Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Everything suggested this or that - The Princess Casamassima's descriptions

Henry James includes far more descriptive writing in The Princess Casamassima than I have ever seen in his work.  Clothes, interior decoration – “the tattered wall-paper, which, representing blocks of marble with beveled edges, in streaks and speckles of black and gray, had not been renewed for years” (Ch. 4)

Or, since the book is about working-class radicals, working-class London people:

He liked the people who looked as if they had got their week’s wages and were prepared to lay it out discreetly; and even those whose use of it would plainly be extravagant and intemperate; and, best of all, those who evidently hadn’t received it at all and who wandered about, disinterestedly, vaguely, with their hands in empty pockets, watching others make their bargains and fill their satchels, or staring at the striated sides of bacon, at the golden cubes and triangles of cheese, at the graceful festoons of sausage, in the most brilliant of the windows.  (Ch. 5)

When James turns to things – the food – he is not half as original as contemporaries like Zola.  But as a description of people, this is quite good.  The passage is representative of James’s attitude.  He is describing types, not individuals.  There is always a strain of generalization.

The next line is practically stolen from the beginning of Bleak House – “the carboniferous London damp”!

The “He” that begins that sentence is the protagonist, Hyacinth, so he is the one observing London payday, alongside James.  A later passage, a four-page paragraph showing Hyacinth’s state of mind, is also about London, now at night:

Bedraggled figures passed in and out, and a damp, tattered, wretched man, with a spongy, purple face, who had been thrust suddenly across the threshold, stood and whimpered in the brutal blaze of the row of lamps.  The puddles glittered roundabout, and the silent vista of the street, bordered with low black houses, stretched away, in the wintry drizzle, to right and left, losing itself in the huge tragic city, where unmeasured misery lurked beneath the dirty night, ominously, monstrously, still, only howling, in its pain, in the heated human cockpit behind him.  (Ch. 21)

With the name hidden, I would never guess that the author of that passage was Henry James.  Now there is an individual man, before the description, again very much in Hyacinth’s language, becomes more general and emotional.

Curiously, in an earlier scene at which Hyacinth was not present, two Italians abuse – or praise? – the English.  Prince Casamassima is tormented by his wife’s slumming with radicals: “The Prince mused for a while, and then he said, ‘How can she bear the dirt, the bad smell?’”

He is told that the English are not like the Romans:

“Every one has a sponge, as big as your head; you can see them in shops.”

“They are full of gin; their faces are purple,” said the Prince…  (Ch. 18)

Then, a few chapters later, there is the spongy, purple fellow.

I don’t know.  As Hyacinth thinks, “Everything in the field of observation suggested this or that; everything struck him, penetrated, stirred; he had, in a word, more impressions than he knew what to do with – felt sometimes as if they would consume or asphyxiate him” (Ch. 10).  No surprise that his politics are eventually overwhelmed by art.


  1. While the paragraph from Chapter 21 does, as you say, not feel Jamesian because it is too direct--more Trollopian, perhaps, or even Dickensian (not Latinate enough for Hardy), but without doubt your final quote "everything struck him, penetrated, stirred," etc. is James through and through. I've been afraid to read this book, and so far you are not making much of a case for it, except maybe for its oddity among the Master's canon.

  2. Yes, Hyacinth turns into a quite pure representation of the Jamesian sensibility. One great argument for the novel is to see mature James develop that sensibility in a young character; the other is to see the sensibility at work in a discordant environment, outside of the usual parlors and drawing rooms.