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!