Not Getting the Lesson of the Master

Washington Square

a film directed by Agnieszka Holland

The Wings of the Dove

a film directed by Iain Softley

Agnieszka Holland’s Washington Square is a movie about a shy and awkward young woman, Catherine Sloper, who falls in love with a smooth and beautiful young man. He is irresponsible and sybaritic, but he is also ardent and attentive, and he makes her bloom with passion and self-esteem. His suit is opposed, though, by the girl’s father, a widowed physician who despises his daughter and resents her luck in love. The doctor is convinced, against the opinion of everyone around him, that the only explanation for the young man’s interest must be his, the doctor’s, own substantial fortune; and though it takes him several years and requires remorseless hounding, he succeeds in killing off the relationship, and with it his daughter’s capacity for love.

Readers of the Henry James novel on which Holland’s movie is based will recognize a significant deviation. The novel makes it plain from early on that the suitor—his name is Morris Townsend—is a gold digger. In James’s story, when Dr. Sloper calls on Townsend’s sister for a character reference, she quickly confesses that her brother is a selfish and idle man who makes his way by preying upon women, and she warns the doctor to keep his daughter away from him. In Holland’s movie, the point of the scene is reversed: Townsend’s sister bristles at the suggestion that her brother is any less sincere than he pretends to be, and she practically throws the doctor out of her house.

As things turn out in the movie, the doctor is not entirely mistaken: when Townsend realizes that if he marries Catherine she will be disinherited, he abandons her. But we are made to feel that in his own self-centered way, he really does love her. He just can’t imagine life without the fortune he considers his due for allowing himself to make love to such a plain woman. Her money, as he tells Catherine when the crisis comes, is her “attribute”; his attribute, he says, is this, and he points to his own gorgeous face.

This is quite Jamesian. It’s just not what James himself saw in the story. In making Townsend unambiguously a mercenary from the beginning, James wanted to place the doctor in a complicated ethical light. From one point of view, Dr. Sloper is perfectly right: if his daughter marries Morris Townsend, he will spend her inheritance and make her miserable. Everyone except the doctor’s widowed sister, Lavinia, who is half in love with Townsend herself and who pathetically encourages a relationship she regards as thrillingly star-crossed, agrees with him. And yet from another point of view, which every reader is quick to share but which is not easy to articulate, he is clearly wrong. His wrongness is his refusal to credit his daughter with the capacity to understand or control her own situation, his certainty that he knows what is best for her better than she does. His wrongness is his rightness, an oppressive infallibility his daughter, dim though she may be,…

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