Unread and Underrated: Henry James's The Princess Casamassima

04.21.2006 | John Bruce | Literature | 3 Comments


When I was in graduate school, I wound up taking seminars in Henry James from several professors. They often disagreed, but among all of them there was a single point of unanimity: the one Henry James novel students didn’t need to read was The Princess Casamassima .

It wasn’t until I began seriously to look at Lionel Trilling that I came across his 1948 essay “The Princess Casamassima”. What I found based on his prompt was astonishingly good; I think it’s among James’s best - but not for the reasons Trilling gives. He says in the novel’s defense,

James is at the point in his career at which society, in the largest and even the grossest sense, is offering itself to his mind with great force. He understands society as crowds and police, as a field of justice and injustice, reform and revolution…

But whether James accurately described a revolutionary movement is beside the point. The portrayal of political conspiracy in the novel has imaginative force enough to do what it needs to do. But The Princess Casamassima isn’t, as far as I can see, primarily about revolution.

The Princess herself is one of the great femmes fatale in all literature. And to look more closely at the Princess is to depart from the conventional view of the novel. As a Henry James character, she appears here for the second time - she’s also in his 1875 novel Roderick Hudson, as Christina Light, the ravishingly beautiful daughter of an Italian mother and an American father. Hudson, the hero, falls hopelessly in love with her, but her mother marries her to the wealthy Prince Casamassima, and Hudson commits suicide. We already know, in other words, that this is the sort of woman for whom men sacrifice themselves. James is often behind-hand with important information, and the information about the Princess that’s delayed can affect our perception of what the novel is about.

We see her first here as she attends a play in London with her duenna, Madame Grandoni, and Captain Godfrey Sholto, a swell who has attached himself to the Princess. The Princess is, as Madame Grandoni puts it, una capriciosa , a woman of irresistible whims, who has recently affected an interest in the London poor. Sholto has taken on the task of finding specimens and bringing them to her. He’s attended meetings of a radical political group, where he’s met Hyacinth Robinson, a personable young man who works as a bookbinder.

Surveying the cheap seats from up in the box, Sholto sees Robinson and immediately identifies him as someone the Princess should meet. Sholto goes down to get him. To propitiate Robinson’s date for the evening, Millicent Henning, he proposes to keep her company while Robinson visits the Princess in her box. Sholto and Henning thereupon begin an affair, which they conceal from Robinson.

The mysterious Princess, we learn, is separated from her husband. The Prince maintains her in great comfort; lawyers have been involved. We gradually learn that as long as Madame Grandoni remains the Princess’s companion, there is some assurance that she is not behaving indiscreetly. Should Madame Grandoni feel compromised, she will leave her position, and the Prince will feel entitled to make adjustments in his financial arrangements with the Princess.

Robinson has been drawn to the fringes of radical politics through his co-workers at the bookbindery, and in the radical meetings he’s met Paul Muniment, a much more committed revolutionary. Still, up to the time he meets the Princess, Robinson’s views, while nominally revolutionary to suit his friends, haven’t been fully formed. Nevertheless, the Princess finds in Robinson the closest thing she’s seen to a genuine radical from the lower classes.

The result of this meeting is a mutual infatuation, though it’s stronger on Robinson’s side than the Princess’s. She invites him to visit her at her London town house, then invites him to stay at a country home she has leased. They often speak of politics, but especially in the great house, Robinson begins to see a level of style and gentility that he’d never known, having grown up in a London slum. On the other hand, the Princess, wanting to get closer to the center of the movement, begins to see Robinson as a means to that end, not as an end in himself. In this he plays into her hands, telling her eagerly of his friend Muniment, the more committed revolutionary. In fact, Robinson is nearly as infatuated with Muniment as he is with the Princess, and I don’t think James would object to our inferring that Robinson has an inchoate sexual attraction to both.

That Hyacinth is able to relate so quickly to a life of culture and ease, despite his lack of education and his upbringing in lower-class London, goes to his own backstory. He’s the illegitimate son of an English nobleman and a French seamstress. His mother murdered his father in a celebrated case and died in prison; as a favor to his mother, a co-worker, Amanda Pynsent or “Pinnie”, raised him, with the help of a neighbor, Anastasius Vetch. Vetch, Pinnie, and Hyacinth’s neighborhood friends, including Millicent Henning, sense his uncommon qualities, which stem from his bloodline. In fact, just as the Princess invites Hyacinth to stay with her in the country house, Pinnie contracts her final illness, dying soon after Hyacinth returns from the visit. Pinnie feels her life has served its purpose now that she sees Hyacinth “received by the great”.

But just before the visit to the country house, Robinson attends a radical meeting with Muniment. James gives a humorous portrayal of the feckless discussion that must carry a ring of truth to anyone familiar with such gatherings: one red-faced fat man declaims on how people are starving; there is general demand for “something” to be done, but no one has the intelligence or courage to carry “something” off - that is, except Paul Muniment. Muniment himself says little of his actual views, but Hyacinth knows he holds the general run of radicals in contempt. And Muniment, unlike the idle chatterers in meeting, has contacts with real revolutionary circles.

Suddenly, frustrated at the useless talk and wanting to impress Muniment, Hyacinth mounts a chair and gives a speech. If no one else is willing to do something for the revolution, he will. And he’ll do anything. Muniment, surprised, nevertheless sees his chance. Diedrich Hoffendahl, the linchpin of the movement, happens to be in London . Muniment and two others bundle Hyacinth off to see Hoffendahl, and Hoffendahl extracts a pledge: when the time comes, Hyacinth will do what Hoffendahl orders, though this will almost certainly involve Hyacinth’s death, either on the spot or on the gallows. This pledge dominates the book, since it overhangs all that Hyacinth soon discovers of culture and graciousness in society.

When Hyacinth returns from his visit to the Princess in the country and Pinnie dies, Vetch proposes that he take the small savings that Pinnie has left him, plus some money Vetch has set aside as well, and tour Europe . He spends several months in Paris and Venice, absorbing the best in art and culture and writing letters to the Princess. He concludes that nothing the “general rectification” can do for society will sufficiently replace the best that European culture has already produced. Even so, he intends to honor his pledge to Hoffendahl.

But when he returns to London, things have changed. The Princess has moved out of her London town house without telling Hyacinth about it; he encounters her again for the first time during a visit to Paul Muniment. The Princess, it turns out, has sold almost everything and moved into a lower middle-class house with Madame Grandoni, the better to understand the “poor”. The money from the sale, and what she’s saved from her reduced circumstances, have all gone to the movement, through Paul Muniment. This comes as a surprise to Hyacinth, but he and the Princess soon resume their relationship, which, James makes clear, is platonic - there’s been nothing in it to cause Madame Grandoni any qualm. The developing relationship between the Princess and Muniment, on the other hand, is different.

Madame Grandoni, distressed enough at the sale and the move to a small house, grows uncomfortable with Muniment’s visits and retires as duenna, taking her meals alone and snooping from the stairway. Hyacinth, still infatuated with both the Princess and Muniment, has only vague suspicions of what’s going on. He asks Muniment directly if he’s “sweet on” the Princess, and Muniment assures him that nothing like that could be the case. Even so, Hyacinth begins to find the Princess not at home for his visits.

The Prince’s concerns are much more direct. One night, Hyacinth, on another unsuccessful visit to try to find the Princess at home, sees the Prince, whom he’s met once before, lurking across the street from her door. As the two recognize each other, the Prince proposes that they both wait to see when the Princess will return. Soon enough, she arrives in a hansom with Muniment. Muniment accompanies her to the door. They pause, then both go in. Robinson has been so infatuated that, up to this time, he’s never had directly to consider the Princess actually having an affair with his good friend Muniment. The Prince, of course, has never been under any such hesitations. He simply shows Robinson the extent to which both men have been betrayed.

There was something inexpressibly representative to him in the way that friend had abruptly decided to reenter the house, after pausing outside with its mistress, at the moment he himself stood peering through the fog with the Prince. The movement repeated itself, innumerable times, to his mental vision, suggesting to him things that he couldn’t bear to learn.

This drives Robinson to despair, from which he never recovers. It’s in the context of his disillusionment with both the Princess and Muniment that he suddenly receives his fatal instruction from Hoffendahl: he’s to attend a ball and assassinate a duke. By this time, everyone who knows him, the Princess, his radical co-workers, and the avuncular Vetch, have learned of his pledge and also understand his changed views on revolution, which were never fixed anyhow. All try to convince Muniment through one channel or another to release him from his vow, but he is unmoved. If Robinson is still willing, let him go ahead. And it can’t hurt his relationship with the Princess to have Robinson out of the way.

Robinson’s response to Hoffendahl’s order is to turn the pistol he’s given for the assassination on himself, rather than the duke. Most readings, though, neglect the chronology and the context of his suicide. Even after he receives his fatal instructions, he’s preoccupied with the Princess, not with any abstract dilemma over revolution or the benefits of established society:

That the Princess had done with him, done with him for ever, remained the most vivid impression Hyacinth had carried away … . He went home, and he flung himself on his narrow bed, where the consolation of sleep again descended upon him. But he woke up with the earliest dawn, and the beginning of a new day was a quick revival of pain. He was overpast, he had become vague, he was extinct.

The pistol meant for the duke’s assassination has never been anything for Hyacinth but a convenient means of suicide. And we also learn that revolution is secondary to the Princess as well: once the Prince learns of her affair with Muniment, he sends Muniment (not the Princess) a letter informing him that he’s worked it out with the lawyers, and her allowance ceases on the first of the month. Once the money stops, Muniment will move on, and more important to the Prince, the Princess will have to go back to live with him. Muniment predicts, and James gives us no reason not to believe, that she will go back. She’s already tired of her flirtation with world of revolution. Madame Grandoni, having left the Princess shortly before, is already back in the Prince’s household; she was likely his spy all along.

A major theme in the book, not mentioned in most readings, is Hyacinth’s belated sexual awareness. In his last days of despair, having learned of the affair between the Princess and Muniment, he thinks of returning to Millicent Henning, the Cockney girl he’d laid aside for the Princess. Here’s how James describes his state of mind (Hyacinth is about 24 years old):

[H]e found himself wishing that he might believe there was something Millicent could do for him… . he might at least feel her arms around him. He didn’t exactly know what good it would do him or what door it would open, but he should like it.

Hyacinth goes to the shop where Millicent works, but finds her preoccupied with a visit from Captain Sholto, the same swell who’d recruited him for the Princess’s amusement at the theatre months earlier.

Hyacinth seems remarkably sheltered, and his sexual awakening remarkably retarded, even for the late Victorian period. In a minor counterpoint to the Princess’s betrayal, Millicent has been two-timing him with Captain Sholto, and he doesn’t fully recognize it until this scene. But just as he seems to reach a mature sexual awareness, he also discovers what most people accept more matter-of-factly: the hypocrisies, deceptions, betrayals, and cynicism behind everyday life.

Given our contemporary insistence on healthy-mindedness in all matters sexual, Hyacinth’s delayed awakening may seem unusual, even abnormal. Even so, many of us have probably known late-bloomers. James makes dramatic and literary use of Hyacinth’s late blooming in connection with another awakening, to the grandness and exuberance of Western art and culture, and to the great conundrum of prosperity and suffering, virtue and evil, coexisting so closely.

The character who has glimpsed the best the world has to offer, and thereafter sinks into despair when life doesn’t normally measure up, does appear elsewhere in Henry James. The eponymous butler in “Brooksmith” doesn’t survive when his bachelor employer, whom he has assisted in creating a brilliant salon, dies, and he can’t adjust to the kind of servant work that’s normally available. A tutor in “The Pupil” destroys his career when he finds a student who’s so personable and retentive that he turns down lucrative engagements with duller boys to continue with the perfect one, whose parents don’t pay him. When the perfect pupil dies, he has nowhere to go. But the last thing James would urge, I think, is for such people to settle for the mediocre. “Live all you can,” is what Strether says, after all.

I think this is what comes out of The Princess Casamassima . It is perhaps James’s fullest depiction of society and the full scope of life that he saw around him. Revolutionary conspiracy is part of the picture, though James understands both the fecklessness on one hand, and the utter cynicism on the other, of radical politics, and he doesn’t offer them as a viable way to parse out what a careful observer sees of the world in its complexity and confusion. But I don’t think he intended to write an anti-revolutionary tract. The Princess is a femme fatale , but not quite the bitch-goddess who’s an uncontrollable force of nature like her successor Brett Ashley. Her portrait, and her character, are a major focus. We see that her interests in both revolution and traditional culture are superficial, proxies for her narcissism. What drives Hyacinth Robinson to suicide is disillusionment with both his friends, mixed with a belated sexual awakening. This is the function the Princess carries out in the novel.

On the other hand, while she destroys Robinson, two men in the novel can control her, Muniment and the Prince. One is a cynical revolutionary, the other a reactionary aristocrat. Hyacinth Robinson is neither, and the Princess destroys him. But whose situation is preferable in the scheme of the novel? Neither the revolutionary nor the reactionary is attractive. Hyacinth Robinson, who’s seen the most of life, is much more attractive, even if what he’s seen has driven him to despair. “Live all you can,” says Lambert Strether. “It’s a mistake not to.”


"But whether James accurately described a revolutionary movement is beside the point."

This is exactly my feeling. I believe that with Henry James the story is of less importance than the beauty of his language. This could be viewed as highly controversial but I do believe it to be true. Another author that I read for the beauty of the language is D.H. Lawrence for instance.

Story needs to be there of course but its importance can be overrated. Maybe it is part of our short attention spans these days that we need the story to be the main thing because we do not take the time anymore to appreciate the beauty of language in itself.

I wrote an exposition about this on my blog specifically in relation to Henry James, if you are interested: http://www.noisepollution.nl/?p=1845.

Kind regards,
Henk de Kruyff

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