James is sometimes considered as one of the originators of the modern novel but this is a rather old fashioned book; written in 1880, the year before the Portrait of a Lady, it comes close to the end of the early James. The story is straightforward and narrated in a linear fashion by a third person omniscient narrator who from time to time speaks directly to the narrator. The sentences are simple and straightforward without the convoluted sentences of his later prose.
The story revolves around Catherine Sloper, the plain, dull-witted but determined daughter of a rich New York doctor. Catherine, who has an excellent income left to her by her late mother and prospects of considerably more when her father dies, is courted by Morris Townsend, an idler who has already run through one fortune and is clearly intending to marry Catherine for her money. Dr Sloper is determined to put a stop to this, taking Catherine for a year abroad to Europe to forget him and threatening to cut her out of his will if she does marry Townsend. However, the Doctor's widowed sister Mrs Penniman, who is a foolish woman obsessed with the ideals of romantic fiction, schemes and plots to bring the young lovers together (this allows a certain amount of comedy: all the other characters are exasperated by Mrs Penniman's foolish contrivances). Most importantly, Catherine has fallen in love with Morris. But Morris wants the Doctor's money as well.
It is a tight little book and the four characters are well drawn. One feels very sorry for Catherine, crushed between the determination of her father and her own love of a man she gradually comes to realise doesn't love her back. One suspects the worst but I won't spoil it by telling you what happens.
In many ways it reminded me of The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope in which the stubborn woman marries the waster despite her father and then lives to regret it.
There are some delightful perceptions:
Mrs Penniman, at this, looked thoughtful a moment. 'My dear Austin,' she then inquired, 'do you think it is better to be clever than good?'
'Good for what?' asked the Doctor. 'You are good for nothing unless you are clever.'
Catherine was always agitated by an introduction; it seemed a difficult moment, and she wondered that some people ... should mind it so little.
I came across this characteristic again in the protagonist of Dostoevsky's short novel The Double
'Well, I never knew a foreigner!' said young Townsend, in a tone which seemed to indicate that his ignorance had been optional.
A nice little book and soooooooo much easier to read than the later James.
March 2016; 151 pages
- Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57