I studied Washington Square in year 12 Lit, back in the day. How I loved this novel! It’s a short read, beautifully restrained and the quiet anguish of it all is never overblown or melodramatic. In 1949 it was turned into a movie called, “The Heiress’ and they did a terrific job. It’s worth hunting down the movie for a quiet afternoon in.
But what can we learn from the story of a thwarted romance between a fortune-hunter and a plain, dull girl from a wealthy family?
Dr Austen Sloper is a wealthy doctor in New York in the mid 1800’s. He is an intelligent man but has become emotionally crippled after the death in childbirth of his beautiful young wife and the death, a year before, of their bright young son. Unfortunately, his view of his daughter Catherine, now in her twenties, was that she was :
- “… not ugly… was decidedly not clever; she was not quick with her book, nor, indeed, with anything else. She was not abnormally deficient… Doctor Sloper would have liked to be proud of his daughter, but there was nothing to be proud of in poor Catherine… Her greatest desire was to please him… What she could not know, of course, was that she disappointed him, though on three or four occasions the Doctor had been almost frank about it.
When Catherine meets the dashing and handsome Morris Townsend, who immediately pursues a romantic relationship with her, the doctor views the whole situation with a jaundiced eye:
- I am told he lives upon [his sister]… lives with her and does nothing for himself… The position of husband of a weak-minded young woman with a large fortune would suit him to perfection!
The bitter irony of this novel, and one of the reasons that it’s so good, is that the doctor isn’t unreasonable as such. He doesn’t necessarily want his daughter to marry a rich man. He knows she will have money enough for two. What he doesn’t want is for his fortune that he so carefully earned to be given away to a man who only values Catherine for the money she brings. He sees Morris Townsend as the adventurer he is, unlike his naive daughter, and he is unwilling to simply hand over his fortune.
Totally fair enough.
So far I think we can all agree that Dr Sloper is in the right. Not one of us would want a lazy, unemployed, money-hungry son-in-law to walk in and start living in our spare bedroom with a hungry young family at his heels. Dr Sloper has every right to protect his share portfolio, property and superannuation from a guy like Morris.
However, it’s his cold, almost surgical analysis of the situation and the total lack of empathy for his daughter’s distress that takes the ‘personal’ out of personal finance.
- And as she pronounced her lover’s name Catherine looked at him. What she saw was her father’s still grey eye and his clear-cut, definite smile. She contemplated those objects for a moment, and then she looked back at the fire; it was far warmer.
Catherine was unfortunate not have the internet at her disposal. A quick google of his name or a scroll though his Facebook profile would probably have revealed much that Mr Townsend would rather have remained hidden. As we all know, careful selection of a mate is imperative for a solid financial underpinning of a relationship. Being on the same page is a must.
Unfortunately for her, however, the men proceed to play an almost cat and mouse game with absolutely no regard for her feelings and affections. As time goes on, Catherine develops a much clearer vision of what the two men are like and what she herself values in life.
- From her point of view the great facts of her career were that Morris Townsend had trifled with her affection, and that her father had broken its spring. Nothing could ever alter these facts; they were always there, like her name, her age, her plain face. Nothing could ever undo the wrong or cure the pain that Morris had inflicted on her, and nothing could ever make her feel towards her father as she felt in her younger years.
In her later years, her father threatens to drastically reduce the money that he will leave her in his will unless she promises him that she will not ever marry Morris Townsend. However, Catherine has gained the wisdom to know that she will have ‘enough,’ (an extremely valuable part of becoming FI), and so she refuses to submit to his bullying and emotional blackmail. When, after he dies, she is advised to contest the will after she is left only 1/5th of her father’s estate, the rest being left to charities, she tranquilly replies that she:
- “…like[s] it very well.
She, like all of us who are working to attain financial stability, has learned not to be swayed by others’ expectations and has attained a dignity and purpose in life that suits her. She could have been far wealthier, but she chose to remain true to her values instead of selling her soul to ‘The Man’.. in this case her father. She calmly told him that she wouldn’t tell him this, turned her back on his expectations and quietly went her own way, determined to live her life on her terms, just like someone who has amassed their “F U money’ and doesn’t have to put up with an untenable situation.
The novel and the movie end on two different images. The novel sees her settling into the parlour and picking up her embroidery after telling Morris he’s dreamin’. (That’s a little ‘The Castle’ reference for the Aussies reading this.) The movie has her lighting a lamp and going up the staircase, away from Morris who is banging on the door. Her face gets steadily more resolute and serene as she rises.
Catherine has reached the stage of being a perfectly independent woman, sure of what she wants to do and how she wants to live, knowing that she has the means to live that way. She has attained self-knowledge and a quiet dignity because of this, which means that she will no longer be a plaything to be pushed around. The Man has no hold on her and she is free to do whatever she wishes. Her home is paid for, she has enough investments to live a comfortable life and her needs are few and easily paid for with the resources she has at her disposal.
Sounds like FI, doesn’t it?