Washington Square may very well be the most enjoyable of works from Henry James. The prose is more straightforward and flowing than what James eventually evolved to, making it easier to immerse oneself into. The characterization is magnificent. Best of all, it is simply a good story, well told. None-the-less, James himself did not think too well of his creation, as he excluded it from the authorized collection of his works. Despite James’s dislike of his own story, having read a number of his works, I can attest to the enjoyability of Washington Square, which is not something I can say for the bulk of his oeuvre!
The genesis of the story stems from a party in London on February 20, 1879. James found himself talking with actress Fanny Kemble, who told James a story about her brother’s attempt to marry a girl for her money. James hurried home and began writing this as a story that became Washington Square. A handsome but idle man (Morris Townsend) intends to marry for money. His target is a plain but sweet woman named Catherine Sloper who does fall for him. Her father, the emotionally cold Dr. Austin Sloper, sees Townsend for what he is, but his actions only serve to further torment his daughter. The story struck a chord with the public. Besides the popularity of the short novel, it was to also become a well-thought of Broadway play called The Heiress, and a motion picture under the same name, directed by William Wyler, winning Olivia de Havilland the Oscar for Best Actress of 1949.
The much-honored James, winner of the British Order of Merit, member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and receiver of honorary doctorates from Harvard and Oxford, would likely have appreciated this edition from the Limited Editions Club (LEC) with its inclusion of an introduction by Louis S. Auchincloss, an accomplished and prolific American author, winner of the National Medal of Arts, whose writing is often considered a continuation of the style of James, and illustrations by artist Lawrence Beall Smith, whose work is represented in permanent collections of Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Library of Congress.
Washington Square was the first LEC book to be illustrated by Smith. He was to illustrate one other LEC book two years later, 1973’s The Age of Innocence. Interestingly, Smith had come to the attention of the LEC many years prior via a competition to find an illustrator for their 1950 edition of Madame Bovary (which ended up being illustrated by the French Art Deco artist Pierre Brissaud). For Washington Square, Smith used a Wolff carbon pencil which, according to the Monthly Letter (ML):
…has the great advantage that the line can be smudged, enabling the artist to produce a halftone effect. And that is what he did with the ten full-page illustrations. On the other hand, for the part-page work, Smith was also able to use the Wolff pencil to make his dozen line drawings. Whoever Wolff was, he certainly invented a useful pencil.
This edition was designed by Bert Clarke. Mr. Clarke was born in Richmond and graduated from Johns Hopkins University. He worked as a printer in Baltimore and served in the Coast Guard during World War II. In 1946, he moved to New York City and became a designer at Limited Editions Club. In 1953, Clarke partnered with David Jacques Way, forming Clarke and Way, Inc., the press of which was known as the Thistle Press. When the partnership of Clarke and Way dissolved in 1970, Clarke went on to work at the A. Colish printing company (until retirement in 1987), another venture well known to LEC collectors. For Washington Square, Clarke choose Monotype Modern Number Seven for the type, saying:
It was an appropriate choice, despite its appellation, this typeface has a nostalgic nineteenth-century air about it, with a nice width and an above-average height in lower-case characters.
The ML letter goes on to say:
Used here in eleven point size on fifteen point body, it helps make the pages of our book a pleasant reflection of the leisure age that Henry James knew and write about. Even the page size — a comfortable 6 3/4 x 9 3/4 inches — was the preferred book-measurement in proper nineteenth century society, Bert Clarke informs us.
I agree that the design does give off an aura of the period of the story. The weight of the type seems to flow and match nicely with the illustrations, especially the line drawings. Of the paper, the ML tells us:
From the Curtis paper mill…we ordered a fine off-white rag paper with a special finish: smooth enough to reproduce Larry Smith’s Wolff pencil drawings with high fidelity, while retaining just enough “antique” texture to render the surface pleasant to the touch.
The paper looks and feels like pretty standard LEC used paper from the early 1970’s. Not bad, not great. However, Clarke did leave nice white space for the bottom and outside margins, all giving a very pleasant look. The 19th century motif was extended to the binding, of which it is:
…of an elegance appropriate to the Henry James era, in the three-piece style: The sides are covered with a striated satin in a smokey-beige hue. The shelfback is of black genuine morocco, hand-boarded, and stamped in gold leaf. Boarded leathers — we are told, and we pass along the information gratis — are “skins finished by folding with the grain side in and rubbing the flesh side with a cork-surfaced instrument known as a hand-board.” This costly process brings out the “natural” grain of the goatskin, as opposed to the “morocco grain” with which it is common practice to emboss other kinds of leather.
The 1971 LEC edition of Washington Square pretty much typifies a standard LEC from that era. Not the best era for LEC’s, but still a quite nice, collectible edition that is well designed and executed. It is a handsome edition of a very good story from a great writer of the nineteenth century. At $30 to $60 for near fine or better, this is ridiculously low-priced and you should snatch it up.
About the Edition
- Designed by Bert Clarke
- Introduction by Louis S. Auchincloss
- Illustrated with Wolff pencil drawings by Lawrence Beall Smith
- Monotype Modern Number Seven for the text, 11 point size, four points leading
- Off-white, smooth antique rag paper from the Curtis paper Mill in Newark, Delaware
- Composition and printing done at the Thistle Press in Mount Vernon, New York
- Bound, in three piece style, with sides covered in striated smokey-beige satin, and the shelfback in imported black hand-boarded natural-grain morocco stamped in gold leaf
- 6 3/4″ x 9 3/4″, 242 pages
- Limited to 1500 copies, signed by Lawrence Beall Smith
Pictures of the Edition
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