Washington Square marks the culmination of James's apprentice period as a novelist. With sharply focused attention upon just four principal characters, James provides an acute analysis of middle-class manners and behaviour in the New York of the 1870's, a period of great change in the life of the city. This change is explored through the device of setting the novel's action during the 1840s, similarly a period of considerable turbulence as the United States experienced the onset of rapid commercial and industrial expansion. Through the relationships between Austin Sloper, a celebrated physician, and his sister Lavinia Penniman, his daughter Catherine, and Catherine's suitor, Morris Townsend, James observes the contemporary scene as a site of competing styles and performances where authentic expression cannot be articulated or is subject to suppression.
Henry James (1843-1916) was an American novelist, short-story writer, playwright, critic and essayist. He travelled extensively in Europe and became a British subject in 1915. He took the American experience of Europe as the theme of his first important works, his masterpiece of this period being The Portrait of a Lady. He followed this with novels using an American setting, short stories, essays, travel writing, and significant critical studies. He also turned his attention to drama and then in 1898 made his most famous venture into the uncanny with The Turn of the Screw. He returned to America in 1904. His influence in the history of the novel is unquestioned; he was a pioneer of psychological realism and master of a rich, highly complex prose style and an extremely sensitive apprehension of values of character.