The Unwritten Codicil

     The plain, middle-aged virgin, Catherine Sloper, heroine of Henry James's 1880 novel Washington Square, lives in a culture of surface calm, of obvious refinement and affluence. She is a placid, colorless, obedient daughter who displays very little passionate emotion. And she is heiress to her father's fortune.

     The stage play, The Heiress, written in 1948 by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, and William Wyler's 1949 movie by the same name, are based on Washington Square. Both the stage play and the movie embue Catherine with much more emotional fire than James does. And they bequeath her far more than the six thousand pounds she inherits from her father in James's novel. But it is William Wyler's brilliant directing ability and Olivia de Havilland's portrayal of Catherine that make us SEE and FEEL why Catherine is heiress to a larger legacy.

     The legacy is not just handed to Catherine. She must earn it through suffering. And suffer she does. Shy, awkward, and lacking social grace, she leads a life of self-imposed solitude. Reluctantly, she puts aside her embroidery to go to a party with her father. In Wyler's movie, Morris Townsend (played by Montgomery Clift) dances with her, woos her, and three days later asks her to marry him.

     Catherine's father, Dr. Sloper (depicted by Ralph Richardson), knows that Morris is a fortune-hunter--and tells him so. He reminds Morris that he has already squandered his small fortune. Furthermore, he has no job and lives with his widowed sister and her five children. Dr. Sloper refuses to accept such an unsuitable man for marriage to his only daughter.

Nonetheless, Catherine and Morris make plans to elope. Morris jilts her when he finds out that there will be no money forthcoming from Dr. Sloper.

     One of the greatest scenes in the movie takes place as Olivia de Havilland waits to elope with the man she loves. Her emotional transitions from anxiety to despair to realization to acceptance are awesomely realistic.

     Morris returns years later, after he finds out that Dr. Sloper did leave his estate to Catherine. The cad actually expects her to love him, and to marry him! From this point on, I do not see Olivia de Havilland. It is Catherine, the REAL Catherine who coyly leads the scoundrel on--who agrees to elope with him within a few hours. But first he must gather his things from his sister's house.

     Then those stupendous last scenes!--her face and voice are hard as flint when she tells Aunt Lavina, "He came back with the same lies. Before he only wanted my money. Now he wants my love. I can be very cruel. I've been taught by masters." She hears Morris' coach returning, and tells the maid to bolt the door. Then, with his pounding and his plaintive "Catherine! Catherine!" ringing in her ears, she slowly walks up the stairs. But she holds her head high and a smile, much like the Mona Lisa's, flits across her face.

     Catherine suffers at the hands of her father, too, though she insists that she loves him. He constantly compares her to her dead mother, whom he idealizes. It is difficult to believe that a father could believe, and say, that his daughter is a mediocre and defenseless creature without a shred of poise. He tells Catherine, "... why else would he (Morris) want you (besides your fortune) ... (not) for your grace, charm, subtle tongue and quick wit ... you never learned anything except how to embroider neatly." In only a few instances does he say something to her that is not demeaning. What a forgiving person she is to love such a cruel father--and to believe that he loves her!

     Olivia de Havilland does a marvelous job of portraying the transition from the meek, servile Catherine to a Catherine with an iron will. De Havilland's quiet voice and soft facial expressions become cold and hard from the moment she realizes that Morris has deserted her. When she finally defends herself against her father, she speaks with passion and vehemence: "You thought any man would be as bored with me as you are ... it wasn't love that made you protect me; it was contempt ... I lived with you 20 years before I found out you didn't love me ... he wouldn't have starved me of love and affection any more than you did ... since you didn't love me, you should have let someone else try." Her suffering has forced her to face reality.

     When Catherine tells her father that she still loves Morris and will not give him up, Dr. Sloper says he must alter his will. Catherine shows her contempt for her father's money by starting to compose the opening paragraph for him. He backs down. She, in a gelid voice, tells him, "You want me to sit in dignity in this house, rich and respected and unloved, but I may take your money and squander it on him. You'll never know." She then calmly sits down to her embroidery frame. Some time later, as he draws his dying breath, he summons her. She refuses to go to him.

     Ruth and Augustus Goetz, William Wyler, and Olivia de Havilland are Catherine's true benefactors. They bequeath her a well-deserved legacy that money can never buy--a legacy of independence, self-confidence, and dignity.

Barbara Locke Chorn

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