The Princess Casamassima / Henry James

Hyacinth Robinson is the central character of this Henry James novel, published in book format in 1886. Hyacinth is the illegitimate son of a Frenchwoman who stabbed her lover, an English lord, to death, and he was adopted as a baby by an impoverished seamstress. He leads an uneventful life until, as an older child, he is taken to a prison to visit a woman on her death bed. Eventually, Hyacinth learns that the dying woman is his mother and that she murdered his father. The news also confirms something that his adopted mother has long alluded to – that he is of noble descent.

In the past year, I’ve read three other novels by James: The American, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl. All dealt with individuals who were either born into the upper class or were wealthy enough to dispense with work of any kind. That is why the opening chapters of The Princess Casamassima came as such a pleasant surprise to me. Rather than focusing on the idle elite, the focal point was on London’s poverty-stricken working class. In this environment, Hyacinth, now a young man, becomes a skilled bookbinder. He also meets a number of revolutionaries and gets involved in radical politics.

Ah, but with the book being entitled The Princess Casamassima, I knew the privileged class would play a major role in the story. And soon enough, Hyacinth is befriended by the beautiful eponymous princess. It is at this point that James returns to familiar ground and any hope of focusing on poverty-stricken Londoners is lost. The Princess, it turns out, is a revolutionary, too. A woman separated from her dull Italian husband, she is rapidly giving away her fortune in support of a popular uprising.

Shortly before meeting the Princess, Hyacinth pledges to carry out a terrorist assassination if called upon to do so. Ironically though, once he is introduced to the Princess and has the opportunity to visit Paris and Rome (having inherited his adoptive mother’s humble savings), Hyacinth’s radical ardor rapidly begins to cool. This is contrasted with the Princess Casamassima’s growing fervor for socialism, so much so that she gives up her rich lifestyle and tries to live like a commoner. Yet while Hyacinth no longer believes in a violent overthrow of the social order, he refuses to retract his vow to the shadowy revolutionary group he is affiliated with.

The story in this novel never quite gels. While it presenting an interesting concept, James seems to lack a clear understanding of the lower classes. A good many of the working class men portrayed here come across as caricatures. The reader is given little insight into the minds of any of the characters except for Hyacinth himself, and his actions at the book’s conclusion are never fully explained. The Princess Casamassima herself is viewed from the outside looking in, and little is learned about her inner motivations. It seems to me that James was intent on creating a political thriller, one with a shocking ending. I wonder whether a hack writer might have created a more suspenseful read. There is no denying that the book is well written, and as always, James excels at describing Hyacinth’s personal relationships. Yet in the end, the story struck me as overblown, much ado about little at all. Worse, it lacked the necessary insight to capture the gritty aspects of the working and living conditions of the time period.


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