A Thing of Beauty isn't always a joy forever. Henry James's short novel, Washington Square, is a thing of beauty, a nearly perfect 'historical' novel as shapely as a Grecian Urn, which has been the joy of English Department scholars, film makers, and more than a few readers ever since its publication in 1890. But James detested it and attempted to revise it for a later edition, only to conclude that the task was hopeless. To a certain degree, 'beauty' is its subject. The beautiful figures in the novel -- beautiful in any sense, physical or metaphysical -- turn out to be loathsomely selfish, moral failures -- while the least beautiful figure muddles and suffers through to a degree of decency and moral insight. Likewise, the fashionable heart of Manhattan in 1840, the beauty spot called Washington Square, is exposed as emblematic of a crass, greedy, egotistical society of climbers and grabbers.
Dr. Sloper, whose mansion on Washington Square is the setting for most chapters of the novel, is a popular and successful society doctor, made wealthy by his marriage to a New York belle and by his energetic practice. He's a man of intelligence and wit, with a penchant for irony and a well-concealed fund of narcissism. His beautiful wife dies young, leaving him a daughter who is neither beautiful nor intelligent. Catherine, the daughter, is pudgy, dull, and docile. Despite being the heiress of a considerable fortune, she reaches her early twenties without attracting a suitor. Then a handsome, clever, stylish stranger, Morris Townsend, comes courting with suspicious alacrity. The Doctor's widowed sister, a resident in the Washington square mansion, fancies herself a romantic and a matchmaker. The Doctor is offended at the prospect that his daughter, awkward embarrassment that she is to his self-esteem, should fall prey to a mercenary wastrel who would thereby carry off the fruits of his professional labors. He forcefully denounces the courtship and threatens 'disinheritance.'
And that's the polished formula for a Victorian novel of manners-and-marriage, isn't it? A novel in the style of Jane Austen or the Brontes, told by an omniscient third-person narrator who often speaks out of the frame directly to the reader! An 'old-fashioned' novel, in short, for Henry james to have written in 1890, especially when everyone knew that he despised the works of Austen! But Henry James was a perverse critter in his literary motives. Washington Square is also a 'historical' novel, set in New York in the 1840s, the very decade of the greatest popularity of Austen-like novels of romance. It's worth noting that James was born in New York City in 1843, making this novel effectively a portrayal of the society of his parents' generation. Nostalgia? Ha! You'll need to read it and look hard for any trace of that!
So it's my thesis - my guess - that James intended Washington Square as a moral rebuttal to the sloppy frippery and psychological unreality of his feminine novelist predecessors. I seldom read literary criticism; I got too much of that in college. If any critic has already stated this same thesis, I'm unaware of it and I can't be accused of plagiarism. But James was wrong to scorn his own brilliance in this novel. The four principal characters -- father, daughter, suitor, meddlesome aunt -- are staggeringly "real" and fully realized psychological portrayals. No one has ever made better reading out of four such unattractive faulty human beings.