Of all the characters in literature, Mrs. Penniman has got to be the worst. Shakespeare had some whiny women, but they cannot compare to James's Penniman in his 1880 Washington Square, filmed in 1949 as The Heiress by William Wyler. Catherine Sloper would have been so much better off without her!
Mrs. Penniman (Miram Hopkins) is a nut. She would be in therapy if she where alive today. She also would be living alone! Why did these people allow her to invade and take up residence in their lives? Yes, Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) needed a female's presence. But after ten years of being coddled by her aunt in the book but for only a very short time in the movie, Catherine was no better off than before. She had not learned anything useful in her father's eyes. In the book, Mrs. Penniman assured her dear brother that Catherine could not be "insipid" because "My dear brother, it is I who supply the butter; so you needn't fear!" They all should have turned and run for their sanity at that comment. Mrs. Penniman was not exactly dull, but she was not very bright. She was beyond mourning her dead husband, yet she continued to portray the grieving widow long after the charade had run its course. It had been ten years and she still wore black? In the movie, since she has just lost her husband, she also wears black. It is slimming, but come on!
Mrs. Penniman was infatuated with Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) before Catherine had even finished one dance with him. Her life had not been one of the romantic tales that she thrived on. Therefore, she tried to spice up Catherine's so she could live vicariously through her niece. If that were how she showed her love, I would hate to have seen her dislike Catherine! She pushed the two of them together before it would have naturally occurred. She alienated Catherine while she was away in Europe. She liked very much living in her brother's elegant home where she could entertain Morris alone. She was rueful towards Morris's position in life and used her pity to keep his company.
Even after he left Catherine waiting for him, Mrs. Penniman wanted Morris back in her, um, their, lives. She brings Morris up again after several years after knowing the pain he caused Catherine. She also took it upon herself to assume that Catherine would be as delighted to see him as she was. Catherine is bewildered by her aunt's presumptuous move to invite Morris over and asks that he be turned away. Again, Mrs. Penniman puts her own wishes before Catherine's. She is as oblivious to Catherine's plan as Morris is when Catherine agrees to marry him. Mrs. Penniman's true feelings are expressed when she exclaims, "Oh, Catherine, we have him back!" Is she happy for Catherine or herself?
Thankfully, after she drives Morris away politely in the book and dramatically in the movie by locking him out, Catherine finally puts her aunt in her place. She threatens to make Mrs. Penniman live alone if she ever mentions his name again. To her aunt's inquiry about her cruelty, she replies, "I have been taught by masters!" I heard singing in the background, "Ding, dong the witch is dead, the wicked witch…"