As Dr Sloper, Albert Finney grim, determined to put a stop to Townsend’s courtship of his daughter, with Jennifer Leigh as a seeming sullen puzzled Catherine (Agnieska Holland’s Washington Square, 1997)
Dear friends and readers,
Over the past 10 weeks or so, a few of us on Trollope19thCStudies read and discussed Henry James’s Washington Square (1881) and then Anthony Trollope’s Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblewaite (1871) as remarkably parallel texts. While what proof there exists for a source for James’s chilling novella suggests he drew upon an anecdote he heard over dinner, people who have read both texts (and know how James faithfully followed Trollope’s career, reading novel after novel as they came out) have repeatedly drawn such useful insights from the comparison, it’s hard to give up the intuition that James remembered and rewrote Trollope. At least three of us also watched one or both of the admired film adaptations of James’s novella, and suggested readings of one or both of the novels out of these films. I can in the space available for a readable blog only suggest some of what we wrote.
As Catherine Morland, Olivia de Havilland climbs the stairs to her room (a hard equivalent of Catherine “picking up her morsel of fancy-work, had seated herself with it again — for life, as it were” — ending of book & film)
We began with Washington Square. James’s story may be read as a parody and exposure of the way heterosexual romance and marriage are conducted in upper class society of his era, but the power of the paradigm emerges from his breaking all taboos by giving us a father who hates his daughter for not being wittily clever when she’d replaced her mother (we are not sure she was these things) because her mother died in giving birth to her. She makes him cringe that she’s his. In the way of families at the time Sloper has taken his penniless widowed sister, Mrs Pennimman in, but sees her simply as an idiot, not someone who can do Catherine harm because of her own selfish exploitation of everyone around her. Both women are naive but Catherine’s comes from her goodness of character and innocence. Morris Townsend is capable of appreciating Catherine’s sensitivity and intelligence, but he also wants her money. Among the many disquieting elements in the book is how James mocks Catherine too; she is an intensely poignant figure, cowed by her father’s long derision of her, unable to actively fight him.
The metaphor of drowning kittens is what the doctor is doing to Catherine at the same time as we are given enough ironies and flat statements in the rough scene between Dr Sloper and Morris Townsend to get the point that Townsend does want to marry Catherine for her money. For the reader who persists in believing in companionate marriage and that Townsend who appears to recognize how vulnerable and soft Catherine is will be kind to her, Mrs Almond’s comment, which embedded in these ironies, is to be taken straight (it takes a great deal of tact to read James even at this early stage) that she feels sorry for Catherine pings back to Townsend’s, don’t you care that she will be miserable for life. At the close of Chapter 11 he says he likes to inspire “a salutary terror” in her.
We have the problem of separating the narrator from Dr Sloper: the free indirect discourse does not make clear all the time whether it’s Dr Sloper’s thoughts that show such contempt of women or the narrator’s. When I go over it, I find again and again the nasty reflections are Dr Sloper’s. The narrator will say “poor Catherine” at least. The narrator says that Mrs Penniman is “perfectly unprepared to play” the part of explaining what’s happening. We might say Dr Slope is doing the right thing to check out Townsend by interviewing his sister, Mrs Montgomery, but the whole feel of the chapter is insinuating: he wants bad news; he does not want to hear anything good, and anything he hears he turns it to the worst. Why is Mrs Montgomery so reluctant to speak. She could have defended her brother at the assaulting words and does not. Why not? The words “salutary terror” the Dr uses of his relationship with his daughter lingered in my mind. He sees Catherine from the worst side. Whatever she does, he turns it to her discredit. She is patient and seems obedient, so he reflects “his daughter was not a woman of great spirit.” “Paternity is not an exciting vocation.” One feels he wanted scenes, wanted her to flee – -and thus be hurt. He’s an expert at rejection. He makes her feel terrible. Ironically in Morris’s dialogue with Mrs Penniman he resembles the doctor – curt, skeptical, and (for the reader caring for Catherine) singularly unsentimental. He is as grated upon by her as Dr Slope.
While in Europe, the Doctor lets his rage come out. Catherine is justly frightened of him. She cannot quite believe he would kill her, but he could and lie about it. He does admit just a little that he is prepared to hurt her badly; “I am not a good man.” He is warning her. When they get home, we see her reaction was to move another step. When he derided her desire to be honest and not stay under his roof while seeing Townsend, she grew angry and knew he was abusing her and that gave her strength to distance herself from him. She tells her aunt this year has changed her “feelings about her father.” She feels she owes him nothing now because of how he has treated her.
Dr Sloper’s sister, Mrs Almond, sees Sloper’s continued enjoyment of Catherine’s misery. He’s a very intelligent subtle Mrs Norris (from Austen’s MP), subtly abusive. He gets a kick out of saying things like; “We must try and polish up Catherine.” He thinks her a dense dullard not capable of polishing — he’s sneering. The savage irony of the book is Townsend resembles Sloper in his scorn of people. Catherine is a tragic heroine. There is no one around worth her, no one around who could reciprocate on his level of love or strength — for we shall see she is strong. Not to act, but to hold out. Holding out counts. Anger becomes a healthy emotion here, and it carries Catherine through.
Then the doctor pulls it out to the nth degree: he accuses her of waiting for his death. She is going to wait and ask Townsend to wait in the hope her father will change his views. This makes him accuse her of wanting his death. She goes sick and faint with this. There is nothing in Catherine or Townsend’s behavior for that matter to substantiate this accusation. It’s not done to stop her marrying Townsend; it’s done to hurt her – to accuse her of the foul feelings he has. And he keeps this accusation up. What is a girl like her who we’ve seen is so moral to say in reply? she finally sees he despises her.
When she finally leaves the room – after he mocks her for saying that she ought not to have a farthing of his money by echoing that with “you won’t,” we are told “he was sorry for her … but he was so sure he was right.” He does not admit to himself he hates her. Of course not: he is amused; “By jove. .. I believe she will stick … I believe she will stick.” Is this a way to talk about her intense and complete abject anguish? He is looking at her as if she was some horse he was betting on and enjoying its suffering.
After Catherine spends a “dreadful night” (and it is dreadful even if she can get up and control herself in front of her father), Mrs Penniman meets with the doctor and he tells her not to do as she had been doing, which is not to practically help but and not to give any emotional support. If she does either, he reminds her of “the penalty” for “high treason.” I don’t think she is the quite the fool the doctor thinks: she says that her brother is “killing” Catherine. Sloper though is into control and possession.
How will Catherine fare if she does marry Townsend. We worry for her — he does not inspire enough confidence. Both her aunts say she is strong, but what if he is a total liar, and once married would betray and hurt her
We begin to see Townsend is not worthy Catherine. The chapters at this point leave me shaking. When Catherine tells her father she should not live under his roof (very pious and James as narrator finds her absurd (I see this in my edition in Chapter 22, p 118, the paragraph beginning “These reflexions,” especially the line: “this was close reasoning — James finds her hilarious …); when Catherine tells her father this, he accuses her of bad taste. He disbelieves she really thinks that.
Catherine does not end in an invisible prison; she ends seeing what’s in front of her for real. And then (my view) she does like Millie at the close of the Wings of the Dove — for those who’ve read it. I don’t mean she dies — she does not die (her father has told her she won’t die of this …. ). ? It’s like watching a specimen in a fish bowl writhing. It’s as dark as Daisy Miller (written around the same time, also a novella) whose actual death is caused by the careless sinister minds of those around her.
I see the ending as Catherine ending up in a unlived life, turning her face to the wall because she cannot bear what she has been made to see. This is Milly in The Wings of the Dove, the hero in The Ambassadors, in The American, in “The Beast in the Jungle.” She will do a little good with the money she has. Death has at least freed of the corrosive father and she may live without someone near her who despises her. I had hoped for that for her and she got it without having to leave her home and cope with Townsend for the rest of her life instead.
The two film adaptations
There are great actors here in this film. Wyler directed both Ralph Richardson and Olivia de Havilland to act or become as half-mad people. Richardson’s eyes are half-wild once he is told that Catherine has engaged herself to Townsend. The only way Wyler could understand such a flash of anger and years of hatred and punishment is that the man was not right — and like the other movie, much is made of the death of the wife in childbed and his bitter disappointment at the difference. Miriam Hopkins is Mrs Penniman (and as with Holland with Maggie Smith playing the part), Mrs Penniman has intelligence (James’s character doesn’t). Maybe it’s unreal to make her so gratingly fatuous — except that Bogdanovich pulled that for for similar character in Daisy Miller and Chloris Leachman did that black comedy to a “T.” Catherine begins in such innocence and vulnerabilty I felt intense pain as I waited for her father to come down hard. Haviland plays the part as an adoring sweet girl. It’s was heart-breaking. And then she seems to crack, also goes mad, more obviously.
Wyler couldn’t face that Catherine just caves in — the audience might think her weak (I suggest above I don’t and I hope explained why). Wyler knew we should not have a semi-happy ending, so he has Catherine become deeply angry after Townsend does not show up to take her away to marry him. She goes into a cold rage of hatred for her father herself. And the ending is her refusing to show the father any affection after the scene where she says he despises and dislikes me.” She stays outside the house when he dies — the scene of his demanding her promise again is there, and fuels this hatred. When Townsend returns she plays a trick on him: says she will be ready at midnight; he comes and she won’t let him in. She goes upstairs in grim triumph of cold hatred and anger. The mood is grim for the last ten minutes, dreadfully grim. Haviland pulls it off — she was in Snake Pit around that time where she played a woman put in asylum and gone mad because of this.
Wyler does not get the humor or mockery of the text (neither does Holland)– Bogdanovich did make Daisy Miller as a pathetic heroine also ditzy and we laugh at her at least in the first half of the movie.
This is a remarkable and bold movie for the time — the black-and-white is used to make a nightmare of the house in the second half, not gothic, realistic. One of these Victorian mansions that is a prison — rather like Cukor managed in Gaslight. The angles are remarkable. At the first half of the movie we see Catherine full face, soft focus; in the second half Haviland hard nose is caught again and again; she looks bigger and stronger in the cased-in dresses she wears. She is on guard the way I saw it — but to say she is angry and getting back is to lose the tragedy. A beautiful soul is still there is the poignancy of the piece.
Holland’s Washington Square
A disappointment. It’s more than that both the father and Townsend were softened, and Mrs Penniman made smarter and more decent (so the portrait softened too), and that the essential attacks and mockery of the original were lost. It might be asserted, How can movies do this? It’s very much against the grain to present characters from an ironic point of view in the film media: it somehow invites intense identifications, strong emotionalism, and is realistic, but it can be done. I’ve seen in the 1972 Emma and in a 1972 Golden Bowl where it was achieved through the use of a brilliantly ironic narrator (Cyril Cusak as also the husband of Fanny Assingham). Bogdanovich’s Daisy Miller shows how the characters contrive to destroy Daisy — but then the ending is tragic and as long as you keep to it the point is made; Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady is not ironic, but she exposes James’s fallacies (like it’s good to have all these suitors persecuting you), and is truer to the instincts of James’s story — with Isabel ending with a sadist she is subject to, and Touchett a closet gay or someone unwilling to risk sex but wanting to himself control Isabel, vicariously live thorugh her which is a form of preying. I’ve seen two Turn of the Screws, one by Nick Dear which seemed to me absolutely true to James’s text, and he other by Sandy Welch showed up James’s text as lending itself to misogyny at least.
Dr Sloper (Albert Finney) is still a bully and cruel egoist, but he does not hate Catherine nor is he scornful or derisive; rather he’s possessive; his idea is for her years from now to mary an older man (like himself you see), and sit by him and knit or read — because she is too ugly and stupid to attract an attractive one. What’s wrong is Holland could not get herself to realize the ugly emotions involved. In both movies (as in the book) Townsend is sexually attracted enough and at first finds Catharine’s goodness sweet. We do see Townsend’s frustration at being caught between the father-daughter struggle in this movie, but the emphasis in the movie is on her obstinacy which is not made central to her strength. Holland is no sympathetic to Catharine and in an opening scene makes fun of Leigh as awkward. Holland does make the scene between father and daughter on the mountain scary and you really do feel and she does too Dr Sloper tempted to throw Catharine off.
Townsend simply both wants Catherine and her money. He says, Is that so bad? He does have a business; he is not preying on his sister (in James it’s not clear he’s doing that), and like the James story, basically he grows tired of waiting, feels he can’t take this relationship between the father and daughter and wants out. Maggie Smith is Mrs Penniman and while she does spoil the relationship of Townsend and Catherine while the two are away for a year, she has a lot of Mrs Almond in her.
Catherine (Jennifer Leigh) does have the devastating moment where she realizes her father despises her. When he suggests she will do best to marry years from now an older man, she pushes back and describes how she sees the years of his coming home to her all eager and love — that he was destroying her bit by bit by the way he’d greet her and live with her sarcastically. They do have the dialogue where she says she should not stay with him as she is disobedient and he lashes out with strong sarcasm that this is the final bad taste. She as a creature seems to him altogether in bad taste at that moment — here the movie does edge towards the text.
Courtship and marriage are validated. Catherine has a cousin who marries and is ever so happy, endlessly pregnant and towards the end of the movie Catherine is gaining satisfactin from caring for them too. Courtship and marriage as such are fine – as Townsend shouts, what is so wrong with wanting sex and money? is not that what all want? The framing of the movie is Sloper’s loss of his wife at the birth of Catherine so obviously he has been made so mean (this is implied) because he didn’t have this happy marriage. In the text we really are not told what the marriage was like, only that it grated on Sloper to have his abilities as a doctor shown up.
Apparently the studio was still unhappy about the ending which shows Catharine making do with having a school and bringing love to other children’s lives and finding fulfillment in her cousin’s children. They wanted Catherine and Townsend to marry and be seen as happy. Holland does not do that; it would be to make no sense of the story at all. Not that the ending of James’s story does not imply that social life is what a person must have and enter into to be happy, but James’s story shows it to be hell because of typical human nature’s selfishness, stupidity, predatory aspects — and Catherine needed something better to cope and survive for real. She’s not a saint but she far finer than all around her.
We then went on to read Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite and discovered it has the same paradigm and some of the same themes and outcomes. Sir Harry himself is imagined as a chivalric ideal male: there is irony as Trollope as narrator tells us Sir Harry spent his life as a grand seigneur in his great house spending money in order to be a central linchpin for the good of his community and by extension England. A respectable moral man, and married an obedient (conventional) wife 20 years younger than him. As the novel begins, a great tragedy: his only son, the heir dies, and the next heir is this — right away we are told — ne’er do well, Sir George Hotspur. Sir Harry has a daughter now 20.
Sir Harry then discovers “too late” what a bad prospect for heir, for the community, for his daughter, Sir George is: gambler, wastrel, idler, but even worse things …. When I read it first I did imagine a mistress, maybe illegitimate children (which is what Gwendolen discovers Grandcourt has). Why too late? he invited him to stay and he is immensely likeable as company, witty, handsome, plausible and it seems perhaps Emily has fallen for this. Not clear — she denies this to her mother and a new candidate, 10 years older than her is to come for Christmas. It’s made clear Sir Harry loves Emily: “he respected his daughter …” He is really concerned over the property as he has made her complete heiress of the property but Sir George will be legitimate head of the family. Her mother is in the position of Aunt Penniman, but very well meaning, not vain jackass
Chapter 3 ended Part 2 in the original instalment publication and it’s a deeply picturesque description of Humblethwaite. It reminds me of Ullathorne only much more so and not at all mocked. It’s Trollope’s adherence to this dream of an ancient seigneurial contented hierarchical world, rooted in Tudor times. Lord Alfred comes to court Emily and there’s nothing wrong with him — he fits in perfectly; he would have made a good husband. The point is made he wants her money and estate, but he would have taken her to London, given her a good life. We are told he did not somehow set her on fire — no erotic enthrallment