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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 922

Florentine Vivier, a French dressmaker, gives birth to an illegitimate son and accuses an Englishman, Lord Frederick Purvis, of being the boy’s father. When Lord Frederick and his family refuse to recognize the baby, Florentine stabs Lord Frederick to death, a crime for which she receives the maximum prison sentence;...

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Florentine Vivier, a French dressmaker, gives birth to an illegitimate son and accuses an Englishman, Lord Frederick Purvis, of being the boy’s father. When Lord Frederick and his family refuse to recognize the baby, Florentine stabs Lord Frederick to death, a crime for which she receives the maximum prison sentence; she entrusts her son, whom she calls Hyacinth Robinson, to Miss Amanda Pynsent, a poor dressmaker, who raises the boy without telling him the unfortunate circumstances surrounding his birth.

Years later, Mrs. Bowerbank, a prison matron, visits Miss Pynsent to tell her that Florentine is dying in the prison hospital and had asked to see her son, now ten years of age. Miss Pynsent consults Mr. Vetch, a violinist in a Bloomsbury theater, who is her closest friend. On his advice, she takes Hyacinth to the prison but does not tell him at first that the woman is his mother. The grim prison frightens him, and at first his mother speaks only in French, saying that she fears he is ashamed of her. She embraces him pitifully before the matron bustles the visitors away.

During the following years, the rowdy family of Millicent Henning, Hyacinth’s childhood friend, is ejected from their quarters next to Miss Pynsent’s shop in Lomax Place. When Mr. Vetch has a copy of Lord Bacon’s Essays bound as a gift for Hyacinth, he meets the master bookbinder Eustache Poupin, who had been exiled from France after the Commune of 1871. Mr. Vetch learns that he and Poupin have a common bond of hate for the existing social and political fabric. Poupin secures an apprenticeship for Hyacinth with Crookenden’s bookbindery and teaches him French and socialism.

Millicent Henning, grown to a bold, handsome young woman, unexpectedly appears in Lomax Place to renew her friendship with Hyacinth. Poupin introduces Hyacinth to a chemist and revolutionary named Paul Muniment, who takes him to visit his disabled sister, Rose Muniment. There they meet Lady Aurora Langrish, who devotes her time to caring for the poor and who admires Paul a great deal. She is a spinster much neglected by her large and wealthy family. Paul leads Hyacinth more deeply into revolutionary activity. Hyacinth has meanwhile looked up the newspaper reports of his mother’s trial, and he considers himself the aggrieved son of Lord Frederick.

Mr. Vetch gets tickets for Hyacinth to take Millicent to see the play, The Pearl of Paraguay. Captain Godfrey Sholto, whom Hyacinth had met at a revolutionists’ discussion group at The Sun and Moon public house, comes from his box at the theater to invite Hyacinth to meet the Princess Casamassima and her old companion, Madame Grandoni.

Prince Casamassima tries to see the princess to beg her to return to him, but she refuses to see him. As the prince leaves her house, he sees Hyacinth ushered in, at the princess’s invitation, to tea. Later, Hyacinth binds a copy of Tennyson poems as a gift for the princess, but when he tries to deliver his gift, he learns that she had left London for a series of visits in the country. Hyacinth encounters Captain Sholto in a bar and, as Sholto hurries him strangely along, they encounter Millicent. Hyacinth suspects that Millicent had arranged to meet Sholto.

Paul announces at a meeting at The Sun and Moon that the revolutionary organizer Hoffendahl, who had spent twelve years in Prussian prisons, is in London. When Hyacinth declares his readiness to give his life for the cause, Paul takes him to see Hoffendahl. There he swears an oath to perform an act of violence whenever Hoffendahl should send the order.

Meanwhile, the princess invites Hyacinth to stay at her country house, Medley. The princess is extremely pleasant, and Hyacinth stays on in the country. One day, Captain Sholto rides up to Hyacinth as he is walking on the estate and asks Hyacinth to obtain an invitation to dinner for him. Clearly, Hyacinth has replaced Sholto as the princess’s favorite.

Hyacinth returns from Medley to find Miss Pynsent dying. In her will, she leaves a small sum of money to him. Mr. Vetch adds to this sum and advises Hyacinth to travel on the Continent. On his return, he hears that the princess had sold all her beautiful furnishings, had moved to a tawdry, lower-middle-class house in Madeira Crescent, and had become friendly with Paul, who is now deeply involved in revolutionary activities. In the meantime, Hyacinth’s own contact with wealth and leisure had made life seem more valuable and the society that produces and appreciates art more tolerable.

After the prince follows the princess and observes her going out with Paul, he demands that Madame Grandoni tell him what she is doing. As the prince leaves Madame Grandoni, he meets Hyacinth. While they are walking away from the house, they see Paul and the princess return and enter together. Madame Grandoni abandons the princess, and the prince writes to Paul saying that he would send no more money to his wife.

At Poupin’s, Hyacinth finds the German worker Schinkel with sealed orders for him. He is to go to a grand party and there assassinate a duke. Mr. Vetch tries to keep Hyacinth from doing some desperate action. Hyacinth goes to the store where Millicent works, only to find her talking to Captain Sholto. The princess, going to Hyacinth’s room, finds Schinkel waiting. She demands that he break in. Inside, they find that Hyacinth had shot himself in the heart.

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