January 05, 2005

Henry James, The Princess Casamassima

The Princess Casamassima

I have long thought the complaint that James is a snob one of the most tedious and inaccurate critiques one could level against him. My sole comfort now is knowing that most people making that complaint never actually read The Princess Casamassima, so did not actually have the basis for the complaint he offers up here. Not many people read Casamassima anymore, even a hard-core fan like me, and for good reason; as a work of social realism it is hopeless and as a novel of consciousness it is thoroughly unattractive.

Like Portrait of a Lady, this book is the story of a sensitive hero making a staggering error of perception and having to find a way to cope with the consequences. Unfortunately, Hyacinth Brown lacks the radiant good faith and charm that offset Isabel Archer's naivete; he is instead an insufferable prig, whether he is thinking of himself as a revolutionary with a romantic dark secret or as the devotee of culture and the old order he slowly becomes. Furthermore, most of his ideological development, like Isabel's marriage to Gilbert Osmond, occurs off-stage--problematic enough in the latter case, where the choice to marry itself is not so important as its consequence, but here practically fatal. If watching his mind develop is to be our reward for our investment in such an unpleasant hero, then we are badly cheated to have such a serious transformation palmed off on us sight unseen. Indeed, by the end of the novel, Hyacinth is quite distant from the reader, and we are made to feel less and less that he is even of interest as a protagonist. His fate is perhaps somewhat logical, but emotionally abrupt.

It is not perhaps so difficult to understand why James felt impelled to try to merge his more typical celebration of a single subjectivity with a novel of social realism, but the attempt does not play to his strong suits. He is not a keen observer out of his own social sphere, and although he at least had the sense to make his characters largely at least one degree above true poverty, one winces to read his description of aristocrat and petty craftsman alike (indeed, they intensify each other's ridiculousness in contrast). Neither is he a master of physical description in itself: in his books, his houses and landscapes and cities are generally transmuted into impression and reaction before they even reach the reader. This is usually serviceable or better when a novel is intensely focused on the individual sensations of the protagonist, but it lends a dreamy and abstract air to this novel, which has additional aspirations and should be sharp and precise and detail-rich. His politics are laughable, and as for his aesthetics...His concerns are somewhat outdated, in the way that many of his works revolve around concerns and dichotomies that no longer compel the modern mind, but if he had taken seriously many of the questions raised in this book, it would have been fatal to his own artistic endeavors. Since he continued to write after this, and indeed retreated even further up the socioeconomic and subjective scale, the novel gives the overall impression that he is simply playing with poverty for aesthetic effect or trying to work off some vague sense of guilt. Neither of them cover him with credit.

I would not go so far as to say that this is for James completists (i.e., twenty-five grad students) only. James's prose style always gives one something to play with, and some of the minor characters are effective. However, this book is hard to take, and perhaps even more so for the admirer than for the indifferent. It's painful to see an old friend blunder about so.

Posted by Sarah T. at January 5, 2005 05:13 AM | TrackBack
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