Thumbs up for Washington Square by Henry James. Literature.
I remember reading, a long time ago, about a young woman who was enjoying Henry James, until someone asked her “But don’t you find James very difficult?”: after which she realized Henry James was difficult. Having that story in mind when I began, I was pleased to discover that James is difficult in a very specific way – to wit, his laughably long paragraphs. The first paragraph of Washington Square is two and a half pages long, and I noted one that ran to three pages (this in a trade paperback having quite small type). Frightened? You shouldn’t be, for they are such tidy, controlled paragraphs, you won’t feel lost. In fact, I quite like James’s style. He paints his characters with immaculate precision and arranges them in a tableau of classic drama – unattractive girl, unsuitable suitor, domineering father, ludicrous aunt – that makes me think he was a big Austen fan. This is a realistic novel, not a romance, so don’t take that comparison too far, but I would nevertheless recommend this to an Austen aficionado who has a little more depth than to demand a happy ending every time.
Mrs. Penniman was a tall, thin, fair, rather faded woman, with a perfectly amiable disposition, a high standard of gentility, a taste for light literature, and a certain foolish indirectness and obliquity of character. She was romantic, she was sentimental, she had a passion for little secrets and mysteries – a very innocent passion, for her secrets had hitherto always been as unpractical as addled eggs. She was not absolutely veracious; but this defect was of no great consequence, for she had never had anything to conceal. She would have liked to have a lover, and to correspond with him under an assumed name in letters left at a shop; I am bound to say that her imagination never carried the intimacy farther than this. Mrs. Penniman had never had a lover, but her brother, who was very shrewd, understood her turn of mind. “When Catherine is about seventeen,” he said to himself, “Lavinia will try and persuade her that some young man with a moustache is in love with her. It will be quite untrue; no young man, with a moustache or without, will ever be in love with Catherine. But Lavinia will take it up, and talk to her about it; perhaps, even, if her taste for clandestine operations doesn’t prevail with her, she will talk to me about it. Catherine won’t see it, and won’t believe it, fortunately for her peace of mind; poor Catherine isn’t romantic.”
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