The Prenuptial Catherine, Or Could The Heiress Happen Today?

†††††Henry James's 1880 novel, Washington Square, later adapted as a play in 1948 and as a film called The Heiress in 1949, is about nineteenth-century people, values, and relationships. It is also about money and how prominently it could figure into their lifestyles. As such, the book seems comfortably suited to its time. But could these events happen now, in the twenty-first century? Would Catherine be the pawn of her father and her betrothed if they were all living in today's Manhattan? I think it possible, but unlikely, and for a variety of reasons.

†††††To begin with, its quite feasible that Catherine's father, Dr. Sloper, would be what we call a "plastic surgeon," or at the very least would know of a good one. And in that case it follows that Catherine may have been "nipped and tucked" during her formative years: orthodontics for that perfect smile, liposuction to reduce those wholesome hips, and dermabrasion for a smooth complexion. And of course rhinoplasty is quite passť these days, as the perfect nose is a "must." There is also a veritable plethora of hair colorings, cosmetics and collagen injections, which transform even the plainest Janes into head turners. In the filmed version, directed by William Wyler, Olivia DeHavilland as Catherine would have benefited greatly from a good cosmetic "makeover." With all the options available to today's wealthy, it seems unlikely Catherine would remain a homely figure for long.

†††††Secondly, the rich, in league with generations of lawyers, have devised numerous ways of helping the moneyed to hold onto their fortunes. Not only does a woman not turn over control of her money to her husband when she marries; it is doubtful he would get his hands on it at all, thanks to a convenient little document known as a "prenuptial agreement," which in effect says, "This is my pile and you can't touch it!" In addition, for many decades now women have owned and managed property in their own names (thank you very much), totally independent of men. Control of a woman's property does not pass to the new husband, or any old husbands lingering about for that matter.

†††††One thing that has not changed a great deal is the notion of "disinheriting" a child. It is still possible to punish a child by changing a will and denying him or her his or her inheritance. In the filmed version of The Heiress, when Ralph Richardson, as Dr. Sloper, tries desperately to control Catherine's actions by the threat of cutting her off, it had a kind of finality we do not see in these times. Today, this timeworn practice is challenged more and more in the courts, and wills are consistently overturned. It appears that many judges are reluctant to deny inheritors at least part of their "just" due.

†††††And what should we make of Morris Townsend, Catherine's suitor, so ably played in the film by Montgomery Clift? It is certainly possible that a fortune-hunting scoundrel of his nature could "stalk" a wealthy woman and contrive to meet her at a dance, or that twenty-first century equivalent of a dance, known as a "hotspot." It would seem just as likely of course that he would track her down using other, more contemporary means. He might obtain her email address and break the ice with pictures and flattering letters. Indeed, the latter seems the more likely when one considers how isolated the wealthy have become, living as they do in gated communities, their homes outfitted with the latest alarm systems.

†††††Of course, none of these things can prevent the sad fate that befell the Catherine of 1850 from repeating itself today. The wealthy can still be blinded by love, very often falling for so-called "gold diggers." Their hearts are just as easily broken today as they were in the nineteenth century. But changes in the laws and mores of our times, coupled with the appropriate cosmetic enhancement, would most likely allow our twenty-first-century Catherine to appear "most stunning" as she took her place at the embroidery table, or in divorce court.

Wade Kingston

Table of Contents