Sunday, 30 July 2017

The Princess Casamassima by Henry James


In the oeuvre of Henry James The Princess Casamassima is something of an odd duck or a black swan. Belying the title most of the characters are of the skilled artisan class. There is a seamstress, bookbinders, a chemist, a music hall fiddler with only a Princess and Captain (ret.) to balance the rude mechanicals. In fact calling the serial production The Princess Casamassima is a bow to James’s normal social order for the book is well underway before she gets on board and she is only described objectively whereas Hyacinthe has a subjective voice, an inner life. But really for a title The Little Bookbinder would never do. The novel was produced as a serial for Atlantic Monthly and published in the same year 1886 as The Bostonians bostonians:both received no likes. This may have been the impulse that moved him to remain with tales of the genteel upper classes. I feel that his writing against his own personal knowledge and character in both those novels brought out his wit and invention. He had to use his imagination more. That he might have smashed his Europe Vs America template had they made him some money is a arguable speculation.

Anarchism today is within the bounds of propriety and resembles an endless committee meeting. In the 19th.century it was explosive, incendiary and murderous activity carried out by otherwise pleasant people. I can’t say too much about the plot as that would ruin a virgin reading. It’s uncanny that Lionel Trilling could tell all in an introduction to an edition of the book back in the 1940‘s. That is reproduced as an essay in The Liberal Imagination. Don’t read it, don’t read any of it. You have better things to do. Make a cup of tea.

The key to the character of Hyacinthe Robinson lies in his origin as the love child of a French prostitute and her aristocratic lover whom she slays with a knife when he repudiates his paternity. The child is adopted by Amanda Pynsent, sempstress, and reared by her to have a sense of a noble origin. Attraction to the amenities of the high born and repulsion for the actual state of the social order that it supports draws him into a nest of anarchists the moral centre of which is Paul Muniment, a chemist. Hyacinthe’s friend is Millicent Henning a striking beauty who works in a fashionable haberdashery and ladies clothing emporium. She models the fine clothes there. The Peter Pannish Hyacinthe is asexual but has a strong aesthetic sense and a cultivated almost aristocratic manner. As the story develops the Princess comes into it and a stay with her in a country mansion further increases his antithetical repulsion and attraction for its culture. His artisan class fashions its fittings and ought to have a better life.

This novel has more than the usual variety of character and incident in a James novel, always very readable without the stateliness of diction that Maitre Henry can fall into. On a couple of occasions he commits the solecism which he castigates Trollope for - he talks to the reader. That is due to the serial form probably and perhaps a personal indecision as to whether to introduce documentary evidence for his knowledge of the inward parts of Hyacinthe. Jarring but not important for this excellent novel.

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