I hate to think that my so-called ‘discovery’ is perhaps no such thing. So I while away this prelude with the tone of consolation and tell myself that, on the bright side, though, since literature is no science, I may as well flatter myself that, indeed, I have made a discovery of relative relevance to the contemporary readership of two personal favourite authors: Jane Austen and Henry James. In short, I have reason to believe that Henry James’s heroine in Washington Square bears a good deal of resemblance to Jane Asten’s heroine in Northanger Abbey: to point out but one basic similarity that can be easily observed at first sight, both characters have the same first name, Catherine.
So you arch an eyebrow in surprise and expect me to sit under defeat by refraining to go any further in my case altogether. I am sorry to cause disappointment so early in your reading, but your shock will not deter me. In fact, now is the time to insist that, as long as I manage to trace and reveal some reasonable evidence in Jane Austen’s novel and Henry James’s work to account for my thesis, I may as well call my essay a respectable argument, an argument for suspecting that James could have based his Washington Square on Austen’s Northanger Abbey—in part, at the very least. In asserting this, I do not mean to suggest that Henry James’s novel has plagiarised Jane Austen’s classic; rather, it is my firm belief that his Washington Square is a veiled literary allusion to her Northanger Abbey, and that is precisely what I am here to prove.
Generally speaking, an allusion is a ‘statement that refers to something in an indirect way (Macmillan Dictionary).’ In literature, it is a rhetorical device or figure of speech that is used by an author (or a narrator or character) in order to make an implicit reference to a place, an event or (elements of) a literary work. Since the referent that is being alluded to is not evident, it may or may not be noticed and understood by all readers alike, and it may even be attributed to more than one source by different readers. Back to my case now, on the very first page of my Dover Thrift edition of Washington Square, there is a ‘Note’ that attributes Henry James’s source of inspiration to write this novel to a certain gossip that a friend of his had once mentioned to him:
In February 1879, Henry James (1843-1916) made a note of an anecdote his friend Fanny Kemble had shared with him: Mrs. Kemble’s brother, it seems, had courted a ‘dull, plain, common-place girl’ entirely because of the fortune she stood to inherit. He had abandoned her when her father threatened to disown her, but resumed his pursuit upon her father’s death. Mrs. Kemble went as far as to say that she herself had advised the young woman ‘by no means to marry her brother.’ A brief but provocative plot sketch such as this was more than enough to fire James’s novelistic imagination (iii).
Don’t look at me like that. Who says a writer need be inspired—or, to use a less prejudiced term, moved—to write fiction by one single event or fact? Who says the motive needs to belong exclusively to what he recognises as real life? We all know that art interacts with art. Artists of all kinds fuel other artists all the time. Literary works often refer either anaphorically or cataphorically to their predecessors or their successors, respectively, and we are seldom alarmed. So why look so grave at a purely plausible liaison between James’s Washington Square and Austen’s Northanger Abbey? I do not think it at all strange that he should have modeled his Catherine Sloper, as well as the sarcastic voice of his narrator in Washington Square and many other aspects of his novel, in subtle allusion to Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland, who is also brought to us by means of a sarcastic narrator and in the generally satirical tone of a novel as Northanger Abbey.
Adding to my own defence, I will not be the first critic to acknowledge a significant degree of resemblance between James’s discursive strategies and those of Austen’s: even when there is enough evidence in James’s letters to suggest that he disliked the most widely acclaimed author of British literature, there are many research papers nowadays that show how his prose actually developed several devices employed by Jane Austen in her novels. There are articles even that prove that James’s aversion to Austen’s prose was not such as could be attributed to her prose itself, but to the fact that she was a woman writer and he was a man of Victorian principles.
It must be noted, though, that my essay will not delve into the particulars between Henry James and Jane Austen the people: I will leave aside, for the purposes of this essay, whatsoever he may have had to say or not say about her style in his letters, etc. Firstly, because it is not the intention of this text to address the connection between James’s Washington Square and Austen’s Northanger Abbey as a means to prove his admiration for her. Secondly, because I cannot take his comments on Austen’s work as addressed to his friends or acquaintance as a hundred per cent true or honest; everyone, we know, is capable of lying and James, being human and a fiction writer, could not have wanted to escape contributing to such art whenever he could. Therefore, what if he lied in his letters? What if his words concealed a secret, unwanted jealousy of her wits and her style, and her being so bright despite being a woman? Indeed, he may have said one thing and meant quite another, either due to conscious, purposeful lying or to the forces of the unconscious propelling him to disguise his actual like for Jane Austen. Whichever the case may be, I do not think his real-life sayings concerning Austen’s work can either increase or decrease the degree of plausibility of my thesis which, as a matter of fact, does not seek to prove that James the author was an admirer of Austen the authoress, but that his literary work, Washington Square, has several features in common with Austen’s Northanger Abbey.
Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? […] Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body (24).
2. cOUNTENANCE, BODY AND PASTIMES
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her (1).
She had a thin awkward figure, a sallow skin without colour, dark lank hair, and strong features—so much for her person; and not less unpropitious for heroism seemed her mind (idem).
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 eye was small and quiet, her features were rather thick, her tresses brown and smooth (6).
Furthermore, both characters are said to be ‘plain,’ and while James will call his Catherine ‘dull,’ Austen had called her ‘occasionally stupid.’ No wonder the plot writers for the back cover of my paperback editions of these novels resort to the exactly same adjective—‘unremarkable’—to paraphrase the descriptions supplied by each storyteller:
Catherine Morland, an unremarkable tomboy as a child […]. (N. A.)
[…] an unattractive suitor causes the plain and unremarkable Catherine [Sloper] to fall deeply in love […]. (W. S.)
Finally, another interesting similarity between Catherine Sloper and Catherine Morland lies in the way each used to behave and amuse themselves in their childhood. For instance, young Miss Morland ‘was fond of all boys’ plays, and greatly preferred cricket, not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy (1).’ Some eighty years later, Henry James would write of his Catherine that ‘[…] when the girl came to spend a Saturday with her cousins, she was available for “follow-my-master,” and even for leap-frog […]’ and ‘seven of the little Almonds were boys, and Catherine had a preference for those games which are most conveniently played in trousers (12).’ Now, call it what you may, but there can be no mere coincidence here. I belong to that numerous class of people who believe there is a fine line between coincidence and causation, and this can’t be a mere coincidence. There can be no accidental resemblance between the two characters; rather, I would call it a purposefully happy allusion from one author’s creation to another’s: Henry James has certainly not plagiarised Austen’s work, that is certain; but James’s character seems to echo Austen’s Catherine in so many respects, especially in their early beginnings toward the path of heroism, and this, I trust, will not pass unnoticed to those who have read or will now wish to read both novels.
3. WITS AND OTHER NATURAL ENDOWMENTS
After giving some further details of how Catherine Morland used to enjoy herself as a child, Austen’s narrator writes:
She never could learn or understand anything before she was taught; and sometimes not even then, for she was often inattentive, and occasionally stupid. Her mother was three months in teaching her only to repeat the ‘Beggar's Petition;’ and after all, her next sister, Sally, could say it better than she did. Not that Catherine was always stupid—by no means; she learnt the fable of ‘The Hare and Many Friends’ as quickly as any girl in England (2).
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 […] Doctor 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 (7).
The same cannot be said of the Morlands. Precisely, one of the main differences between Catherine Morland and Catherine Sloper lies in the way their respective parents react to their daughters’ wide variety of defects and intellectual shortage. The Morlands, with as many as ten children to provide for and raise, could hardly have found the time and constancy to reproach or endeavor to straighten their Catherine’s flaws. Unlike them, Dr. Sloper is deeply concerned with his daughter’s unpromising signs of development as she grows up. Even Miss Sloper herself acknowledges some of her faults at times, such as when she claims that, ‘You know how little there is in me to be proud of. I am ugly and stupid (43).’ Now while the heroine of W. S. calls herself ‘stupid,’ Catherine Morland is only said to be stupid by the narrator of N. A., as she herself does not seem to find any particular fault in her person as it is.
However, as not all that does not glitter is not gold, we’ve seen how each narrator attempts to strike a balance between sarcasm and sympathy by admitting, in the case of Miss Morland, that she was not ‘always stupid (2),’ and in the case of Miss Sloper, that she ‘was not abnormally deficient (7).’
4. tO SEE OURSELVES AS OTHERS SEE US
For example, James portrays his main character as a ‘modest’ young lady:
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 (7).
Catherine hoped at least to pass uncensured through the crowd; as for admiration, it was always welcome when it came, but she did not depend on it (8).
Talking about how others see them and how each Catherine sees herself and the world around her, according to James’s storyteller,
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 (6-7).
[…] 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 (8).
[…] it may be stated, for the reader’s more certain information, lest that the following pages should otherwise fail of giving any idea of what her character is meant to be, that her heart was affectionate, her disposition cheerful and open, without conceit or affection of any kind; her manners just removed from the awkwardness and shyness of a girl; her person pleasing, and, when in good looks, pretty; and her mind about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is (5-6).
5. DRESS SENSE
On the one hand, Miss Morland is not as passionate about dresses and gowns and muslin as her chaperon, Mrs. Allen; nevertheless, when Mrs. Allen insists on Catherine wearing ‘a dress of the newest fashion (8),’ the girl makes no objection. Moreover, Catherine makes no attempt to take an active part in the conversation between Mrs. Allen and Mr. Tilney (Catherine’s suitor) on the subject of muslin, a topic which she regards as her chaperon’s own ‘foibles (16).’
On the other hand, Catherine Sloper’s efforts to recommend herself to others is often translated in her display of a lavishly peculiar dress sense, both because she can afford it and because she enjoys it:
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 […] 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 (9).
Here again we have found a positive match in terms of topoi, as both narrators address the issue of their heroine’s clothes and dress sense. Of course, there is a difference in the way they treat this subject within their stories: while Catherine Sloper wears extraordinary garments in order to supply through her choice of dresses what she cannot bring herself to give in conversation, Catherine Morland will only begin to care about a variety of gowns and hats and shawls due to Mrs. Allen’s influence and advice. In short, Miss Sloper focuses on calling attention from the rest of the world in general even before she meets her lover, whereas Miss Morland will mind her dress on very specific occasions, insofar as she thinks it may help her impress one person only, Mr. Tilney.
6. tHE CHAPERON FRIEND AND THE MATCHMAKER AUNT
If we search for similarities between Catherine Morland’s chaperon and Catherine Sloper’s aunt, we shall see how both ladies share not only some memorable facial features, but also a few interestingly diverting qualities. For example, when introducing Mrs. Allen, Austen’s narrator claims:
Mrs. Allen was one of that numerous class of females, whose society can raise no other emotion than surprize at there being any men in the world who could like them well enough to marry them. She had neither beauty, genius, accomplishment, nor manner. The air of a gentlewoman, a great deal of quiet, inactive good temper, and a trifling turn of mind, were all that could account for her being the choice of a sensible, intelligent man, like Mr. Allen (7-8).
Mrs. Penniman was a tall, thin, fair, rather faded woman, with a perfectly amiable disposition, a high standard for gentility […]. 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 (6).
7. sTATUS, FATHERS AND SUITORS
On the one hand, Catherine Sloper is an only child and an heiress; her father is ‘a local celebrity (1),’ a physician who enjoys ‘an exceptional share of the consideration which, in the United States, has always been bestowed upon distinguished members of the medical profession (idem).’ On the other hand, Catherine Morland is the fourth of ten children; her father is ‘a clergyman, without being neglected or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard, and he had never been handsome (1).’ Even if Richard Morland ‘had a considerable independence, besides two good livings (idem),’ he also had a family of ten children, among whom at least three of them were boys and, therefore, as inherited property ran through the male line in Jane Austen times, poor Catherine had not much to aspire to unless she married well, as in the case of most Austen novels featuring middle-class heroines.
Therefore, while in the case of Dr. Austin Sloper ‘fortune had favoured him (2),’ for he ‘had found the path to prosperity very soft to his tread (idem)’ and married a certain ‘Miss Catherine Harrington, of New York, who in addition to her charms, had brought him a solid dowry (idem),’ in the case of Catherine Morland, when the novel begins, her ‘situation in life, the character of her father and mother’ and ‘her own person and disposition, were all equally against her (1).’ Although the latter was not poor, she was certainly far from being an heiress, and this feature concerning the social and economic status of their family and themselves does play a part in the sort of men and general social circle each Catherine will attract over the course of events in their stories.
Now in spite of the fact that both novels address the subject of marriage for love versus marriage of convenience, the heroes in each are poles apart, not just in this respect, but in many others as well. Mr. Tilney, Catherine Morland’s husband-to-be, is wealthy, but his attachment toward the heroine of N. A. is genuinely based on Catherine’s tenderness of heart, good intentions and amiable disposition which, by the time she meets and continues to improve her acquaintance with Mr. Tilney, are already very recommending qualities in a heroine. However, she is also pursued by John Thorpe. Mr. Thorpe is not penniless, but he and his sister, Isabella, are desperate to secure themselves wealthy spouses and, in fact, as they both mistakenly believe the Morlands to be wealthy, they will court Catherine Morland and her brother respectively. She does not love John Thorpe, though; she never did and never will, but what matters to my case is that Catherine Morland is believed to be wealthy and pursued by this suitor in particular, this Mr. Thorpe, merely due to her allegedly good fortune. Once he learns the truth about her not being at all rich, however, he immediately gives up on her heart. This kind of mercenary behaviour displayed by John Thorpe in N. A. will be the reason for Catherine Sloper’s love and loss in W. S., where she will be courted by a man whose sole interest lies in her dowry.
Indeed, Morris Townsend, Catherine’s suitor in W. S., will only be after her heart because he is after her fortune. Just like John Thorpe, Morris is a man without scruples. Prior to his being personally introduced to Catherine Sloper, we learn that Townsend has already ‘a great desire to make our heroine’s acquaintance (13).’ Truth be told, the one reason to account for this man’s ‘great desire’ is that Catherine Sloper, an heiress and quite single, stands for his passport to a lifetime of good fortune and no need to work for a living. As Dr. Sloper will later insist, his ‘Catherine is not unmarriageable, but she is absolutely unattractive (28).’
Back to Mr. Tilney and Mr. Townsend, apart from the difference in their motives for courting their respective Catherines, their manners are also strikingly different when they first become acquainted with the heroine. On the one hand, Mr. Tilney complies with all rules of politeness and is described by Austen’s narrator as a ‘very gentleman-like young man (12)’:
[…] His address was good, and Catherine felt herself in high luck. There was little leisure for speaking while they danced; but when they were seated at tea she found him as agreeable as she had already given him credit for being. He talked with fluency and spirit, and there was an archness and pleasantry in his manner which interested, though it was hardly understood by her (idem).
Mr. Townsend, leaving her no time for embarrassment, began to talk with an easy smile, as if he had known her for a year.
“What a delightful party! What a charming house! What an interesting family! What a pretty girl your cousin is! (13).
Just as first impressions are in favour of Henry Tilney, so are second and third: both Mr. Tilney and Mr. Townsend have a sister, but Tilney’s unmarried sibling is his friend and probably his confidante, and they both depend, financially speaking, on Captain Tilney, their father. Mr. Townsend’s sister, on the other hand, is an impoverished widow who has to lodge her brother in her already cramped house—she has five children to keep—, for he is an absolute sponger.
So yes, they are both handsome, the suitors; and yes, Catherine and Catherine meet them in very happy circumstances: a ball in N. A., an engagement party in W. S.; there is a neighbour chaperon in one case, and a matchmaker aunt in another, and it all looks like a promising beginning in each case, until we learn what each hero is about and the difference is unavoidably stark. Although both heros are said to be ‘handsome,’ Henry Tilney is a well-read clergyman with a witty sense of humour ‘and of a very respectable family in Gloucestershire (17),’ and he means no harm, whereas Morris Townsend is a leech, a wolf in sheep’s clothing who ‘had been knocking about the world, and living in far-away lands (15),’ and is now back in the New York to try and settle by securing his living through a marriage of convenience.
8. ON THE SUBJECT OF BOOKS AND LITERATURE
[…] from fifteen to seventeen she was in training for a heroine; she read all suck works as heroines must read to supply their memories with those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives (3).
As for Henry Tilney, much as he may tease Catherine Morland for often trusting the words of fiction far too much and letting herself go whenever discussing The Mysteries of Udolpho, he is for literature, as he himself exclaims that ‘The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid (95).’ In marked contrast to N. A.’s hero, in W. S. we learn that
Morris Townsend agreed with her [Catherine] that books were tiresome things; only, as he said, you had to read a good many before you found it out. He had been to places that people had written books about, and they were not a bit like the descriptions. To see for yourself—that was the great thing; he always tried to see for himself (25).
Yet, if all the deep and serious comparisons outlined above were not enough, what say you to the fact that Dr. Sloper, the heroine’s father in W. S., should bear Austin for a first name? Austin, indeed! The resemblance itself sounds like a joke at this point, as it cannot be denied that the phonological representation of Austin is exactly the same as Austen. If that allusion alone should not ring a bell, I don’t know what else could.
Therefore, I begin to think that I can safely hope to have amused my reader to the point of persuasion, for after all the connections drawn between the works in question, who could now deny me the very probable possibility that Henry James may have based his Catherine Sloper on Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland?
 The Mysteries of Udolpho is a novel often mentioned throughout Northanger Abbey, especially in conversations between Catherine Morland and her friend Isabella Thorpe, as well as between Catherine and the Tilney brothers. The novel was written by Ann Radcliffe and published in 1794.
James, Henry. Washington Square. Ed. Julie Nord. New York, Dover Publications, Inc.: 1998.