Some Penguin Classics are a bit guilt-inducing, even with the best of intentions. Surely there’s no author in the last century who induces guilt quite so readily – if unintentionally – as Henry James? We sense at once how formidable he is, but we cannot love him as we know he wants us to, and we feel guilty about that. Plus, his novels don’t tend to be idle strolls in the park – not only are they full-blown college lectures, but they’re lectures at which you have to wear a tie.

This is true for everything the torturous old windbag wrote, but surely it reaches its peak in his strangest, weirdest, and least successful major novel, The Princess Casamassima? Here is the Henry James guilt-trip doubled, tripled, and squared: a massive political novel from a mandarin social observer who was seen to pale visibly whenever politics came up as a topic at a country house dinner. If Henry James had lived in the era of Youtube and decided to make a rap-video, the result couldn’t be any more awkward than this.

And yet, as I’m gradually, belatedly coming to realize, there’s a softly shining charm woven through everything James wrote – even this ungainly behemoth of a book.

The plot is pure mechanics: young Hyacinth Robinson is brought up by a poor-but-honest seamstress after his mother kills his nobleman father (just in case you were afraid James would take us all the way into Dickens territory with no trail ‘of bread-crumbs back). He’s a good boy, a hard worker, and he’s entered on the book-binding trade when he falls into bad company (worse company, that is, even than the bookish trade): political radicals who lead him on with heady talk of valorous actions against social oppressors. Hyacinth makes a vow to assassinate one such figure (he’s not picky about which one) when suddenly the plot intervenes and he’s befriended by the title character. The Princess sees only the good in Hyacinth and invites him to her manor for an evening.

Predictably, it has the Brideshead effect: Hyacinth becomes aware, has his awareness opened to the broader spectrum of life (including the fact that actual fallible three-dimensional people inhabit all those spectra), and he stops wanting to be a fire-breathing political radical. Because James himself was easily and instantly intoxicated by the world Princess Casamassima represents (so much so that he abandoned his own country when that world but merely beckoned)(but I’m gradually coming to like the man’s books very much, so that’s the last word you’ll hear from me on that touchy subject), he portrays Hyacinth’s seduction as something that happens quite literally overnight. Here’s the transforming moment, and because this is Henry James, it’s eighteen friggin pages long:

The night before, at ten o’clock, when he arrived, he had only got the impression of a mile-long stretch of park, after turning in at a gate; of the cracking of gravel under the wheels of the fly; and of the glow of several windows, suggesting in-door cheer, in a façade that lifted a variety of vague pinnacles into the starlight. It was much of a relief to him then to be informed that the Princess, in consideration of the lateness of the hour, begged to be excused till the morrow; the delay would give him time to recover his balance and look about him. This latter opportunity was offered him first as he sat at supper in a vast dining-room, with the butler, whose acquaintance he had made in South Street, behind his chair. He had not exactly wondered how he should be treated: there was too much vagueness in his conception of the way in which, at a country-house, invidious distinctions might be made and shades of importance illustrated; but it was plain that the best had been offered him. He was, at all events, abundantly content with his reception and more and more excited by it. The repast was delicate (though his other senses were so awake that hunger dropped out and he ate, as it were, without eating), and the grave mechanical servant filled his glass with a liquor that reminded him of some lines in Keats –in the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. He wondered whether he should hear a nightingale at Medley (he knew nothing about the seasons of this vocalist), and also whether the butler would attempt to talk to him, had ideas about him, knew or suspected who he was and what; which, after all, there was no reason for his doing, unless it might be the poverty of the luggage that had been transported from Lomax Place. Mr. Withers, however (it was in this manner that Hyacinth heard him addressed by the cabman who conveyed the visitor from the station), gave no further symptom of sociability than to ask him at what time he would be called in the morning; to which our young man replied that he preferred not to be called at all – he would get up by himself. The butler rejoined, ‘Very good, sir’ while Hyacinth thought it probable that he puzzled him a good deal, and even considered the question of giving him a glimpse of his identity, lest it should be revealed, later, in a manner less graceful. The object of this anticipatory step, in Hyacinth’s mind, was that he should not be oppressed and embarrassed with attentions to which he was unused; but the idea came to nothing, for the simple reason that before he spoke he found that he already was inured to being waited upon. His impulse to deprecate attentions departed, and he became conscious that there were none he should care to miss, or was not quite prepared for. He knew he probably thanked Mr. Withers too much, but he couldn’t help this – it was an irrepressible tendency and an error he should doubtless always commit.

“Is it really true,” the Princess asks him later in the book, animated by her customary wide-eyed and non-judgemental nature, “that you have never seen a park, nor a garden, nor any of the beauties of nature, and that sort of thing?”

That sort of thing. Hee. Yes, Hyacinth informs her, it’s really true: he was raised by a seamstress in Lomax Place. The Princess is delighted, not disdainful: she’s never had a chance to show anything real to somebody before, and she’s always wanted to.

And there you see the book this might have been, poking at the fraying seams of the book it is: if you go through The Princess Casamassima with a black pen and strike out all the political content – for which James was almost ridiculously ill-suited – there remains  a quite lovely story of two alien worlds finding each other, being gifted by each other. Of course you’d have to change the clunky, tragic ending of the present story, but vast heaps of James’ trademark baroque verbiage could remain untouched.

As it is, we have the vast, haltingly ambitious Nonesuch that is The Princess Casamassima. In the gorgeous Penguin Classic edition (adorned by Sargent’s quite thrilling portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, which shows that the Penguin Classic art department cannot be surpassed in its quiet knowledge of what it’s about; in real life, the sitter was as perfect an illustration of the meeting of those two worlds as you were ever likely to find), the huge editorial chores are undertaken by Derek Brewer, and the extensive, invaluable notes are by Patricia Crick. As is so often the case, the Penguin version of this work is so much better in every way than any other version (precious few other versions, in this case) that the comparisons aren’t worth making.

No, if you’re in the mood for Henry James at his most fallible – if you find yourself less intimidated and more charmed by a work of genius that’s nevertheless a failure as a novel (this is certainly how it worked on me, to the betterment of my understanding of all James’ books, eventually), the Penguin Classic of The Princess Casamassima is the book for you.  Everything James wrote gives the impression of those vague pinnacles rising into the night at Medley, but at least this book has foundations of clay, to aid the overawed visitor.

  • Mike

    I’d never heard of this novel. Thanks. Gore Vidal was always quite high on James’ output as a reviewer and critic, but I can’t recall his opinion of James as a novelist. I’ve been quite taken recently with Wm James’ chapters in Principles of Psychology and his letters.

    What’s your method when reading these books for review? Do you make notes or use Post-its or something? (Sorry for the nosy question–it’s the procrastinating student in me.)

  • steve donoghue

    I don’t mind the question at all! But I don’t really know how to answer the question, either – the books I pick for Stevereads are entirely more personal and unplanned than the ones I review for Open Letters. There, I feel like I owe it to readers to have all my rhetorical ducks in a row, so to speak. Here, I mostly just zero in on one or two aspects of a book that stick in my memory and one or two points I feel like making. So: no post-it notes …. usually I’m working from old pencil-marginalia of mine from the last time I read the book!

    And it’s important to keep in mind that William was by far the smarter James brother – steeping yourself in the crystalline intelligence of his work will only set you up for disappointment when reading Henry!

  • Carl Skoggard

    Dear Steve,

    Would you be able to tell me whether the Penguin version of “Princess Cassamassima” is based on the 1886 novel or on the rewritten version that HJ prepared for the “New York Edition” of his collected works, some 20 years later? I would prefer to read the earlier version, but am having trouble figuring out whether Penguin opted for that or for the later one.

    Thanks so much for any help,


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