The Mrs. Pennimans

     Henry James's 1880 novel, Washington Square; the 1948 play, The Heiress, by Ruth and Augustus Goetz; and William Wyler's 1949 film adaptation of the same name all contain a Mrs. Penniman. Her character; however, differs slightly amongst the three versions of the story in terms of personality and motive. There are differences even between the film's and the play's portrayal of Catherine's widowed aunt.

     In the novel Aunt Lavinia Penniman is much more giddy and foolish in her meddling than in the film and play. The reader is informed of her girlish style of dress and adornments that progressively grow even more outlandish and girlish over the course of the story. This aunt is the most romantic of the Pennimans. She is enthralled with the romantic drama of her niece's courting. Although she is completely unaware of the havoc that she wreaks, it is she that stirs the glowing embers of Catherine's feelings for the dashing Morris Townsend. Aunt Penniman draw immense pleasure from secret rendezvous with Morris, such as the meeting in the "oyster saloon," where she had no dire information to give other than Catherine remained "steadfast." The following narration gives a comprehensive picture of Penniman's as the drama queen:
     "Mrs. Penniman took too much satisfaction in the sentimental shadows of this little drama to have, for the moment, any great interest in dissipating them. She wished the plot to thicken, and the advice that she gave her niece tended, in her own imagination, to produce this result. It was rather incoherent counsel, and from one day to another it contradicted itself; but it was pervaded by an earnest desire that Catherine should do something striking" (76).

     Mrs. Penniman, in the novel Washington Square, comes across as much more interested in the drama of the situation than her own niece's feelings. In the play version, The Heiress, the aunt is still silly and more girlish than her years should permit; however, her romantic fair is more subdued and a genuine concern to see her niece married comes through. She appears affectionate for most of the play but does not hold to the romantic idea that Morris loves Catherine, as she does in the novel. The reader knows that Penniman understands Morris' real motives for pursuing Catherine, but she still encourages the would-be couple. The reason for her encouragement does not stem from love for her niece but rather knowledge that Catherine is not much of a catch for a young suitor, and might as well take this as an opportunity to secure a husband.

     The Aunt Penniman in the film, played by Miriam Hopkins, is a good blend of the "youthful" aunt of the novel and the "semi-practical" guardian of the play. This aunt is always looking out for Catherine, prompting her conversations and offering advice to the socially backward Catherine of the screen (Olivia de Havilland). Her motives seem to come from actual affection for Catherine, unlike the hopeless romantic aunt in the novel, who is interested in the drama. There is not much alteration of the action or dialogue between the play and the film; however, Hopkins brings a gentler, more affectionate aunt to life.

     The discrepancies among the three versions of Henry James's story are slight. However, with a single changed word or look a viewer or reader can interpret a character's motives and personality differently. The Mrs. Pennimans in the play and the film accurately represented the aunt in the novel. Despite the variations, the damage she does in the novel is not altered in the film. The viewer and reader is able to reconcile the different Mrs. Pennimans back into one Aunt Lavina.

Jenni Sizemore

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