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The Princess Casamassima by Henry James

This novel is unique among James's fiction in having a major character who appeared in an earlier work: Christina Light, the mademoiselle fatale of Roderick Hudson (1875), was married off by her mother at the end of that novel to the Italian Prince Casamassima. Now, in a novel bearing her name as its title, we discover her some ten years or so later, estranged from the Prince, living in London and taking an interest in the condition of the destitute poor. However, despite her brightness as 'perhaps the most remarkable women in Europe' and her name on the title page, the book actually has as its truly central character a hero, or anti-hero, Hyacinth Robinson. Like Christina, Hyacinth seems to have a troubled relationship with the idea of 'aristocracy'; a relationship which may ultimately prove fatal.

It wasn't originally my intention to spend time producing an electronic edition of The Princess Casamassima, which is one of the longest of Henry James's novels and which didn't make an immediate impression when I first read it some fifteen years ago. However, no one else seemed to be taking on the challenge and, until the recent disappearance of the etext of The outcry (1911, adapted from a play), it was the only novel by James not available on the web, so, when a copy of the first edition came on the market at a reasonable price (it was not in its original binding!), I paid up and started work. And I'm very pleased that I did, since in working carefully through the text twice and following up the many factual references in the text (to provide the requisite notes in my edition), I've come to appreciate the many subtleties in James's treatment of themes in his 'social realist' novel. Working partly in the tradition of Dickens but more in the French one of Balzac and Zola, although within constraints imposed by English prudery of course, James has dissected not so much the revolutionaries based in London in the early 1880s but that tension between economic and ęsthetic approaches to life, which is still, or perhaps even more, in play today.

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 No. 374
 Posted on 9 June, 2006
 
 
 
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