Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Signet Classic, 1979
Originally published 1880
Although I've heard of Henry James as an intimidating literary figure, I actually had a very pleasant experience with The Portrait of a Lady and was thus eager to pick up another book by him. When at the library, I narrowed my choices down to two (short) books and selected this one due to my love of the awesome film adaptation, The Heiress, starring Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift (I cannot recommend this production to you enough-amazing acting!) Although I had no reason to do so, I assumed that the film was fairly accurate and approached the book with expectations about what it contained. While the film is pretty faithful, I found its ending much more satisfying although I won't spoil exactly why.
This novel is pretty simple and straightforward. A young woman named Catherine Sloper is plain but rich. Her father, Doctor Sloper, laments the loss of his beautiful wife giving birth to Catherine but does bring up Catherine. Their household is completed by his sister, the widow Penniman. The fourth main player in this drama is Morris Townsend, who pays many fine compliments to Catherine with the ultimate end of acquiring a fortune. Doctor Sloper sees this and promises the couple that if they wed, they will not receive a penny of his not insignificant fortune. This leads to Townsend breaking their engagement and Catherine remaining a spinster for the rest of her days. Several other characters play pivotal roles in this novel but overall it is a small, focused story, heavily reminiscent of a play.
Although I was familiar with the film, I still was not expecting the overwhelming sadness I felt. The comparisons to Jane Austen made me think there could somehow be a happy ending; but how do a simple young woman and a fortune hunter get a happy ending? But Doctor Sloper's obvious dislike for his daughter and her continued admiration for him and his knowledge left a sickening feeling in my stomach. The movie made Catherine even more sympathetic since she is played by the lovely Olivia de Havilland, who did her best to look plain.
And honestly my impressions of the film also overshadowed the book as a whole. I feel so bad saying that and I'm not going to say that the movie was better. But I do prefer the movie. I struggled with some of the writing as James employed some extremely long, convoluted sentences. And the characters are just so awful. When I watch the film, I at least have the ending to look forward, an original ending that James did not script.
Overall: My impressions of the film overpowered my desire to slog through James' prose and bleak outlook.