The Princess Casamassima represents an attempt by Henry James, who had made his reputation as a novelist of the upper classes, to capture the full spectrum of modern urban life. He continues to depict the life of the idle rich in the figure of the prince, but his characters the princess and Lady Aurora agree that the rich have a responsibility to use their wealth toward some useful end.
In this novel, James made a significant addition to his previous spectrum of characters with a gallery of striving working-class figures: the sublime figure of Millicent Henning, who claws her way out of Lomax Place to the relative affluence of the West End shops; Anastasius Vetch, who makes the grand gesture of forgiving a debt of about seventeen pounds; and the hero of the book, Hyacinth Robinson, a journeyman bookbinder with a commitment to revolutionary socialism. James also examines the sick and the dispossessed in the figure of the disabled woman, Rose Muniment, whose greatest treasure is a bed jacket given her by Lady Aurora. Finally, James depicts the shadowy figures of the revolutionary anarchists, whose goal, or so they claim, is nothing less than the total destruction of all these social classes.
The all-pervading irony of James’s novel, however, is that none of these figures is quite what each claims. The princess plays at revolution because she is bored with her empty upper-class life, and her only real commitment is a monetary one. Yet her money buys her neither worthwhile deeds nor true involvement in the making of policy. Hyacinth begins his career caring deeply about society and committed to the need for revolution, but once he has been exposed to the princess’s wealth and the beauty of fine material objects, he no longer wants to destroy the rich but merely to reallocate their wealth. As he comes to realize, there is “nothing more terrible than to find yourself face to face with your obligation and to feel at the same time the spirit originally prompting it dead within you.”
Even the minor figures are false to themselves and their stated ideals. Lady Aurora continues to minister to Rose Muniment mainly because she is devotedly in love with Rose’s brother, Paul Muniment; in his turn, Paul uses the revolutionary cause to pad his own pockets and further his...
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