The Princess Casamassima by Henry James is about a boy named Hyacinth Robinson whose mother, an unmarried French dressmaker, murders his father, an English nobleman, when he is just a baby. Hyacinth, who is raised in poverty by a kind-hearted but humble dressmaker, grows up hating the sordity of his surroundings, and the ugliness and ignorance of those around him. He longs for a better, finer existence.
"By the nature of his mind he was perpetually conscious that the circle in which he lived was an infinitesimally small, shallow eddy in the roaring vortex of London, and his imagination plunged again and again into the waves that whirled past it and round it, in the hope of being carried to some brighter, happier vision -- the vision of societies in which, in splendid rooms, with smiles and soft voices, distinguished men, with women who were both proud and gentle, talked about art, literature, and history."As a young man he befriends some revolutionary idealists consumed with injustice, class warfare, socialism, and fighting for the downtrodden masses against those in power. (Although for most of the book they're more talk than action.) Hyacinth gets drawn into their radical politics and, in a rash moment of youthful fervor, makes a "sacred vow" to assassinate a major political figure when called upon. But it's the dazzling Princess Casamassima, also caught up in the "Great Social Cause", who really impacts Hyacinth's life. In her brilliance and beauty he finally finds the world he's been searching for, although it seemed to me that she was using him as a stepping stone to something, or someone, greater; I had a hard time liking her as much as Hyacinth did. Things go wrong for Hyacinth when his radical leanings start to conflict more and more with his own vision of the world, and all the good that he sees in it, and he comes to regret the vow he made.
Honor, integrity, and nobility of character always play an important role in James' novels; his characters are often tormented by their own internal struggles and the choices they are forced to make, which means his endings are rarely happy. The Princess Casamassima is no exception. This novel is a tragedy. And while it will never be my favorite Henry James novel, I think Hyacinth Robinson will linger in my mind for awhile. The biggest plus of finishing this book is that. at 590 pages, it qualifies as my "Very Long Classic Novel" in Karen's Back to the Classics Challenge.
My four favorite Henry James novels:
- The Portrait of a Lady
- The Wings of the Dove
- The Awkward Age
- The American