Henry James’ novella `Washington Square’ tells the story of a shy, but highly intelligent, sensitive and deeply feeling young woman who has the misfortune to discover the truth about the people around her. Catherine Sloper has to deal with harsh treatment from her father, Dr Sloper who resents Catherine for her mother’s death. He sees her as plain, clumsy and dull- while constantly comparing her to her beautiful, bright mother. By denying Catherine any happiness is her punishment for his own loss of happiness.
If I close my eyes and ask myself what impression this book has left on me, the thought that immediately comes to mind is stillness. The stillness that radiates from Catherine. I see her as marble statue; immobile but solid to the core. So then it feels quite fitting to visit Washington Square on a cold winter’s day. What I find interesting about James’ novel is that while it is set in New York, James was living in London at the time, and wrote the book while in Paris. In that context, this American story was written from a distance.
The park was pretty much empty the day we visited. There were a scattering of people about, but we were outnumbered by the pigeons. Walking around the Square, it is easy to see why James held a sense of sentimentality for the area. I can only imagine what it would be like during Summer, filled with chess players, children, artists and dogs enjoying the sunshine, hoping for a slight breeze to help cool down in the late afternoon. Looking at the rows of houses across the street from the Arch, it is easy to imagine what life would be like living in this area.
While walking around the Square, and later on, Greenwich Village, I was overcome by a feeling of profound melancholy and nostalgia. I could feel the ghosts of the past walking with us. Greenwich Village has hosted so many literary greats from Jack Kerouac, Edgar Allen Poe and Edna St. Vincent Millay. I was very intrigued to learn St. Vincent Millay, as I had never heard of her, which lead me to do more research on her and her work. I found her poem called `What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why’. I shall attempt to write my own using these words as inspiration.
What my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
this broken perfectionist is ready to confess.
I am sorry for the things I have done.
Can you forgive a foolish one?
There are secrets still to be found in these laughter lines.
Still, I do not know why you left that day.
The day I lost you is as clear as the day we met.
So now I find I am tired of standing still as I walk the streets
alone in the dark.
I can’t see New York, the moon is cold and the sky is grey.
And I do not know where you are.