In 1880, American writer Henry James (1843-1916) published a short novel titled Washington Square. The story is about Catherine Sloper, a terribly shy girl from the New York upper class. Her father, an eminent doctor, resents her not only because her mother died giving birth to her, but also because she is rather slow and dull. Everything changes when Catherine falls in love with a fortune hunter named Morris Townsend. Although Dr. Sloper realizes that Morris does not return her affection, his coarse manners destroy not only Catherine’s romance, but also her opinion of him.
Washington Square is often compared to the works for Jane Austen. It is very easy to read and is neither as epic as James’ The Portrait of a Lady (1881) nor as disturbing as his ghost story The Turn of the Screw (1898). Washington Square is a good way to introduce readers to James’ work.
In 1947, Washington Square inspired a play by Ruth and Augustus Goetz titled The Heiress. The play opened on Broadway on September 29, 1947. Wendy Hiller played Catherine and Basil Rathbone played Dr. Sloper. The Heiress was quite successful at its opening and has been revived several times since.
Two years later, Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted their play for the screen. The Heiress stars Olivia de Havilland as Catherine, Montgomery Clift as Morris Townsend, and Ralph Richardson as Dr. Sloper. The movie was directed and produced by William Wyler.
In general, The Heiress follows James’ original story quite closely. Although the Goetzs did add a few extra elements, they are not exactly farfetched. In fact, some viewers may like The Heiress better than the original story. The movie was a monumental success and de Havilland won both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award.
During the March 17, 1975 episode of The Carol Burnett Show, Burnett, Harvey Korman, and guest star Roddy McDowall performed in a hilarious parody of The Heiress titled The Lady Heir. Many viewers may consider this parody second only to Burnett’s Went With the Wind.
In 1997, a new film adaptation of Washington Square was released. Washington Square the movie stars Jennifer Jason Leigh as Catherine, Ben Chaplin as Morris Townsend, and Albert Finney as Dr. Sloper. Although this movie has never been as lauded as The Heiress, it does follow James’ original story almost exactly.
R.W.B. Lewis’ Introduction to Bantam Classic’s 1981 Edition of “The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Fiction by Henry James”