Friday, April 27, 2012

Mrs. Penniman's imagination was not chilled by trifles

The widowed aunt of Washington Square's protagonist:

Mrs. Penniman took too much satisfaction in the sentimental shadows of this little drama to have, for the moment, any great interest in dissipating them. She wished the plot to thicken, and the advice that she gave her niece tended, in her own imagination, to produce this result. It was rather incoherent counsel, and from one day to another it contradicted itself; but it was pervaded by an earnest desire that Catherine should do something striking. "You must ACT, my dear; in your situation the great thing is to act," said Mrs. Penniman, who found her niece altogether beneath her opportunities. Mrs. Penniman's real hope was that the girl would make a secret marriage, at which she should officiate as brideswoman or duenna. She had a vision of this ceremony being performed in some subterranean chapel--subterranean chapels in New York were not frequent, but Mrs. Penniman's imagination was not chilled by trifles--and of the guilty couple--she liked to think of poor Catherine and her suitor as the guilty couple--being shuffled away in a fast-whirling vehicle to some obscure lodging in the suburbs, where she would pay them (in a thick veil) clandestine visits, where they would endure a period of romantic privation, and where ultimately, after she should have been their earthly providence, their intercessor, their advocate, and their medium of communication with the world, they should be reconciled to her brother in an artistic tableau, in which she herself should be somehow the central figure. She hesitated as yet to recommend this course to Catherine, but she attempted to draw an attractive picture of it to Morris Townsend. She was in daily communication with the young man, whom she kept informed by letters of the state of affairs in Washington Square. As he had been banished, as she said, from the house, she no longer saw him; but she ended by writing to him that she longed for an interview. This interview could take place only on neutral ground, and she bethought herself greatly before selecting a place of meeting. She had an inclination for Greenwood Cemetery, but she gave it up as too distant; she could not absent herself for so long, as she said, without exciting suspicion. Then she thought of the Battery, but that was rather cold and windy, besides one's being exposed to intrusion from the Irish emigrants who at this point alight, with large appetites, in the New World and at last she fixed upon an oyster saloon in the Seventh Avenue, kept by a negro--an establishment of which she knew nothing save that she had noticed it in passing. She made an appointment with Morris Townsend to meet him there, and she went to the tryst at dusk, enveloped in an impenetrable veil. He kept her waiting for half an hour--he had almost the whole width of the city to traverse--but she liked to wait, it seemed to intensify the situation. She ordered a cup of tea, which proved excessively bad, and this gave her a sense that she was suffering in a romantic cause. When Morris at last arrived, they sat together for half an hour in the duskiest corner of a back shop; and it is hardly too much to say that this was the happiest half-hour that Mrs. Penniman had known for years. The situation was really thrilling, and it scarcely seemed to her a false note when her companion asked for an oyster stew, and proceeded to consume it before her eyes.

I am tempted to say that James made Mrs Penniman so perversely amused by the doings of others--so hugely ready to turn any human drama into but entertaining dramatics--so that we would notice that Dr Sloper (the protagonist's father) shared this trait, though in a lesser degree. The good doctor is wise, and a good judge of character, except of course that he cannot see his own character flaws.

Which is, admittedly, a cliche. This is an early novel from James, and while it is peopled with a vibrant and engaging cast, they are less fully human than the characters in James' later novels. Washington Square is packed with fine examples of direct, conflict-building dialogue where nobody wants to boldly insult anyone, but by God they'll say what they mean to say and they'll say it right now. I am willing to bet that G.B. Shaw was familiar with the writings of Mr James. But real people rarely speak like this. That's a quibble, however, and the best conversations in Washington Square are rich and multilayered and the sparring is as good as anything you'll find in Shakespeare. A bold statement, yes, but I have made it.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, that is a bold statement! I'm intrigued. I think it's really cool that you're reading enough of the same authors that you can see their progression. I rarely am able to do that, but it seems educational.

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