The Princess Casamassima

by Henry James

Start Free Trial

Critical Evaluation

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 personal ambitions. The only character who remains true to herself is Millicent Henning, and she does so out of shallowness, not nobility; she entrusts her fate to capitalist society, never looking ahead to the day when her beauty will fade and her modeling talents will no longer be in demand.

James could write The Princess Casamassima because he himself, as an American and a writer, was an outsider gazing in at the riches of the upper classes. As James says in his 1904 preface to the novel, “I had only to conceive his watching the same public show I had watched myself.” Yet where Hyacinth never becomes more than a spectator of the princess’s wealth and freedom, James succeeded in penetrating the great mansions and in becoming a figure in demand; between October, 1878, and June, 1879, he was invited to dinner more than one hundred times. Hyacinth, on the other hand, binds books in beautifully tooled leather, but he cannot write, publish, or market them. Similarly, when the princess gives up her beautiful West End mansion and moves to the dreary reaches of Madeira Crescent, the reader is asked to admire the noble sacrifice she has made of all her beautiful possessions; nevertheless, James notes, she still uses only the finest...

(This entire section contains 943 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

tea.

As usual in a novel by James, the battle lines are ultimately drawn not according to social class or geographic background but according to psychological type. It may be impossible to declare that Hyacinth is a successful individual, but it is clear that he is a caring and loyal one. Neither Hyacinth nor the narrator ever decides whether the princess’s revolutionary ardor is “superficial or profound,” but her attachment to Hyacinth justifies our sympathy for her. Conversely, Paul seems attached to no one but himself; his cold ambition makes him the villain in the reader’s eyes, even though he never commits any crime. Morality is always tied to personal honor for James.

James’s greatest accomplishment is his creation of a shadowy underground world of incipient violence, hidden by fog, darkness, and obscurity from the everyday perceptions of the middle and upper classes. Although James lacked any direct knowledge of the revolutionary movement, he blended contemporary newspaper accounts, recent fiction, and his own experience as an outsider in creating a world of idealistic yet deeply disaffected individuals in search of a dramatic event that could change their lives and the world in which they live. In the late Victorian period, when accuracy was a major criterion in art, James was criticized for his lack of concrete detail in describing his socialists and anarchists, but this position eroded with time. As conditions change, some works of art that are firmly rooted in their time and place become irrelevant to later times. Works such as The Princess Casamassima, however, remain vital and relevant far beyond the time of their creation.

This novel’s vitality is largely the result of James’s contrast between a public world of cabs, public bars, West End shops, and country estates and an immense underworld that carries on “in silence, in darkness” and along “invisible, impalpable wires.” James’s vision of reality is closely attuned to the complex world of later times, as people continued to feel abused, even manipulated, by faceless forces beyond their control.