The Princess Casamassima by Henry JamesThe Princess Casamassima by Henry James

The Princess Casamassima

byHenry JamesIntroduction byDerek BrewerNotes byPatricia Crick

Paperback | June 2, 1987


Henry James conceived the character of Hyacinth Robinson—his 'little presumptuous adventurer with his combination of intrinsic fineness and fortuitous adversity'—while walking the streets of London. Brought up in poverty, Hyacinth has nevertheless developed aesthetic tastes that heighten his awareness of the sordid misery around him. He is drawn into the secret world of revolutionary politics and, in a moment of fervour, makes a vow that he will assassinate a major political figure. Soon after this he meets the beautiful Princess Casamassima. Captivated by her world of wealth and nobility, art and beauty, Hyacinth loses faith in radicalism, 'the beastly cause'. But tormented by his belief in honour, he must face an agonizing, and ultimately tragic, dilemma. The Princess Casamassima is one of James's most personal novels and yet one of the most socially engaged.

For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.
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.
Title:The Princess CasamassimaFormat:PaperbackDimensions:608 pages, 7.8 × 5.09 × 1.37 inPublished:June 2, 1987Publisher:Penguin Publishing Group

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:014043254x

ISBN - 13:9780140432541

Appropriate for ages: 18 - 18

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Rated 4 out of 5 by from Prescient Hyacinth Robinson, a young bookbinder and illegitimate son of a French mother who went to jail for murdering an English nobleman, purportedly his father, is torn between radical politics (aiding the downtrodden) and his love of beauty (art, ideas, books, the Princess Casamassima). Will revolutionary upheaval indiscriminately destroy the good with the bad ? Supporting characters, some radical, others not, are instrumental in shaping Hyacinth's dilemma. On one side is Pinnie, who raised him while eking out a living as a seamstress, and Anastasius Vetch, a fiddler, loyal companion to Pinnie and onetime radical, as well as a benevolent uncle figure. There is also the free spirited and working class Millicent, whose childhood friendship with Hyacinth, ups and downs notwithstanding, has weathered the test of time. The other side of the ideological divide includes the working class lads at the Sun and Moon pub, who are happy to nurse a few ales together, lament the woes of the world, and offer solutions. But they are all talk. And the beautiful and worldly Princess Casamassima, estranged from her husband, an Italian prince, presents as a bored dilettante seeking new and different experiences. Hence, her flirtation with revolutionary politics. By contrast, the idealistic and empathetic Lady Aurora is the consummate philanthropist. Virtuous to a fault, she is also timid and not one to assume leadership, which leaves a vacuum only too happily filled by abstract utopians, who tend to be disconnected from reality and seem unable (or unwilling ?) to respect people's individuality. Mr and Mrs Eustache Poupin, French expatriates, fall into this category, as does Paul Muniment, who is the most assertive of these three and the dominant radical in Hyacinth's immediate circle. Highly regarded by Lady Aurora, the Princess Casamassima, and Hyacinth, he is also devoted to his invalid sister, Rose. But he is so wedded to the utopian ideal that even friends are expendable pawns. Plus he is arrogant to the point of assuming he knows what is best for the poor and working classes without requiring their input. History teaches us that such personalities, upon attaining power, often resort to authoritarian or, worse, totalitarian means in pursuit of idealistic ends. Mass murder, serfdom, and destitution follow in their wake. How will an arrogant (and therefore flawed) soul, in conjunction with equally flawed like-minded, ever produce a heaven on earth ? Perhaps the final word goes to the always wise Mr Vetch, who long ago concluded that human imperfections ("passion, jealousies, superstitions, and stupidities") would remain with us in perpetuity, thus rendering utopia a logical impossibility. In essence then, frailties inherent within the human condition plus a comparison between loved ones/ friends and radicals ought to make Hyacinth's decision to accept or reject radical politics a no-brainer. On a final note, the author's 1886 critique of radical revolutionary movements is prescient, especially when accompanied by an astute reader's ability to read between the lines and unearth the potential consequences of these extremists' worldviews. Given twenty-twenty hindsight, we know the evils committed by them in the twentieth century and beyond.
Date published: 2016-06-30

From Our Editors

One of the cornerstones of the American literary canon, Henry James captured the subtle wiles of the human heart with great acuity. The characters in his novels are richly drawn and so true to life that James is often considered one of the greatest English-language writers of the 19th century. Of his novels, The Princess Casamassima was among the author's own favourites, and is now available in attractive edition from Penguin Classics.