Catherine Sloper, played by 35-year-old Jennifer Jason Leigh. Let me make it clear that I think she is a very, very good actress. In her coyness, her finger-counting, her moments of embarrassment, she does get across Catherine’s little girl qualities in the early parts of the film. But she is still a grown woman and a very attractive one. It is hard to believe that there is no eligible bachelor who would court her for herself.
In this version, Morris’ venality is downplayed. We do know he is after Catherine’s money, but the emphasis is thrown onto the father’s cruelty. The film is stacking up to show us the evil of the domineering patriarchy, rather than the naïvete of the girl. By film’s end (and rather improbably given the helpless thing she has been earlier on) Catherine has become an assertive woman, scorning both father and suitor. In the last sequence, Morris visits her when she is undeceived about his motives. She is busily running a kind of creche for little girls. She is seated at a piano playing. She sends Morris away curtly, then turns and gives a wise smile to the little girl sharing the piano bench with her. The implication is obvious, dear sisters. In the nineteenth century, women cannot have power, but Catherine is a pioneer in showing that women can live free of fathers and dodgy men who might become their husbands; and the little girl represents the future generations who will assert their full equality with men.
This version has some good moments, but also some supremely silly ones. As an example, there is a sequence where Maggie Smith’s doddery Aunt Lavinia (far more doddery than Miriam Hopkins’ turn in the same role) makes one of her covert appointments with Morris to keep his connection with Catherine going. The scene is set in what is obviously a brothel and we can hear women in the background moaning orgasmically as they are rough-handled by customers. Ah yes, dear viewer, see another way in which women are exploited and mistreated by men. But the possibility that a woman like Aunt Lavinia would enter such a place is virtually nil.
Believe it or not, I do not condemn films for being different from their sources – it is almost inevitable that they will be – but I do note that both these films play to the audience expectations of their day. The Heiress, in the 1940s, gives us romantic melodrama. Washington Square, in the 1990s, gives us girls-can-do-anything tract. The wit of Henry James is lost in both. But for sheer entertainment value, and as a well-structured drama, The Heiress still wins hands down.

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