Washington Square by Henry James

I

DURING a portion of the first half of the present century, and more
particularly during the latter part of it, there flourished and practised
in the city of New York a physician who enjoyed perhaps an exceptional
share of the consideration which, in the United States, has always been
bestowed upon distinguished members of the medical profession. This
profession in America has constantly been held in honour, and more
successfully than elsewhere has put forward a claim to the epithet of
“liberal.” In a country in which, to play a social part, you must either
earn your income or make believe that you earn it, the healing art has
appeared in a high degree to combine two recognised sources of credit.
It belongs to the realm of the practical, which in the United States is a
great recommendation; and it is touched by the light of science—a merit
appreciated in a community in which the love of knowledge has not always
been accompanied by leisure and opportunity. It was an element in Dr.
Sloper’s reputation that his learning and his skill were very evenly
balanced; he was what you might call a scholarly doctor, and yet there
was nothing abstract in his remedies—he always ordered you to take
something. Though he was felt to be extremely thorough, he was not
uncomfortably theoretic, and if he sometimes explained matters rather
more minutely than might seem of use to the patient, he never went so far
(like some practitioners one has heard of) as to trust to the explanation
alone, but always left behind him an inscrutable prescription. There
were some doctors that left the prescription without offering any
explanation at all; and he did not belong to that class either, which
was, after all, the most vulgar. It will be seen that I am describing a
clever man; and this is really the reason why Dr. Sloper had become a
local celebrity. At the time at which we are chiefly concerned with him,
he was some fifty years of age, and his popularity was at its height. He
was very witty, and he passed in the best society of New York for a man
of the world—which, indeed, he was, in a very sufficient degree. I
hasten to add, to anticipate possible misconception, that he was not the
least of a charlatan. He was a thoroughly honest man—honest in a degree
of which he had perhaps lacked the opportunity to give the complete
measure; and, putting aside the great good-nature of the circle in which
he practised, which was rather fond of boasting that it possessed the
“brightest” doctor in the country, he daily justified his claim to the
talents attributed to him by the popular voice. He was an observer, even
a philosopher, and to be bright was so natural to him, and (as the
popular voice said) came so easily, that he never aimed at mere effect,
and had none of the little tricks and pretensions of second-rate
reputations. It must be confessed that fortune had favoured him, and
that he had found the path to prosperity very soft to his tread. He had
married at the age of twenty-seven, for love, a very charming girl, Miss
Catherine Harrington, of New York, who, in addition to her charms, had
brought him a solid dowry. Mrs. Sloper was amiable, graceful,
accomplished, elegant, and in 1820 she had been one of the pretty girls
of the small but promising capital which clustered about the Battery and
overlooked the Bay, and of which the uppermost boundary was indicated by
the grassy waysides of Canal Street. Even at the age of twenty-seven
Austin Sloper had made his mark sufficiently to mitigate the anomaly of
his having been chosen among a dozen suitors by a young woman of high
fashion, who had ten thousand dollars of income and the most charming
eyes in the island of Manhattan. These eyes, and some of their
accompaniments, were for about five years a source of extreme
satisfaction to the young physician, who was both a devoted and a very
happy husband. The fact of his having married a rich woman made no
difference in the line he had traced for himself, and he cultivated his
profession with as definite a purpose as if he still had no other
resources than his fraction of the modest patrimony which on his father’s
death he had shared with his brothers and sisters. This purpose had not
been preponderantly to make money—it had been rather to learn something
and to do something. To learn something interesting, and to do something
useful—this was, roughly speaking, the programme he had sketched, and of
which the accident of his wife having an income appeared to him in no
degree to modify the validity. He was fond of his practice, and of
exercising a skill of which he was agreeably conscious, and it was so
patent a truth that if he were not a doctor there was nothing else he
could be, that a doctor he persisted in being, in the best possible
conditions. Of course his easy domestic situation saved him a good deal
of drudgery, and his wife’s affiliation to the “best people” brought him
a good many of those patients whose symptoms are, if not more interesting
in themselves than those of the lower orders, at least more consistently
displayed. He desired experience, and in the course of twenty years he
got a great deal. It must be added that it came to him in some forms
which, whatever might have been their intrinsic value, made it the
reverse of welcome. His first child, a little boy of extraordinary
promise, as the Doctor, who was not addicted to easy enthusiasms, firmly
believed, died at three years of age, in spite of everything that the
mother’s tenderness and the father’s science could invent to save him.
Two years later Mrs. Sloper gave birth to a second infant—an infant of a
sex which rendered the poor child, to the Doctor’s sense, an inadequate
substitute for his lamented first-born, of whom he had promised himself
to make an admirable man. The little girl was a disappointment; but this
was not the worst. A week after her birth the young mother, who, as the
phrase is, had been doing well, suddenly betrayed alarming symptoms, and
before another week had elapsed Austin Sloper was a widower.

For a man whose trade was to keep people alive, he had certainly done
poorly in his own family; and a bright doctor who within three years
loses his wife and his little boy should perhaps be prepared to see
either his skill or his affection impugned. Our friend, however, escaped
criticism: that is, he escaped all criticism but his own, which was much
the most competent and most formidable. He walked under the weight of
this very private censure for the rest of his days, and bore for ever the
scars of a castigation to which the strongest hand he knew had treated
him on the night that followed his wife’s death. The world, which, as I
have said, appreciated him, pitied him too much to be ironical; his
misfortune made him more interesting, and even helped him to be the
fashion. It was observed that even medical families cannot escape the
more insidious forms of disease, and that, after all, Dr. Sloper had lost
other patients beside the two I have mentioned; which constituted an
honourable precedent. His little girl remained to him, and though she
was not what he had desired, he proposed to himself to make the best of
her. He had on hand a stock of unexpended authority, by which the child,
in its early years, profited largely. She had been named, as a matter of
course, after her poor mother, and even in her most diminutive babyhood
the Doctor never called her anything but Catherine. She grew up a very
robust and healthy child, and her father, as he looked at her, often said
to himself that, such as she was, he at least need have no fear of losing
her. I say “such as she was,” because, to tell the truth—But this is a
truth of which I will defer the telling.

II

WHEN the child was about ten years old, he invited his sister, Mrs.
Penniman, to come and stay with him. The Miss Slopers had been but two
in number, and both of them had married early in life. The younger, Mrs.
Almond by name, was the wife of a prosperous merchant, and the mother of
a blooming family. She bloomed herself, indeed, and was a comely,
comfortable, reasonable woman, and a favourite with her clever brother,
who, in the matter of women, even when they were nearly related to him,
was a man of distinct preferences. He preferred Mrs. Almond to his
sister Lavinia, who had married a poor clergyman, of a sickly
constitution and a flowery style of eloquence, and then, at the age of
thirty-three, had been left a widow, without children, without
fortune—with nothing but the memory of Mr. Penniman’s flowers of speech,
a certain vague aroma of which hovered about her own conversation.
Nevertheless he had offered her a home under his own roof, which Lavinia
accepted with the alacrity of a woman who had spent the ten years of her
married life in the town of Poughkeepsie. The Doctor had not proposed to
Mrs. Penniman to come and live with him indefinitely; he had suggested
that she should make an asylum of his house while she looked about for
unfurnished lodgings. It is uncertain whether Mrs. Penniman ever
instituted a search for unfurnished lodgings, but it is beyond dispute
that she never found them. She settled herself with her brother and
never went away, and when Catherine was twenty years old her Aunt Lavinia
was still one of the most striking features of her immediate _entourage_.
Mrs. Penniman’s own account of the matter was that she had remained to
take charge of her niece’s education. She had given this account, at
least, to every one but the Doctor, who never asked for explanations
which he could entertain himself any day with inventing. Mrs. Penniman,
moreover, though she had a good deal of a certain sort of artificial
assurance, shrank, for indefinable reasons, from presenting herself to
her brother as a fountain of instruction. She had not a high sense of
humour, but she had enough to prevent her from making this mistake; and
her brother, on his side, had enough to excuse her, in her situation, for
laying him under contribution during a considerable part of a lifetime.
He therefore assented tacitly to the proposition which Mrs. Penniman had
tacitly laid down, that it was of importance that the poor motherless
girl should have a brilliant woman near her. His assent could only be
tacit, for he had never been dazzled by his sister’s intellectual lustre.
Save when he fell in love with Catherine Harrington, he had never been
dazzled, indeed, by any feminine characteristics whatever; and though he
was to a certain extent what is called a ladies’ doctor, his private
opinion of the more complicated sex was not exalted. He regarded its
complications as more curious than edifying, and he had an idea of the
beauty of _reason_, which was, on the whole, meagrely gratified by what
he observed in his female patients. His wife had been a reasonable
woman, but she was a bright exception; among several things that he was
sure of, this was perhaps the principal. Such a conviction, of course,
did little either to mitigate or to abbreviate his widowhood; and it set
a limit to his recognition, at the best, of Catherine’s possibilities and
of Mrs. Penniman’s ministrations. He, nevertheless, at the end of six
months, accepted his sister’s permanent presence as an accomplished fact,
and as Catherine grew older perceived that there were in effect good
reasons why she should have a companion of her own imperfect sex. He was
extremely polite to Lavinia, scrupulously, formally polite; and she had
never seen him in anger but once in her life, when he lost his temper in
a theological discussion with her late husband. With her he never
discussed theology, nor, indeed, discussed anything; he contented himself
with making known, very distinctly, in the form of a lucid ultimatum, his
wishes with regard to Catherine.

Once, when the girl was about twelve years old, he had said to her:

“Try and make a clever woman of her, Lavinia; I should like her to be a
clever woman.”

Mrs. Penniman, at this, looked thoughtful a moment. “My dear Austin,”
she then inquired, “do you think it is better to be clever than to be
good?”

“Good for what?” asked the Doctor. “You are good for nothing unless you
are clever.”

From this assertion Mrs. Penniman saw no reason to dissent; she possibly
reflected that her own great use in the world was owing to her aptitude
for many things.

“Of course I wish Catherine to be good,” the Doctor said next day; “but
she won’t be any the less virtuous for not being a fool. I am not afraid
of her being wicked; she will never have the salt of malice in her
character. She is as good as good bread, as the French say; but six
years hence I don’t want to have to compare her to good bread and
butter.”

“Are you afraid she will turn insipid? My dear brother, it is I who
supply the butter; so you needn’t fear!” said Mrs. Penniman, who had
taken in hand the child’s accomplishments, overlooking her at the piano,
where Catherine displayed a certain talent, and going with her to the
dancing-class, where it must be confessed that she made but a modest
figure.

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.”

She was a healthy well-grown child, without a trace of her mother’s
beauty. She was not ugly; she had simply a plain, dull, gentle
countenance. The most that had ever been said for her was that she had a
“nice” face, and, though she was an heiress, no one had ever thought of
regarding her as a belle. Her father’s opinion of her moral purity was
abundantly justified; she was excellently, imperturbably good;
affectionate, docile, obedient, and much addicted to speaking the truth.
In her younger years she was a good deal of a romp, and, though it is an
awkward confession to make about one’s heroine, I must add that she was
something of a glutton. She never, that I know of, stole raisins out of
the pantry; but she devoted her pocket-money to the purchase of
cream-cakes. As regards this, however, a critical attitude would be
inconsistent with a candid reference to the early annals of any
biographer. Catherine was decidedly not clever; she was not quick with
her book, nor, indeed, with anything else. She was not abnormally
deficient, and she mustered learning enough to acquit herself respectably
in conversation with her contemporaries, among whom it must be avowed,
however, that she occupied a secondary place. It is well known that in
New York it is possible for a young girl to occupy a primary one.
Catherine, who was extremely modest, had no desire to shine, and on most
social occasions, as they are called, you would have found her lurking in
the background. She was extremely fond of her father, and very much
afraid of him; she thought him the cleverest and handsomest and most
celebrated of men. The poor girl found her account so completely in the
exercise of her affections that the little tremor of fear that mixed
itself with her filial passion gave the thing an extra relish rather than
blunted its edge. Her deepest desire was to please him, and her
conception of happiness was to know that she had succeeded in pleasing
him. She had never succeeded beyond a certain point. Though, on the
whole, he was very kind to her, she was perfectly aware of this, and to
go beyond the point in question seemed to her really something to live
for. What she could not know, of course, was that she disappointed him,
though on three or four occasions the Doctor had been almost frank about
it. She grew up peacefully and prosperously, but at the age of eighteen
Mrs. Penniman had not made a clever woman of her. Dr. Sloper would have
liked to be proud of his daughter; but there was nothing to be proud of
in poor Catherine. There was nothing, of course, to be ashamed of; but
this was not enough for the Doctor, who was a proud man and would have
enjoyed being able to think of his daughter as an unusual girl. There
would have been a fitness in her being pretty and graceful, intelligent
and distinguished; for her mother had been the most charming woman of her
little day, and as regards her father, of course he knew his own value.
He had moments of irritation at having produced a commonplace child, and
he even went so far at times as to take a certain satisfaction in the
thought that his wife had not lived to find her out. He was naturally
slow in making this discovery himself, and it was not till Catherine had
become a young lady grown that he regarded the matter as settled. He
gave her the benefit of a great many doubts; he was in no haste to
conclude. Mrs. Penniman frequently assured him that his daughter had a
delightful nature; but he knew how to interpret this assurance. It
meant, to his sense, that Catherine was not wise enough to discover that
her aunt was a goose—a limitation of mind that could not fail to be
agreeable to Mrs. Penniman. Both she and her brother, however,
exaggerated the young girl’s limitations; for Catherine, though she was
very fond of her aunt, and conscious of the gratitude she owed her,
regarded her without a particle of that gentle dread which gave its stamp
to her admiration of her father. To her mind there was nothing of the
infinite about Mrs. Penniman; Catherine saw her all at once, as it were,
and was not dazzled by the apparition; whereas her father’s great
faculties seemed, as they stretched away, to lose themselves in a sort of
luminous vagueness, which indicated, not that they stopped, but that
Catherine’s own mind ceased to follow them.

It must not be supposed that Dr. Sloper visited his disappointment upon
the poor girl, or ever let her suspect that she had played him a trick.
On the contrary, for fear of being unjust to her, he did his duty with
exemplary zeal, and recognised that she was a faithful and affectionate
child. Besides, he was a philosopher; he smoked a good many cigars over
his disappointment, and in the fulness of time he got used to it. He
satisfied himself that he had expected nothing, though, indeed, with a
certain oddity of reasoning. “I expect nothing,” he said to himself, “so
that if she gives me a surprise, it will be all clear again. If she
doesn’t, it will be no loss.” This was about the time Catherine had
reached her eighteenth year, so that it will be seen her father had not
been precipitate. At this time she seemed not only incapable of giving
surprises; it was almost a question whether she could have received
one—she was so quiet and irresponsive. People who expressed themselves
roughly called her stolid. But she was irresponsive because she was shy,
uncomfortably, painfully shy. This was not always understood, and she
sometimes produced an impression of insensibility. In reality she was
the softest creature in the world.

III

AS a child she had promised to be tall, but when she was sixteen she
ceased to grow, and her stature, like most other points in her
composition, was not unusual. She was strong, however, and properly
made, and, fortunately, her health was excellent. It has been noted that
the Doctor was a philosopher, but I would not have answered for his
philosophy if the poor girl had proved a sickly and suffering person.
Her appearance of health constituted her principal claim to beauty, and
her clear, fresh complexion, in which white and red were very equally
distributed, was, indeed, an excellent thing to see. Her eye was small
and quiet, her features were rather thick, her tresses brown and smooth.
A dull, plain girl she was called by rigorous critics—a quiet, ladylike
girl by those of the more imaginative sort; but by neither class was she
very elaborately discussed. When it had been duly impressed upon her
that she was a young lady—it was a good while before she could believe
it—she suddenly developed a lively taste for dress: a lively taste is
quite the expression to use. I feel as if I ought to write it very
small, her judgement in this matter was by no means infallible; it was
liable to confusions and embarrassments. Her great indulgence of it was
really the desire of a rather inarticulate nature to manifest itself; she
sought to be eloquent in her garments, and to make up for her diffidence
of speech by a fine frankness of costume. But if she expressed herself
in her clothes it is certain that people were not to blame for not
thinking her a witty person. It must be added that though she had the
expectation of a fortune—Dr. Sloper for a long time had been making
twenty thousand dollars a year by his profession, and laying aside the
half of it—the amount of money at her disposal was not greater than the
allowance made to many poorer girls. In those days in New York there
were still a few altar-fires flickering in the temple of Republican
simplicity, and Dr. Sloper would have been glad to see his daughter
present herself, with a classic grace, as a priestess of this mild faith.
It made him fairly grimace, in private, to think that a child of his
should be both ugly and overdressed. For himself, he was fond of the
good things of life, and he made a considerable use of them; but he had a
dread of vulgarity, and even a theory that it was increasing in the
society that surrounded him. Moreover, the standard of luxury in the
United States thirty years ago was carried by no means so high as at
present, and Catherine’s clever father took the old-fashioned view of the
education of young persons. He had no particular theory on the subject;
it had scarcely as yet become a necessity of self-defence to have a
collection of theories. It simply appeared to him proper and reasonable
that a well-bred young woman should not carry half her fortune on her
back. Catherine’s back was a broad one, and would have carried a good
deal; but to the weight of the paternal displeasure she never ventured to
expose it, and our heroine was twenty years old before she treated
herself, for evening wear, to a red satin gown trimmed with gold fringe;
though this was an article which, for many years, she had coveted in
secret. It made her look, when she sported it, like a woman of thirty;
but oddly enough, in spite of her taste for fine clothes, she had not a
grain of coquetry, and her anxiety when she put them on was as to whether
they, and not she, would look well. It is a point on which history has
not been explicit, but the assumption is warrantable; it was in the royal
raiment just mentioned that she presented herself at a little
entertainment given by her aunt, Mrs. Almond. The girl was at this time
in her twenty-first year, and Mrs. Almond’s party was the beginning of
something very important.

Some three or four years before this Dr. Sloper had moved his household
gods up town, as they say in New York. He had been living ever since his
marriage in an edifice of red brick, with granite copings and an enormous
fanlight over the door, standing in a street within five minutes’ walk of
the City Hall, which saw its best days (from the social point of view)
about 1820. After this, the tide of fashion began to set steadily
northward, as, indeed, in New York, thanks to the narrow channel in which
it flows, it is obliged to do, and the great hum of traffic rolled
farther to the right and left of Broadway. By the time the Doctor
changed his residence the murmur of trade had become a mighty uproar,
which was music in the ears of all good citizens interested in the
commercial development, as they delighted to call it, of their fortunate
isle. Dr. Sloper’s interest in this phenomenon was only indirect—though,
seeing that, as the years went on, half his patients came to be
overworked men of business, it might have been more immediate—and when
most of his neighbours’ dwellings (also ornamented with granite copings
and large fanlights) had been converted into offices, warehouses, and
shipping agencies, and otherwise applied to the base uses of commerce, he
determined to look out for a quieter home. The ideal of quiet and of
genteel retirement, in 1835, was found in Washington Square, where the
Doctor built himself a handsome, modern, wide-fronted house, with a big
balcony before the drawing-room windows, and a flight of marble steps
ascending to a portal which was also faced with white marble. This
structure, and many of its neighbours, which it exactly resembled, were
supposed, forty years ago, to embody the last results of architectural
science, and they remain to this day very solid and honourable dwellings.
In front of them was the Square, containing a considerable quantity of
inexpensive vegetation, enclosed by a wooden paling, which increased its
rural and accessible appearance; and round the corner was the more august
precinct of the Fifth Avenue, taking its origin at this point with a
spacious and confident air which already marked it for high destinies. I
know not whether it is owing to the tenderness of early associations, but
this portion of New York appears to many persons the most delectable. It
has a kind of established repose which is not of frequent occurrence in
other quarters of the long, shrill city; it has a riper, richer, more
honourable look than any of the upper ramifications of the great
longitudinal thoroughfare—the look of having had something of a social
history. It was here, as you might have been informed on good authority,
that you had come into a world which appeared to offer a variety of
sources of interest; it was here that your grandmother lived, in
venerable solitude, and dispensed a hospitality which commended itself
alike to the infant imagination and the infant palate; it was here that
you took your first walks abroad, following the nursery-maid with unequal
step and sniffing up the strange odour of the ailantus-trees which at
that time formed the principal umbrage of the Square, and diffused an
aroma that you were not yet critical enough to dislike as it deserved; it
was here, finally, that your first school, kept by a broad-bosomed,
broad-based old lady with a ferule, who was always having tea in a blue
cup, with a saucer that didn’t match, enlarged the circle both of your
observations and your sensations. It was here, at any rate, that my
heroine spent many years of her life; which is my excuse for this
topographical parenthesis.

Mrs. Almond lived much farther up town, in an embryonic street with a
high number—a region where the extension of the city began to assume a
theoretic air, where poplars grew beside the pavement (when there was
one), and mingled their shade with the steep roofs of desultory Dutch
houses, and where pigs and chickens disported themselves in the gutter.
These elements of rural picturesqueness have now wholly departed from New
York street scenery; but they were to be found within the memory of
middle-aged persons, in quarters which now would blush to be reminded of
them. Catherine had a great many cousins, and with her Aunt Almond’s
children, who ended by being nine in number, she lived on terms of
considerable intimacy. When she was younger they had been rather afraid
of her; she was believed, as the phrase is, to be highly educated, and a
person who lived in the intimacy of their Aunt Penniman had something of
reflected grandeur. Mrs. Penniman, among the little Almonds, was an
object of more admiration than sympathy. Her manners were strange and
formidable, and her mourning robes—she dressed in black for twenty years
after her husband’s death, and then suddenly appeared one morning with
pink roses in her cap—were complicated in odd, unexpected places with
buckles, bugles, and pins, which discouraged familiarity. She took
children too hard, both for good and for evil, and had an oppressive air
of expecting subtle things of them, so that going to see her was a good
deal like being taken to church and made to sit in a front pew. It was
discovered after a while, however, that Aunt Penniman was but an accident
in Catherine’s existence, and not a part of its essence, and that when
the girl came to spend a Saturday with her cousins, she was available for
“follow-my-master,” and even for leapfrog. On this basis an
understanding was easily arrived at, and for several years Catherine
fraternised with her young kinsmen. I say young kinsmen, because seven
of the little Almonds were boys, and Catherine had a preference for those
games which are most conveniently played in trousers. By degrees,
however, the little Almonds’ trousers began to lengthen, and the wearers
to disperse and settle themselves in life. The elder children were older
than Catherine, and the boys were sent to college or placed in
counting-rooms. Of the girls, one married very punctually, and the other
as punctually became engaged. It was to celebrate this latter event that
Mrs. Almond gave the little party I have mentioned. Her daughter was to
marry a stout young stockbroker, a boy of twenty; it was thought a very
good thing.