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The Princess Casamassima Revisited

ISSUE:  Summer 1990

The republication of Henry James’ only explicitly political novel, The Princess Casamassima, in the Library of America invites a timely rethinking of its troubled reputation. From the first it has been viewed, even by its author, as a problem novel. In a brief notebook entry for Aug. 10, 1885, James complained that he had “never yet become engaged in a novel in which, after I had begun to write and send off my Ms., the details had remained so vague.” A couple of weeks later, still “pegging away” at it, he described it as “long-winded” to his friend Grace Norton. James, himself was inclined to blame the problem on his worry over the dim reception of its immediate predecessor, The Bostonians, which critics had attacked with relish on both sides of the Atlantic. Taken at face value, James’ confession of a sense of “vagueness” has occasionally been cited as evidence that he didn’t know quite what he was doing.

The problem with The Princess Casamassima—which falls in time between James’ apprentice years and the later phase which his biographer Leon Edel has designated as that of “The Master”—may be simply stated. Is it truly a political novel; and if it is that, does it report something solid and reliable about the real world?

In a lengthy rehabilitatory essay of 1948—later reprinted in The Liberal Imagination—Lionel Trilling faced the issue squarely and answered the threshold question in the affirmative. The Princess, he insisted, really is a politico-historical novel, exhibiting techniques and concerns, and documentary information, usual to the form. Trilling accepted that it was “about” the anarchists and socialists of the 1880’s and the rumored conspiracies which, real and imaginary, had become a stimulus of public preoccupation and alarm. In other words, the novel was not only topical but historical. James had known very well what had been going on in the era of the First International. Trilling was at pains to refute the charge that James lacked “sociological” understanding. He was eager to show that by inquiry or imagination, or both, James had captured the machinations of the age with accuracy and discernment and, Trilling added, with “love,” that is, with a compassionate sympathy for the various players.

Irving Howe, writing not long afterward in Politics and the Novel (1957), made roughly the same assumptions. But Howe concluded his keen essay “The Political Vocation” with a less generous and at times wrongheaded evaluation. For Howe, the novel showed James’ “creative bravado, his boldness in summoning the unknown and his economy in exploiting his ignorance.” The Princess Casamassima was indeed a political novel. But for various reasons—including James’ limited experience and patience with “politics as a collective mode of action” and his ingrained esthetic conservatism—it had failed fully to realize its bold design. It was a flop, but a brilliant flop since (and here Howe brushes the truth) “James showed himself to be brilliantly gifted at entering the behavior of political people.”

From the first, as these later critiques suggest, the argument about The Princess Casamassima has turned more upon its content and subject matter than its psychology. And since it is “about” the London world of revolutionary plotting and planning, into which distant conspiratorial enterprises reach, one could hardly argue that it is not political. Yet with the benefit of a later and richer perspective on the fortunes of radical and conspiratorial politics, we are today in a position to read the story in a rather different light, and with a fresh sense of virtues that may have escaped readers who looked, with mixed success, for documentary narrative.


Certainly the long emphasis on its successes and failures as a political novel have tempted readers of The Princess Casamassima to neglect some key dramatic elements. For while the setting and staging are undoubtedly political, the themes are better described as trans- or post-political. For that reason, the book may seem today considerably more topical than James imagined it could be a century ago, though in a different way than Trilling or Howe assumed. To contemporary readers, it is obvious that James was less interested in the setting as such than in the opportunities it offered for the study of private minds and consciences: not an unusual Jamesian preoccupation, to be sure, but here directed for almost the only time in a major work to “political” types. The spotlight shifts from political ferment and the emancipation of the oppressed to the contemplation of human responses: to how minds work under the “pressure” (to borrow a good Trilling term) of a potentially revolutionary situation. Certainly such a reading would be congruent with all we know about James’ enduring concerns as a storyteller. All of this might long since have been fairly obvious, save for the invincible superstition among superficial readers of James that his artistic intentions lack weight and larger social significance: that he was a dilettantish chronicler of the snobberies and preciosities of a narrow layer of Anglo-American-European society; and, consequently, that in essaying a political novel he was sure to be far out of his depth. Even if such a view of James could survive a thoughtful reading of his work, it would founder on what we know of the James family. In its broad and far from frivolous political and social interests (as his autobiographical reminiscences and letters show) Henry was far from the least involved participant.


Trilling and Howe wrote their assessments of the novel in a different, and in some ways more innocent, age. The 1945—55 decade was not lacking in political excitements and obsessions, to mention only the early years of the Cold War and the uproar over Communist conspiracies at home. But the Western world had not yet undergone those jolting experiences that were to refresh its understanding of the apprehensions of the 1880’s. The pervasive rebellions of the Sixties, all over America and Europe, stemming from but larger than the disintegration of old empires and the reactions of the former colonial powers to it; the resurgent romanticism of the barricades, the revitalized mystiques and celebrations of radical commitment; the emergence of charismatic “revolutionary” leaders; the intrusion of frightening new forms of terrorism into the heart of European civilization—all these things are new, or new in the forefront of public consciousness, since the 1950’s. The political assumptions under which Trilling and Howe wrote were in many ways, then, more orthodox and perhaps more hopeful than our own. Political alternatives seemed larger and more various and open than they might today, more malleable by inventiveness and experiment. Naturally, then, the concern for political possibilities was larger than the interest in political psychologies.

What is notable, at any rate, is that in earlier critical treatments some of the crucial aspects of character and plot in The Princess Casamassima have been scanted, or even ignored, as strictly political interpretations required. The best place to begin is where James himself began, with the controlling central consciousness: that of his hero Hyacinth Robinson, the little London bookbinder who, as James says in his Preface to the New York Edition, “sprang up for me out of the London pavement.” As the tale unfolds, the key development is Hyacinth’s steady alienation from political radicalism, a “lively inward revolution” as James calls it. Hyacinth Robinson gradually falls out of love with anger and conspiracy and “in love with the beauty of the world.” This is the chief plot line of the story, and in summary it sounds a bit bald and even banal. But James, as usual, knew how to create dramatic tension in quite unlikely ways. At the height of his earlier revolutionary enthusiasm, Hyacinth sounds off one evening at the Sun and Moon cafe where all the would-be revolutionaries gather in a back room to orate and complain to one another. Hearing this, a couple of his committed companions take him off to a shadowy meeting with Hoffendahl, the chief foreign plotter and planner, and he is induced to commit himself to carry out an as yet unspecified act of terroristic violence—the assassination of a duke, it later develops. As if this alone did not lend tension to Hyacinth’s situation, there is the shadowy mystery of his parentage. He has been adopted and reared, deep in the London slums, by a simple, hardworking and loving foster-mother. But we know that his real mother was French, and that she has been tried and imprisoned for the murder of Hyacinth’s putative natural father, Lord Frederick Purvis, of whom otherwise we learn very little. The harrowing scene in which Hyacinth, still a child, is taken to visit his dying mother deep in the bowels of a prison infirmary is very powerful; and we know that James did his own reconnaissance for the scene by visiting a women’s prison which has since disappeared. In any event, the world of the nobility, and a baffled identity that might have been his, haunt Hyacinth’s curiosity and imagination. The mystery is never fully resolved. We never learn conclusively whether the murdered Lord Frederick really was Hyacinth’s father, though that seems to be assumed. James’s sense of art, here as so often elsewhere, halted him at the verge of being needlessly overexplicit. But Hyacinth shows an instinctive taste, intelligence, and sensibility that is at once apparent to those who meet him; and the consensus among those who know his birth secret is that this “fineness” of his is genetic.

It is through mutual associates at the margins of radical politics that Hyacinth is taken up, a sort of collector’s item, by the Princess Casamassima, the former Christina Light of James’ earlier novel Roderick Hudson. It was unusual for James to revisit characters, and that alone makes the princess a special case. Her interest in the condition of the London poor, her links to revolutionary politics (she is, for instance, acquainted with Hoffendahl) are never entirely explained. But from what we see of her it all smacks a bit of radical chic, 1800’s vintage. Do her social concerns reflect the conscience of the rich, or curiosity, or her constant battle against boredom? Several of those who know her best are skeptical. Her sometime companion from the horsy, fox-hunting world of the county families, Captain Geoffrey Sholto, is bluntly cynical. He has served as the go-between, recruiting Hyacinth into her circle. He charmingly confesses to Hyacinth: “I was looking for anything that would turn up, that might take her fancy. . . ./ There was a time when I went in immensely for illuminated missals, and another when I collected ghost-stories (she wanted to cultivate a belief in ghosts), all for her. The day I saw she was turning her attention to the rising democracy I began to collect little democrats. That’s how I collected you.” Her estranged husband, the Prince, is for his part certain that her revolutionary enthusiasms will cool when he cuts off her large allowance.

Sholto and the Prince are not alone in questioning the seriousness of the Princess’s commitment to political radicalism. But whatever her motives, it is her capriciousness that deepens the irony of the tale and imparts its principal twist. No sooner has she invited Hyacinth for a prolonged stay at Medley, the old country house she leases, and thus given him a transforming taste of the life of luxury and beauty, than she abruptly quits her expensive Mayfair flat for shabby-genteel quarters. She wants to draw closer, though not too close, to the experience of slum life. She capriciously shuts the door she has helped open for Hyacinth. He has found her an intriguing guide to the mysteries of rank, art, and taste. She is eager to recruit him as her guide to the London slums.

With his ever-present comic sense, James must have chuckled as he devised this passing of spirits in the night. The Princess extends the key that unlocks esthetic mysteries for Hyacinth, then tantalizingly jerks it back. The apposition of these two worlds—the world of high taste and the world of the social question—may seem in summary schematic. In the novel, however, it is necessary. For this is a world of static wealth where the Keynesian multiplier works no economic magic. Everyone assumes that given the zero-sum nature of the political game, the lot of the poor can be improved only by upheaval and redistribution, perhaps ignited by violence. It is taken as axiomatic, moreover, that the arts and amenities of the world—which Hyacinth encounters in his travels to Paris and Venice—are founded on the blood and sweat, the labor and squalor, of the slums. It hardly matters whether the assumptions about this social ecology are accurate or not; their purpose is dramatic. There must be a felt tension between those who value society as it is and those who think it must be revolutionized, because it is between these two poles that Hyacinth Robinson must dangle through most of the novel. This is a fundamental given of the story, like the placid country-parish manners of Hampshire in Jane Austen novels.

James embellishes and varies his dual study of Hyacinth and the Princess with a rich gallery of secondary characters, vividly realized. It happens that most of the women—his old friend Millicent, the invalid Rosy, Hyacinth’s foster mother, Madame Grandoni (the Princess’s companion)—are all doubtful of the predominantly male world of revolutionary intrigue. They manage to keep things in perspective, which cannot be said of characters like Hyacinth’s friend Eustache Poupin, an exiled ex-Parisian communard. He and the other grumbling habitues of the Sun and Moon are tirelessly obsessed with politics. Hyacinth reflects that they are, in fact, “in a state of chronic spiritual inflammation. . . . He wondered at their zeal, their continuity, their vivacity, their incorruptibility, at the abundant supply of conviction and prophecy which they always had on hand. He believed that at bottom he was sorer than they, yet he had deviations and lapses, moments when the social question bored him. . . . They, however, were perpetually in the breach.”

On the other hand, Hyacinth’s friend Paul Muniment has often been seen as a prototype of Labour Party politicians to come. Like that other cheerful opportunist Captain Sholto, Muniment has no use for the romance of politics. He considers, for instance, that the worries and charities of the fluttery, good-hearted, do-gooding Lady Aurora (who frequently comes slumming at his apartment, and secretly has a crush on him) are “an amusement, like any other.” He is “simple and kindly,” but “he sometimes emitted a short satiric gleam which showed that his esteem for the poor was small.” Muniment so little sentimentalizes his political commitment, in fact, that its very dryness disturbs the more sensitive Hyacinth. Muniment is so detached as to contemplate Hyacinth’s own doom without the slightest pang of anguish. The day will come when Hoffendahl cashes his chip and demands that Hyacinth keep his vow to do a deed of revolutionary violence. Muniment, though deeply involved in Hyacinth’s recruitment, barely blinks at the prospect. They may be friends but Hyacinth wonders what friendship may mean if abstract causes and shadowy promptings supervene its loyalties. “It seemed to Hyacinth that if he had introduced a young fellow to Hoffendahl for his purposes . . .he would have preferred never to look at the young fellow again. That was his weakness, and Muniment carried it off far otherwise.” We may be sure, however, that this is a humanizing “weakness” with which Henry James is in full sympathy.


The Princess Casamassima may be read, then, as a penetrating inquiry into the varieties—and more especially the quality, moral and otherwise—of political commitment; and in this respect it is properly described as post-political. It is Henry James’ conclusion that the modes and depths of commitment are as various as any imaginable cast of characters, perhaps as various as humanity itself. James’ distinguishing mark is that he declines, as Hyacinth ultimately learns to do, to take all political declarations as advertised and looks to what lies behind them. As in some great allegory of hierarchical circles conceived by Dante, there are innumerable and distinct niches of moral seriousness and self-awareness. James does not conceal his own sympathies, and Trilling correctly suggests that they are far from narrow. He is aware of the most obvious victims, the downtrodden London poor. But his list of victims would also include those whose victimization lies in self-delusion of truncation of spirit, whose lives are warped by either political obsession or narrow indifference, and who therefore function as less than complete human beings.

Like any penetrating tale, The Princess Casamassima may be enjoyed at many levels. But for us of the post-1960’s world, its insights into the complex psychology of revolutionary politics (those who plunge in, as well as those who abstain or applaud from the sidelines) are probably more striking now than they would have seemed two or three decades ago. Revolutionary upheaval has been entirely discredited for civilized people by its cruel and wasteful results, on exhibit in much of the world, and it would require a truly extraordinary credulity to take conspiratorial motives and enthusiasms at their declared value today, without a deeper scrutiny. This now seems obvious. We may be sadder, but we are wiser. Yet history tells us that it was not always so, and perhaps not altogether so not so many years ago when critics like Trilling and Howe worried about the “political” accuracy of the novel.

Hyacinth’s personal fate seems emblematic of James’ own ultimate comment, which has to do with the capacity of political obsession to blight as well as ennoble the human character. Hyacinth learns that his terroristic assignment is to assassinate a duke, to turn the pistol he is sent with the assignment on the heart of that mysterious world of the ruling class. It might have been his entitlement by birth, but he has been excluded from it. In the end he elects to turn the pistol on himself, affirming the complexity and “beauty of the world” by extinguishing that simpler revolutionary self that once offered itself as a blank check for conspiratorial violence. In death, Hyacinth Robinson is at last complete.


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