This is a strange one for James, in that it’s about the poor side of London and reads more like Dickens than the author of The Portrait of a Lady. In fact, Lionel Trilling classifies it as a “young man from the provinces” novel, which is also the plot of Great Expectations. The Princess Casamassima is about Hyacinth Robinson, a poor kid whose French mother murdered his aristocratic father, and he was raised by a dressmaker. As an adult, he works as a bookbinder and catches the attention of the Princess Casamassima, who is Christina Light from Roderick Hudson. He also stumbles into a group of would-be revolutionaries who are plotting an uprising for the working man. Hyacinth is torn by the competing worldviews — the aristocracy versus the workers, or manners versus revolution. The princess herself is interested in him out of boredom, so he becomes something of a science project for her, which he comes to realize his folly at the end, which I won’t spoil.
I wasn’t really in the mood for this type of novel. I wanted to like it, because it seemed to mesh with social novels of Dickens, or the Naturalists, or those political paranoiacs Dostoevsky and Conrad. But it fell flat for me. Now might be an appropriate time, in my summer of reading James, to discuss his so-called “middle phase.” Novels of his early phase seem to be exercises in perspective. The plots are essentially the same — a person living in folly comes to an unfortunate understanding — and this plot is carried into his middle phase — roughly Portrait through The Tragic Muse. About The Bostonians, I commented that James’s true strength lies in his ability to portray human psychology, particularly manipulations or emotional abuse. My qualm with his middle novels is that he’s also trying to do something more, to portray society in the spirit of Balzac (whom I’ve not read). The Bostonians is a study of reform and The Princess Casamassima is a study of revolution, and James portrays both impulses of societal change as exercises in human folly.
Maybe he’s right, but in his method I’m not sure he really dives into the hysteria or the depravity of those impulses, the way Dostoevsky and even Conrad do. I feel like Dostoevsky knows he’s a sinner when he writes about humans in need of grace. Maybe Dostoevsky understands people don’t change, but he’s empathetic to the worst. James holds the revolutionaries at arm’s length. He treats Hyacinth with empathy, but Hyacinth is naive and impressionable — “bewildered,” to use James’s term in his preface to the novel. Maybe, once again, it’s a challenge of perspective, because we’re in the bewildered character’s state of mind, and he’s immersed in this whole other world James wants to show us, but that other world, to me, isn’t what James does best. I might revisit the novel at some point, when I’m not mulling so heavily over perspective and consciousness, and more in the mood for a Dickensian social novel.
I’ve got The Tragic Muse on the shelf, but I’m not sure I can do another one of these 600-page social novels right now. Stay tuned.