Princess Casamassima, The


This book is the anti-Against the Day, appropriate to the 1893-era anti-anarchist Chums.

HJ's reactionary theses:

  • the nobility has a monopoly on fine feelings
  • only expensive things gratify those feelings
  • political movements can be successful only when led by nobles
  • nobles will be loyal to their own in the end

Parallels to Against the Day:

  • spunky young urchiness makes limited inroads in society (Millicent/Dally)
  • aristocratic women slumming with socialists (Reef and Ruperta)
  • secret political meetings in back rooms (Lew, Webb)
  • lower class young man learns upper class manners (Kit)
  • planned political assassination (Tancredi)

I don't think it's fair to call HJ a "reactionary" just as below someone assumes, citing "most critics", that tPC is not based on any substantive knowledge of "anarchism". HJ was a socialist in hs youth and like a lot of other "canonical" authors in that time period (Shaw, Wilde, so on). Was HJ rich and famous? Yes and no. HJ had a lot of money problems and his books never made any money. He was well-known later in his life after publishing a HUGE amount of fiction and non-fiction. But TRP is rich and famous too, and nobody's calling him "reactionary" here. My own theory is that tPC engages with AtD in a number of ways only lightly touched on here. I'm trying to get my article on this overlap published so, sadly enough, I can't reveal all my research and conclusions here, though. My point is just that too many assumptions are being made about HJ and we should all go back and read his books carefully without leaping to any hasty conclusions.

  • funny names (Hyacinth Robinson, Eustache Poupin)

Different people will certainly see different qualities in the book. Here's an alternative set of comments (with SPOILERS).

Set mostly in England in the early 1880s, The Princess Casamassima (PC) follows the life of Hyacinth Robinson, son of a French servant and (he thinks) an English aristocrat. He is fostered by Amanda Pynsett, an unsuccessful dressmaker, after his mother is sent to prison for killing the nobleman. Hyacinth grows up a sensitive man who believes he's inherited his taste and perceptiveness from his parents. People around him feel deep affection for him. The social position (or lack of it) that comes with his trade as a bookbinder brings him into contact with agitators: socialists who talk revolution.

Through a back-room acquaintance Hyacinth meets the Princess Casamassima, a great beauty who is living in London, separated from the Prince. She proves to be a sterling character who shares the ideas of the socialists. (The novel does not tell how she came to such views, though the earlier Roderick Hudson may explain.) Hyacinth and the Princess become close friends in their asymmetrical way.

Inflamed by the socialists' rhetoric, Hyacinth takes a mighty oath to obey any order he may receive from their leadership. In time, however, his relationship with the Princess weakens his feeling for "the people" and leads him to the view that it's only the class system that has made culture possible. At length the order comes: He is to murder a duke. Unable to carry out his vow in the face of his changing ideas, Hyacinth kills himself.

It isn't hard to find parallels between PC and AtD. The young assassin who fails and dies is an undeniable one (as noted at the top of the page: Hyacinth and Tancredi). Another is the evolution of characters' core beliefs and allegiances as they gain fuller exposure to conditions in the world (Hyacinth and the Chums of Chance).

Does PC play any controlling role in AtD, though? This is one of just a few books that Pynchon cites by title; Pugnax reads and appreciates it, and Lindsay is at least familiar with its setting. You have to pay attention to that! But Henry James' novel tracks just one life in one main plot, while AtD picks up and drops a couple of dozen characters' stories. Any parallel we find is likely to be contradicted by another.

Here's an example: Franz Ferdinand rubbing elbows with the Negroes in Chicago and the Princess attending a London music-hall show. F.F. outrages the crowd and leaves without paying his tab; the Princess comes away with a new appreciation for the lower classes. Not much there to draw inferences from. F.F. doesn't like Hungarians and the Princess doesn't like the French; but he hunts the one while she simply avoids the other. Again.

Of course the Spongiatostas make an analogy to the Casamassimas. Both princesses belong to the world of fashion, both befriend lower-class people possibly on their way up (Hyacinth and Dally), both have some radical leanings, neither is present when her husband is. But Princess C. drives the plot of her book, while Princess S. distinctly belongs to the third rank of characters in hers.

The biggest failed parallel between The Princess Casamassima and Against the Day, though, is in ideologies: not the apparent ideologies of their authors, but those of their characters. James' socialists express just one definite idea—the duke's murder—and it comes only in the last 40 pages of this long novel. Yes, the socialists are doing the Devil's work, thinking in unsuitable ways about the structure of society, hostile to any culture higher than a street ballad; but James doesn't even make these points explicitly, as if he knew his readers would fill in the gaping blank with lurid stereotypes. You can read all the way through PC and never think for a moment that James knew more about socialism than he could read in a day's newspapers.

Pynchon's characters express their ideas pretty clearly in word and deed. The Chums of Chance in particular—theirs is by far the most compelling plot in AtD—begin as anarchist-haters working for Porfirio Díaz, but in the middle of the book (after the Harmonica Academy) they find they have become the Compassionate, and at the end they are approaching an anarchistic state of grace. Scarsdale Vibe talks out his principles, fears and plans with Foley Walker, then has Walker implement them. The Traverses acquire labor and individualist-anarchist views, but besides discussing them they put them into action. (Kit above all: His suspicion of Vibe is almost congenital, and his European stay is the way he, unlike his father, can stay alive to oppose the plutocrats in the long term.)

Because James gives the reader so little to grip, other than Hyacinth's world of sensations, it is hard to describe his premises as "reactionary," as another wiki contributor has (top of this page). The qualities that make Hyacinth a good Henry James hero have nothing to do with what Hyacinth believes. It is fair, though, to say the author leads him to a kind of class-based enlightenment.

In short, Pynchon makes articulated ideas the basis and context for action; James presents action through Hyacinth's impressions without causing the underlying ideas to be stated clearly. It's arguable that this contrast between the two novels is stronger—and more nearly a "controlling" factor—than any parallels are.

Some questions
In the worlds that James and Pynchon write about, "socialism" or "anarchism" is a scare-word; it stands for a menace, not a set of ideas. Which of these two novels fits better with the present model of scare writing in which "terrorism" plays the same role?

The one concrete goal that anyone in PC expresses is Hyacinth's promise to kill the duke. Is the author or the narrator trying to suggest that pledging oneself to a definite goal leads to death?

The anarchists in AtD earn the opposition of plutocrats with faces. Is the lack of any definite, personal opposition to the socialists in PC a weakness in the book?

Does Henry James put reactionary ideas into his book?
Volver 12:57, 7 March 2007 (PST)

Henry James' themes are deeply 'conservative', yes, in Princess Casamassima. Almost all critics and James' scholars think he had little understanding, much less sympathy, for anarchist-socialists, (unlike, in understanding, Joseph Conrad in The Secret Agent, although he too is deeply conservative in his beliefs about society and social action) I think there are more parallels with The Secret Agent than PC in ATD. For one, the novel, based on a real incident, is about an anarchistic attempt to blow up Time, so to speak, in the real symbol of the Greenwich Conservatory!

Princess Casamassima along with The Secret Agent and Dostoevsky's Possessed (also The Devils) are the (only) major three 'canonical' works in the literary tradition to Pynchon's coming-of-age time which deal with 'terrorists', anarchists fictionally. Essays have been written comparing and contrasting them since the sixties in major periodicals and papers, such as American Scholar, Yale Review and the NYTimes. There was a long, very intelligent essay in the NY Times within a few weeks of 9-11.

I will argue that we see TRP as a literary critic in ATD re Princess Casamassima, as Pugnax, dog of war, reads that famously difficult bourgeois writer of psychological complexity, Henry James' weakest book (arguably); Pugnax, a reader who liked "lurid' tales---TRP saying if Pugnax thinks PC is "lurid", then wait...wait until all of the Chums--storybook characters at the start!--experience "real" reality. I think Pugnax and the Chums are linked to the cruise ship Stupendica and its turn into a battleship thematically in TRP's book--and to all of easy-living bourgeoisie living off of the hard labor of the exploited (and worse). [User: MKohut, March 13, 2007]

Jglassow 2:02, 4 January 2012 (PST)

The Princess Casamassima is a novel marked by disguises, masks and assumed identities. The duality of Hyacinth’s identity begins with his ambiguous origin – both French and English, both a bastard and a gentlemen, and later both a revolutionist and an aristocrat. Hyacinth considers the question of his origin important, but he cannot decide: “He didn’t really know if he were French or were English, or which of the two he should prefer to be” (James 90). Sometimes he favors one over the other in trying to decide who suffered the more, the murdered father or the condemned mother. This attitude implies to Hyacinth’s whole life as well: constantly, the hero struggles to define his own identity, but he is not able to decide who he is or who he wants to be. [User: Jglassow, January 4, 2012]

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