Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Princess Casamassima by Henry James


Princess Casamassima by Henry James
First published in Atlantic Monthly in 1885-86.

How I got this book:
Downloaded from ForgottenBooks

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


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.

Princess Casamassima is a six hundred page novel which felt to me more like a thousand page book. It took me well over a week to read it! I loved how James takes his readers into the London of weak-willed bookbinder Hyacinth Robinson. His descriptions of houses and streets, and his wonderfully nuanced characters kept me reading and interested to the end, but he is not a concise author by any stretch - I frequently found myself willing him to 'get on with it'! We must have been told of Hyacinth's dubious parentage two dozen times and word-for-word reported conversations are never to the point.

From a brief synopsis, Princess Casamassima could be classed as a thriller. Our young hero Hyacinth joins a shadowy group dedicated to class revolution in England. He undertakes to perform a shocking act on their behalf, possibly even a murder, however James is so vague about the group, their real aims, the act assigned to Hyacinth, and whether Hyacinth really cares at all, that any tension evaporates as fast as it is created. Instead, we spend our time drinking copious cups of tea with a disparate cast: a dressmaker and a shop girl, a music hall violinist and a bedridden girl, an Italian princess and an exiled French revolutionary, a philanthropic Lady and a chemist's assistant. The minutiae of their interactions is as fascinating as it is infuriating which makes for a very strange novel.

Based on my experience of Princess Casamassima I probably won't rush to read James again any time soon, but wouldn't rule his other novels out completely in the future - providing I can set aside enough time!

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8 comments:

  1. oh wow! see? This is why I think you are a great blogger! I admired that you read 600 pages that felts like 1000! Thank god you read so much! :)

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    1. Staying with the same book for more than three days is serious endurance reading for me!

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  2. I’ve read Daisy Miller. It’s more of a short story at 125 pages. I have to seriously consider when the book is 600 pages! I find the classics hard to read at times. Many had no idea what places looked like and the author would go into great detail for their benefit. Thanks for reading the tome and writing the review! ❤️❤️

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    1. I would probably appreciate Daisy Miller more! Every time I read verbose Victorians I promise myself never again, but then I spot references to their work in contemporary novels and have to fill in my knowledge gaps

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  3. 600 pages of vagueness in plot. Yikes!

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    1. Indeed! It's all about the characters - and the tea parties :-)

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  4. Ah, but dubious parentage in the 1880s would have had *huuuuuge* middle-class shock value!

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