Going into The Princess Casamassima, I had no idea what to expect, aside from the watery connection to a Turgenev novel. Fiction writing is a kind of information management, and the first chapter of Casamassima is an outstanding example. A deliberate experiment on James’s part, I assume. What if I --?
“Oh yes, I daresay I can find the child, if you would like to see him,” Miss Pynsent said; she had a fluttered wish to assent to every suggestion made by her visitor, whom she regarded as a high and rather terrible personage.
Three characters, two present, one nearby. The next line has paper patterns and “snippings of stuff” –Miss Pynsent is a dress-maker, at home. The personage, Mrs. Bowerbank, is probably a client (wrong). Miss Pynsent “was very much flushed, partly with the agitation of what Mrs. Bowerbank had told her.” What had Mrs. Bowerbank told her?
The child is pretty, and is likely outside staring into the window of a candy shop. Miss Pynsent herself “lived on tea and watercress.” There is a hint about the child’s parentage, I see now, he liked to look at the illustrated magazines in the shop window, especially “the noble characters.” An eight year-old girl is introduced who will be important later, as a source of hope and despair. All of this turns out to be important.
Over “tea” (of the brandy kind), Mrs. Bowerbank discusses her sister, and undertaker brother-in-law, and so on. Is any of this important?
Her sister had nine children and she herself had seven, the eldest of whom she left in charge of the others when she went to her service. She was on duty at the prison only during the day…
I am only on page 3, but for me that was the first of several upsettings of expectation in the chapter. Prison! It is a story with not a twist ending, but a series of twist beginnings. Poor Miss Pynsent is raising little Hyacinth but is in no way related to him. “’That would have seemed for most people a reason for not adopting a prostitute’s bastard’” (Ch. 2) – actual line from a Henry James novel. Mrs. Bowerbank is not having a dress adjusted, but is delivering a message from Hyacinth’s mother, who is dying in prison, because she “’stabbed his lordship in the back with a very long knife’” (Ch. 1). Hyacinth knows nothing about his true parentage, but a sharp kid seems to have intuited certain pieces.
All of this I have to piece together bit by bit, as I do in any novel, but James deliberately sets little traps.
Then she said, as if it were as cheerful an idea as, in the premises, she was capable of expressing: “Ah, well, there’ll be plenty later on to give him all information!”
After the first few chapters, James leaps forward. Hyacinth is an adult, the prison is a memory, and a mostly new cast gathers. The book begins to resemble more closely what I had expected from a James novel. At first, though, James made me work.