Henry James’s “Princess Casamassima” – book review

Occasionally, a special book comes along. This is one of them. When I finished reading it, I paused for a moment, looking at the world in a bemused daze. Everything seemed odd, and yet strangely familiar.

The funniest thing is, I had delayed reading this title for ages, as I knew the plot summary. I was convinced I wouldn’t like it very much. I was very wrong.

Hyacinth Robinson is the son of an English lord and his French mistress, who murdered her lover in a crime of passion.  Brought up by the loving Miss Pynsent (Pinnie), he grows up conflicted about his origins. He is apprenticed to a bookbinder, but not satisfied with the life he is leading, despite paying court to his coarse but beautiful childhood friend, Millicent.  He is drawn to the charismatic worker’s movement (particularly one of its leaders, Paul Muniment), and swears to commit an assassination when the time is ripe to make an impact. But he could not predict the impact that meeting the elegant and eloquent Princess Casamassima (Christina) will have on his life. She has asked to meet the young radical, as she wants to make a difference to the poverty of the London life surrounding her. But all her friends think that this is merely a phase, and soon she will cast away poor Hyacinth as an unwanted toy.

Meanwhile, there is a Lady Aurora who commits her life to serving and helping those in need : but she is not as beautiful as Christina, nor does she have the Princess’s financial resources.

This is a novel that takes its time, slowly meandering through the foggy and congested London streets. It toys with melodrama, argues about the great social problems of its time, but most of all it is interested in the power of art and beauty on the human mind.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

The conversion Hyacinth undergoes is not that of the ethic but the aesthetic:

“What was supreme in his mind to-day was not the idea of how the society that surrounded him should be destroyed; it was, much more, the sense of the wonderful, precious things it had produced, of the brilliant, impressive fabric it had raised.”

“Perhaps the clearest result of extending one’s horizon -[is] the sense, increasing as we go, that want and toil and suffering are the constant lot of the majority of the human race. I have found them everywhere, but I haven’t minded them. Excuse the cynical confession. What has struck me is the great achievements of which man has been capable in spite of them – the splendid accumulations of the happier few. (…) The monuments and the treasures of art, the great palaces and properties, the conquests of learning and taste, the general fabric of civilization as we know it, based, if you will, upon all the despotisms, the cruelties, the exclusions, the monopolies and the rapacities of the past, but thanks to which, all the same, the world is less impracticable and life more tolerable.”

Personal comments:

I hated Paul Muniment’s guts.  The lack of sympathy he shows towards Hyacinth is appalling.

“Muniment’s absence of passion, his fresh-colored coolness, his easy, exact knowledge, the way he kept himself clean (except the chemical stains on his hands), in circumstances of foul contact, constituted a group of qualities that had always appeared to Hyacinth singularly enviable. Most enviable of all was the force that enabled him to sink personal sentiment where a great public good was to be attempted”

Christina grew on me as the novel went on – her prettiness is dwelled on so much at first, that it is actually hard to notice her actions as that of a human being.

I rather like Rose Muniment, actually. She is a rather Dickensian character.

Poor Lady Aurora has rather a hard time of it all, but I really do like her. Even if she is perhaps too saintly to be quite as believable as one would like.

I wondered a great deal about James’s use of the name Hyacinth, as I don’t think it’s a particularly good name – but of course, it must relate to the Greek myth in which Zephyrus kills the man Hyacinth, because he chose Apollo over him. As it does in the Greek myth, Hyacinth’s love of the arts is the quality that precipitates his fall.

 

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