Lavinia Penniman--Portrait of a Third Wheel

         In Henry James's 1880 Washington Square, he paints the portrait of one of literature's greatest third wheels. I am speaking, of course, of Catherine Sloper's aunt, Lavinia Penniman. Her character is made somewhat less annoying and obtrusive in the Ruth and Agustus Goetz's adaptation of The Heiress into a play in 1948 and a movie, directed by William Wyler in 1949. This is a woman that is hell bent on marrying her niece off to one Mr. Morris Townsend. She even offers to come along when the two are planning to elope. Thanks, but no thanks!

         Granted, Aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins) does introduce Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) to Morris (Montgomery Clift), although I am not sure that is a good thing or a bad thing. However, she seems to take such great joy in orchestrating meetings between Catherine and Morris. It is almost as if she takes great joy in merely feeling as though she is needed by someone. Even though she may not see that she is not necessarily needed by the two, however socially awkward Catherine may be.

         Lavinia in Washington Square is a character that seems to need that interaction with Morris. While reading, the reader gets the feeling that he is getting fed up with her intrusion. However, the con artist in him knows that he cannot upset her and jeopardize his chances of getting at Catherine's money. As long as he remains friendly with Lavinia, he has an ally. So he agrees to meet her at oyster bars and takes tea with her at the Sloper house while Catherine and Dr. Sloper are overseas.

         Lavinia in The Heiress is a character that has a bit less interaction with Morris as compared to the book. However, she opens the Sloper home to him while Austin and Catherine are in Europe, talking his ear off about the loaves, the fishes and her late husband, the reverend. She does not seem to notice that Morris is making this home his own personal palace before Catherine has even said, "I do." Lavinia is just so desperate to be a part of someone else's life.

         She even tries to bring Morris back into Catherine's life after Catherine has said she wants nothing to do with him. Lavinia even knows that Morris has only been after Catherine's money and still tries to bring him back into the picture. Why? Does Lavinia want to take them all out to the oyster bar for some bad cups of tea?

         All in all, this character is annoying out of her sheer neediness. She had wanted to be involved in her niece's life and that is admirable. However, she only needs to be involved to a point. Catherine does embroidery work. Lavinia needs some books, embroidery, a horse, anything to keep her occupied and out of everyone else's business.

Miranda Turner

Table of Contents