Monday, January 16, 2017

the bastard of a murderess, spawned in a gutter - that's how Henry James writes in The Princess Casamassima - too shocking

The Princess Casamassima (1885-6) is the Henry James novel about radical politics, anarchist assassinations, and book-binding.  The latter surprised me.  Henry James has so many stories starring and about writers; finally, here is one about, forget the writers, books.

The novel is built from books.  It is inspired directly by Ivan Turgenev’s longest novel, Virgin Soil (1877), which is also about radical politics, a bunch of inept Russian revolutionaries who blow their big chance, assuming they had one.  The protagonist’s great discovery is that his political beliefs are, quoting myself, “hopelessly compromised by his inherent Romanticism.”

Turgenev worried that Virgin Soil was too influenced by Dickens.  Casamassima contains several chapters that seem like direct imitations of Dickens.  They are pretty good as such, but I think some of the problems with the novel are clear enough.  Why read a Dickens knockoff rather than Dickens or a Turgenev knockoff ditto.  And what does James know about the working-class people who make up one mob of characters, or the international revolutionists who form another, or for that matter the Italian princess in the title?  Not his circles.

But that Italian princess is actually an American, one who was born in Europe and never been in America, in other words, as I know from many earlier works of James, extremely dangerous.  She is estranged from her husband and slumming in revolutionary politics, or perhaps her interest is really young, good-looking male revolutionaries.

The important one, the protagonist, is Hyacinth Robinson, “the bastard of a murderess, spawned in a gutter, out of which he had been picked by a sewing girl” (Ch. 35).  Does that sound like a line from a Henry James novel?  Shocking stuff.

Hyacinth is “a youth on whom nothing was lost,” so a real Henry James character.  What is a James character doing in a London pub, arguing with anarchists?  It turns out that Hyacinth’s education is insufficient.  There was only so much that poor, well-meaning sewing girl could do.  Hyacinth only becomes himself when he learns not to want to “destroy” the “society that surrounded him,” but to love “the wonderful, precious things it had produced… the brilliant, impressive fabric it had raised” (Ch. 29).

His Bildung becomes complete on a trip to – guess where – c’mon, guess.  No, it is too easy.  Italy, of course, on a trip to Italy, especially Venice – “what an enchanted city, what ineffable impressions, what a revelation of the exquisite!” (Ch. 30).

The foreign travel scenes are quite interesting.  Lots of scenes are interesting, even if the novel is as a whole a hodgepodge, likely pretty much improvised during serialization as an experiment in subject and style rather than an argument about political aesthetics.  The Princess Casamassima is even more of fairy tale than most novels, from the title onward.

Look at this sentence, those Jamesian names:

Hyacinth and Mr. Vetch carried her bier, with the help of Eustache Poupin and Paul Muniment.  (Ch. 28)

It is like something from an A. A. Milne competitor, like a Winnie-the-Pooh imitator that never caught on because it was too sad.


  1. Hmm, the exact reason why I gave up on this many moons ago was the thought, if I wanted to read Dickens, I'd just read Dickens.

  2. After the first few chapters - once Hyacinth is suddenly an adult - the strong Dickens stuff recedes. But that prison chapter! Imitative.

  3. Many years ago (the '80s?) I engaged in a program of reading James, under the double influence of Leon Edel and a delighted immersion in Washington Square (I know, I know, minor and unrepresentative James, he would have raised a self-deprecatingly minatory eyebrow, but we all have to start somewhere). The Princess Casamassima marks the end of the experiment: I no longer have any recollection of where I bogged down, but I did, and I gave up the project. I'm sure I am a worse person for it.

  4. Casamassima is an objectively bad book in some ways, although the one I'm grinding through now, The Awkward Age is worse, another outstanding place to end a James-reading experiment.

  5. Yeah, one should just start with the best of James, and then fill in the gaps only if interested. I haven't read The Awkward Age. It's all dialogue, isn't it? Ma femme read it, if I'm thinking of the right book, and called it a sort of exercise book, a marathon of calisthenics.

  6. Only mostly dialogue, thank goodness. Interesting but exasperating.