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The Princess Casamassima (Classics) [Paperback]

Henry James
2.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
Price: 10.99 & FREE Delivery in the UK. Details
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Book Description

29 Jan 1987 Classics
The illegitimate and impoverished son of a dressmaker and a nobleman, Hyacinth Robinson has grown up with a strong sense of beauty that heightens his acute sympathy for the inequalities that surround him. Drawn into a secret circle of radical politics he makes a rash vow to commit a violent act of terrorism. But when the Princess Casamassima - beautiful, clever and bored - takes him up and introduces him to her own world of wealth and refinement, Hyacinth is torn. He is horrified by the destruction that would be wreaked by revolution, but still believes he must honour his vow, and finds himself gripped in an agonizing and, ultimately, fatal dilemma. A compelling blend of psychological observation, wit and compassion, The Princess Casamassima (1886) is one of Henry James's most deeply personal novels.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Reissue edition (29 Jan 1987)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 014043254X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140432541
  • Product Dimensions: 20.1 x 13 x 4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 2.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 419,729 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Henry James was born in 1843 in Washington Place, New York, of Scottish and Irish ancestry. His father was a prominent theologian and philosopher and his elder brother, William, is also famous as a philosopher. He attended schools in New York and later in London, Paris and Geneva, entering the Law School at Harvard in 1862. In 1865 he began to contribute reviews and short stories to American journals. In 1875, after two prior visits to Europe, he settled for a year in Paris, where he met Flaubert, Turgenev and other literary figures. However, the next year he moved to London, where he became so popular in society that in the winter of 1878-9 he confessed to accepting 107 invitations. In 1898 he left London and went to live at Lamb House, Rye, Sussex. Henry James became a naturalized citizen in 1915, was awarded the Order of Merit and died in 1916.

In addition to many short stories, plays, books of criticism, autobiography and travel, he wrote some twenty novels, the first published being Roderick Hudson (1875). They include The Europeans, Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, The Princess Casamassima, The Tragic Muse, The Spoils of Poynton, The Awkward Age, The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl.

Product Description

About the Author

Henry James (1843-1916) was born in New York and settled in Europe in 1875. He was a regular contributor of reviews, critical essays, and short stories to American periodicals. He is best known for his many novels of American and European character.

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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Was Not Enjoyable 6 Dec 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
So far this is the first book of James' that I have absolutely come to loath. Often grouped with 'The Bostonians' due to its political leanings this isn't really that enjoyable. There is some good characterisation here but the whole story seems to meander on for way too long, indeed James was originally tasked with writing a short story, but he ended up producing a novel, rather like Balzac, sometimes he gets carried away a bit too much.

This book it has to be admitted has always been enjoyed more Stateside than it has in this country, but it has always divided reviewers on its merits and failings. The story of an illegitimate boy brought up by a relative stranger from an early age because his mother is in prison would seem like a good starting point. But alas when the radical politics start getting involved and our 'hero' having to decide whether to go ahead with a terrorist attack or do something else then tragedy strikes. The problem here is that the whole story is dragged out and it is oh so easy to lose interest, also James isn't really that up on what he is writing about, for instance compare this to the brilliant The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (Penguin Popular Classics).

All in all I was left disappointed, and if you have never read any James before,then DO NOT start with this book. Despite its many faults though there is a good sense of our main character feeling and being isolated and a loner throughout the story.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Untypical James 16 Mar 2010
This is probably the most untypical novel Henry James wrote. His sure footing when dealing with the leasurely wealthy, slips here. The characters simply do not convince and James appears almost patronising towards them. His hero has the most annoying and inappropriate name - "Hyacinth."
I suppose James should be commended for reaching outside his normal milieu, but "The Master" is not on form here. A clumsy long-winded apprentice has taken his place.
The is one for the completists only. For anyone new to Henry James try "The Portrait of a Lady," "The American", "Daisy Miller" or "The Europeans"- all great, accomplished books.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Taming His Inner Anarchist 10 Jan 2006
By Arch Llewellyn - Published on
The Princess Casamassima is fascinating for the way it takes James out of his comfort zone to depict the social world of workingmen, dressmakers, shopgirls, pub goers and (most improbably) underground revolutionaries in late Victorian London. I've heard the novel criticized for James's knee-knocking in confronting the 'social question': uneasy about the inequality it was built upon, his privileged world glittered too brightly for James to ever really denounce it.

But in the person of his "little bookbinder" Hyacinth Robinson, he gives it a valiant try, along the way bringing a lot more complexity--if not much documentary accuracy--to social problems than you get in many other writers, then or now, who take on the disadvantaged as their subject. No book's made me understand the British class system more sharply than this one. James's subtle eye reminds you how much was said by the cut of a glove, the smoothness of a hand, or the slight drop of an 'h' in England c. 1885. He's also sensitive to the way charity can be an expression of power (especially to those on the receiving end) and how mixed the motives can be when well-meaning fortunates "take up" the cause of the poor. The idea of the poor itself gets complicated as James delves into the various shades separating bookbinders from theater fiddlers from chemical experts from impoverished but titled aristocrats.

I think James was picking a bone with himself in this novel, since the same question--whether equality (what we'd probably call "social justice" today) should be achieved at the expense of the beauty and grace wealth provides--comes up over and over again. Kind of like the school busing question writ large. I think the frustrating thing about the novel is that James didn't know how to answer, so just kept writing new scenes. In the end, he falls back on the "religion of friendship" I think he calls it somewhere, a determination to see people, whatever their station, as individuals first and put their personalities above abstract theories. But he's also sharp enough to realize the personalities he likes most are the exceptional ones with intelligence and taste, not the "average" that reigns when everybody's equal. It's a muddle, but one that James tackled with his usual love for detail and appreciation for the complexities of human relationships. After the first few chapters, I had trouble putting it down.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unusual Political Novel 16 Sep 2000
By Jim McKenna - Published on
This is James's only overtly political novel. Before reading I wondered how a man of his background could write about working class political conspirators. He does so by making his protagonist an exquisitely sensitive young bookbinder who becomes involved in a political movement he only dimly comprehends. The bookbinder, Hyacinth, is befriended by the Princess Casamissima, a charming, completely self-absorbed young beauty who is trying to find herself in radical political activity. The plot is, therefore, more of a fairy tale than a realistic portait of "typical" working class revolutionaries, but on its own terms it is plausible enough. The style is leisurely and fairly complex, but not nearly as convoluted as James's last works.
The great value of this book lies in its nuanced characterizations. All of the characters are wholly rounded and believable, and while they are all flawed in some way, not one of them is wholly unsympathetic. The Princess is the most interesting of all; through her James shows how bored, unsatisfied aristocrats can dabble in radical politics with disasterous results. He does so, however, without reducing her to a caricature.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Revolutionaries? Henry James? You gotta be kidding! 22 April 2009
By Giordano Bruno - Published on
Class conflict, in smudgy smug old London where only glimmers of social turmoil waft across the Channel from France and Germany, is ostentatiously the framework though perhaps not tout á fait sub sigillo the subject of this odd early novel by Henry (America's finest French novelist) James. It all begins in the drab and dingy parlor of a dressmaker's shop in a squalid alley of sub-hygienic London, a scene seemingly transliterated from Dickens's 'Hard Times' or Mrs. Gaskell's 'North and South.' The characters - Pinnie the dressmaker, Mrs. Bowerbank the women's prison warden, old Vetch the theater pit fiddler - are prime Dickens, nay, better than prime Dickens in their plausible caricature. Have no fear, however! Such picturesque ale-and kidney-pie descriptiveness lasts only a few chapters before the narrative sublimates into James's usual cirro-stratus ambiguity and indirection. From that point on, if you choose to treat "The Princess Casamassima" as a mystery novel (and that is as apt a way to treat it as any I could recommend), you'll find it delightfully challenging to formulate any expectations of an outcome or, indeed, to maintain any modest supposition that you grasp what the devil it's really all about.

Henry James knew as much, first hand, about the lower classes as I know about camel-breeding. What did Henry James know about, except himself? The man was an exile from normal life as well as from America, a hermetic psychological hermit who dined in and on society 180 days a year. He must have been extraordinarily adept at absorbing impressions from casual conversation. Above all, he was at leisure, and his working-class characters in this novel seem implausible only in their leisurely traversal of time and space. James requires leisure of his readers also. This is a long, diffuse, leisurely novel, and an extremely entertaining one, once you acknowledge its demands: a comfortable armchair, an expanse of idleness, a tolerance for vagaries and syntactical meanderings. There's very little in it that will match the worldview of a 21st Century reader, but then I doubt many readers of 1886 failed to discover that Mr. James was an odd duck. Only when you grasp that unique oddness, when you acknowledge how every item of The Princess Casamassima is cast in an interior fantasy, a kind of science fiction of the sentiments, will you begin to appreciate what a masterpiece this novel is! But you'll need to be as leisurely as the author.

The focal character, Hyacinth Robinson, is essentially a 'changeling' in the long European tradition of literary fairy princes. He's the son of a French prostitute and an English lord whom his mother murdered. Raised in abject poverty and lacking any opportunities for 'improvement', he nonetheless has exquisite finesse, an intrinsic gentility, a keen intelligence. One assumes, on literary precedent, that in the end he will come into his own and get his princess. That was surely what James expected us to assume, n'est pas? and the sly subversion of those assumptions will be part of the fun. The Princess, whose title and whose support come from her estranged Italian husband, can't fail to remind us of fairy tale prototypes also -- ineffably beautiful and ethereal, perversely willful, fond of posing riddles, as it were, of which her own motivation is the deepest riddle of all. And there's the buxom "daughter of the city" - Millicent - whom James portrays with a certain air of hankering after such a one. Do NOT, however, expect the minorest mention of explicit sexuality in James, even when the entire tissue of emotional probability depends on it! Biographers have speculated ad nauseam about James's sexual identity; the consensus seems to be that he had none, and yet Hyacinth's attentions to his Princess and his childhood playmate Millicent are redolent with concupiscence.

It's interesting to compare this novel about 'revolutionaries' with the two novels by Joseph Conrad about the same milieu, "The Secret Agent" and "Under Western Eyes." James had a significant influence on Conrad. People who find one hard to read, usually because of discomfort with elaborate syntax, generally resist the other as well. Conrad was closer to events, far more a man of the whole world, a far more prophetic writer, and his conclusions were far less reactionary, but James was unmatched in his penetration into the human psyche, even when the only psyche he probed was his own. My advice? Don't deprive yourself of either Conrad or James! Find that armchair and let the language flow!
8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Jamesian Curiosity, overlong but beautifully written 29 Aug 2005
By Lexington Green - Published on
I liked this book, but I notice that all the critics seem to hate it. It did take me more than a year of picking at it on and off. I picked it up because Walter Laqueur referred to it in one of his books about terrorism. Written in 1886, it suggests that there is a pan-European anarchist underground, which the protagonist gets mixed up with. It is interesting in its depiction of liberal guilt among the wealthy, who support a political movement that would lead to their own extinction. The prose is wonderful, as is the depiction of the subtleties of the characters' personalities, if you have the taste for that sort of thing. All in all, it was worth reading and it passed the most important test for a novel: I finished it with regret. I had previously read and liked Portrait of a Lady, which is a superior novel. As much as I liked it, I would have to say do not start with Princess as an introduction to James. Incidentally, I have a theory about the omniscient narrator in James' books being a malign demiurge, but I will spare you that theorizing here.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Return of the man-eater 7 Dec 2011
By H. Schneider - Published on
This novel from James' middle period in the 1880s is no yellow press report on the state of the nobility. The title might suggest a visit to European princes, but it is rather misleading, as James descends into working class and political environments. He lets us observe some simple people. He visits people of the revolutionary ilk and sees an abundant supply of conviction and prophecy -- but he doesn't let us share the abundance. The man is outside his element.

The title heroine has crossed our path before, in one of the early novels. Her real name is Christina Light. In Roderick Hudson she was a beauty with a destructive effect on men, and the need for a good marriage. She married into the right to be called a princess. Now we meet her again in a story of political intrigue and terrorism. What has the good princess got to do with such horrors? She finds the rebels more interesting than her stupid boring prince. She is a social tourist. Her curiosity is obscene and qualifies her as an agent provocatrice. There is the usual sex-free sexual tension as well. A treasure trove for a shrink! We wonder about her. Is she destined to be an impresaria of world revolution? Or will she drop out as bored as she was with her husband? Or does she have the will to self-destruction, as could certainly be envisaged? The possibility that she might get caught and might be hanged seems rather appealing to her. Masochism?

James presents himself as a link between Dickens and Conrad. Some passages, like chapter 3 with the little boy's visit to his dying mother in jail, are straight out of Dickens. The terrorist intrigues and complications anticipate Conrad's Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes. The meetings of the political group in their smoke filled pub room are reminiscent of Zola's similar group in The Belly.
Some of the humor anticipates Woody Allen. Imagine that!

But it is still a James story: Hyacinth, the Hamletian hero (to kill or not to kill?), in his divided loyalty and indecision, is the focus. The man has committed himself to play the game, and when he loses conviction due to other attractions of life, he realizes: there is no way back, no emergency exit. He had joined the group of political sectarians from a need to belong, somewhere. He longed for a long time to be admitted to the secrets, the inner circle.. When he is there, he is not sure any more.
He has grown up with the dream that a place among the ruling class would be his proper due, while he realizes at the same time that his actual status is such that he would not marry any one who would marry him.
(I had not realized that this joke is from the 19th century. I learned it first from Woody Allen)

While the novel is entertaining in a Jamesian way, it is also irritating. Condescension is one thing. We feel that the patronizing voyeurism of the princess is rather shared by the master. He didn't really bother to look much into the poor classes.
Another weak point: the political and historical background is painted only vaguely. We have a reference to the Paris Commune, to the International, to socialism, to unemployment and poverty, to Darwin and Spencer (not to Marx though), but we have no exposure to ideology, no attempt at diving into the thoughts of the rebels.
No ideas enter HJ's mind, as somebody said.
The strength of the novel is in its central character Hyacinth and in his indecision.
As often with James, I would have wished the novel to be shorter. But then, isn't it better to spend more time than planned with James, even if not unflawed, than wasting it entirely?
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