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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

III. The Novelist

The Princess Casamassima (1886). Art and Politics

Texte intégral

  • 1 Walter Pater, The Renaissance (London, 1961), pp. 223-224.

Well, we are all condamnés, as Victor Hugo says: we are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve—les hommes sont tous condamnés à mort avec des sursis indéfinis: we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among “the children of this world,” in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, esctasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion—that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.1

  • 2 The Art of the Novel, p. 59.
  • 3 Ibid., p. 60.
  • 4 Ibid., p. 59.

1The Princess Casamassima, James tells us in the preface, proceeded directly “from the habit and the interest of walking the street,”2 and its hero, Hyacinth Robinson, “sprang up… out of the London pavement.”3 The importance of the “great grey Babylon”4 as a setting and the social preoccupation that struck readers and critics as a new experiment in James’s work, account for the little attention generally paid to the two chapters out of the forty-seven that do take place outside England. Yet, the key to the intricate web of meaning contained in the novel is given us in the few pages in which James takes his hero abroad. They epitomize the whole significance of the book and throw light on the particular meaning James gives to Paris in his work.

  • 5 The Princess Casamassima, p. 283. The quotations are form the Harper Torchbooks edition (1959) whi (...)
  • 6 Ibid., p. 247.

2The first two books of The Princess Casamassima ate set in London and the diversity of persons and places makes for a social density and an almost Balzacian solidity. In spite of his refined sensibility Hyacinth Robinson, the little Soho bookbinder, is condemned, as the Princess puts it, “to look at the good things of life only through the glass of the pastry-cook’s window.”5 Before putting the cup of experience to his lips he has engaged in a revolutionary movement and accepted to sacrifice his life for a political cause. The third book opens at Medley, the beautiful country-house hired for three months by the Princess. There “little Hyacinth” opens his eyes to a new world “waiting with the dew on it under his window,”6 and there the cup of experience is put to his lips for the first time:

  • 7 Ibid., p. 271.

The cup of an exquisite experience—a week in that enchanted palace, a week of such immunity from Lomax Place and old Crook as he had never dreamed of—was at his lips; it was purple with the wine of romance, of reality, of civilisation, and he couldn’t push it aside without drinking. He might go home ashamed, but he would have for evermore in his mouth the taste of nectar.7

3This will indeed prove true. After this first contact with beauty and luxury his vision is changed and, having now new terms of comparison, he can hardly bear the sight of Lomax Place and of all the familiar objects:

  • 8 Ibid., p. 302.

He had known the scene for hideous and sordid, but its aspect to-day was pitiful to the verge of the sickening; he couldn’t believe that for years he had accepted and even a little revered it. He was frightened at the sort of service his experience of grandeur had rendered him.8

4Like the Princess herself we may even wonder whether little Hyacinth would have given his life away if he had tasted such experience before. When he took his vow, he had very little to lose but after his stay at Medley he begins to feel how precious life can be. Yet he does not really know how much until he has seen Paris. On his return from the country the young man finds Pinnie on her deathbed. He is told that she has left him a little sum of money and that, before dying, she expressed the wish that Hyacinth should use it to go to Paris. Book Fourth opens on the Boulevard, where the “pearly silvery light” is a vague reminiscence of the dew on the Princess’s garden. Indeed, Hyacinth’s experience at Medley was only a first step in a process of demoralization that would be completed in Paris and Venice. The many words that convey an impression of light in the opening lines of this chapter at once show that James intends to take up, in a more condensed and concrete way, the ideas already contained in the preceding book:

  • 9 Ibid., p. 318. My italics.

The Boulevard was all alive, brilliant with illuminations, with the variety and gaiety of the crowd, the dazzle of shops and cafés seen through uncovered fronts or immense lucid plates, the flamboyant porches of theatres and the flashing lamps of carriages, the far-spreading murmur of talkers and strollers, the uproar of pleasure and prosperity, the general magnificence of Paris on a perfect evening in June.9

5The light of experience which had begun to dazzle him at Medley— the Princess’s name, we remember, is Light—is still more dazzling in Paris.

  • 10 Ibid., p. 280.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 318.

6The short time left him before his death is emphasized by the very short space his Parisian experience occupies in the book. There is an extraordinary density in these pages, while the little bookbinder endeavours to extract the last drop of what life still has to offer him. When he walked with the Princess at Medley the “tenuity of the thread by which his future hung “had already made the young man reflect that” anything in the line of enjoyment, any scrap filched from the feast of life, was so much gained for eager young experience.”10 Indeed he drinks as hard as he can from the cup of experience, here given concrete form in the expensive marquise (a pineapple ice in a glass of champagne) he orders on Tortoni’s terrace. He has settled there after having walked almost for a week without stopping. He wants to sit down now, not because he is tired and needs a rest but rather because, assailed as he is by a thousand impressions, he is conscious of “becoming incoherent to himself and of the need of balancing his accounts.”11 He wants to enjoy the moment and to extend it to its utmost limits. Unlike the Dossons, who could sit for hours on the Boulevard without being aware of all the solicitations of life around them, little Hyacinth almost succumbs to their weight. The numberless associations provided by the atmosphere of the great city quicken his sense of life, dazzle his mind, enlarge his consciousness:

  • 12 Ibid., p. 319.

He knew about Tortoni’s from his study of the French novel, and as he sat there he had a vague sense of fraternising with Balzac and Alfred de Musset: there were echoes and reminiscences of their works in the air, all confounded with the indefinable exhalations, the strange composite odour, half agreeable, half impure, of the Boulevard.12

  • 13 A parallel between The Princess and Les Illusions Perdues has been drawn by Ivo Vidan in “The Prin (...)
  • 14 James himself may have succumbed to his hero’s hunger for associations and he may have thought of (...)

7In fact little Hyacinth fraternizes with Lucien de Rubempré and with Lorenzaccio, whose fates resemble his own in so many respects. Like the Soho bookbinder, the hero of Les Illusions Perdues had begun by learning the printing trade, then fell under the ominous influence of his “princess,” Madame de Bargeton, and of the great capital that was to destroy him and ultimately to lead him to commit suicide. Like Hyacinth Robinson, Musset’s Florentine hero had engaged to kill a duke but found he no longer believed in the cause.13 The past merges into the fleeting present, and Hyacinth recognizes himself not only in the heroes of the past but in his own French grandfather, to whom he now feels linked by the strongest ties. This ancestor, a watchmaker by profession,14 had also been a revolutionary and is now constantly at his side to remind him of the hour and of the tenuity of the thread of life:

  • 15 The Princess Casamassima, p. 320.

He knew the lad’s secret without being told and looked at him across the diminutive tablecloth… gazed at him with eyes of deep, kind, glowing comprehension and with lips which seemed to murmur that when one was to die to-morrow one must eat and drink, one must gratify all one’s poor senses all one could to-day.15

  • 16 The Wings of the Dove, I, 223.

8Sentenced to death like Milly Theale and accompanied on his way by a grandfather who made watches—a further symbol of time and death—and who died on the barricades, little Hyacinth also becomes “devilishly subtle, subtle exactly in the manner of the suspected, the suspicious, the condemned.”16 He sees his own problem reverberated everywhere, and Paris itself finally resembles him, the son of a lord and of a plebian mother who once shed the blood of an aristocrat:

  • 17 The Princess Casamassima, p. 319.

He recognised, he greeted with a thousand palpitations, the seat of his maternal ancestors—was proud to be associated with so much of the superb, so many proofs of a civilisation that had no visible rough spots. He had his perplexities and even now and then a revulsion for which he had made no allowance, as when it came over him that the most brilliant city in the world was also the most blood-stained; but the great sense that he understood and sympathised was preponderant, and his comprehension gave him wings— appeared to transport him to still wider fields of knowledge, still higher sensations.17

9The streets of Paris are swarming with associations, and these sharpen his perception of things. His sensibility, which had so long remained asleep, not only for want of money and leisure but also for want of light, is now given the maximum opportunity for development and expansion. He feels that he has lived more intensely since his arrival than in all the years spent in darkness on the other side of the Channel:

  • 18 Ibid., p. 321.

All Paris struck him as tremendously artistic and decorative; he felt as if hitherto he had lived in a dusky, frowsy, Philistine world, a world in which the taste was the taste of Little Peddlington and the idea of beautiful arrangement had never had an influence. In his ancestral city it had been active from the first, and that was why his quick sensibility responded and why he murmured his constant refrain whenever the fairness of the great monuments arrested him in the pearly silvery light or he saw them take grey-blue, delicate tones at the end of stately vistas. It seemed to him the place expressed herself, and did it in the grand style, while London remained vague and blurred, inarticulate, blunt and dim. Splendid Paris, charming Paris indeed!18

  • 19 Ibid., p. 321.

10The change from vagueness to arrangement, from formlessness to composition is reflected in the conciseness of the style and in the concrete symbols (light, “marquise,” watchmaker, guillotine) of these two chapters which take up in a few pages all the ideas contained in the first two books. The thought of his imminent death does not make Hyacinth more concentrated, however, but more relaxed: he wants to capture the fleeting instant and to feel every pulsation of his heart multiplied by his epicurean enjoyment of the moment. Unwilling to lose a single drop of the precious beverage, he does not use Eustache Poupin’s introduction cards to his revolutionary friends. What is uppermost in his mind now is no longer how the society that surrounds him should be destroyed but rather “the sense of the wonderful, precious things it had produced, of the fabric of beauty and power it had raised.”19 A revulsion has taken place in his mind, a transfer of sympathies. He has come to realize that what he wanted to destroy is precisely what holds him most to the world and what makes life so beautiful. Instead of feeling tired as the night advances Hyacinth feels more and more awake and excited:

  • 20 Ibid., p. 331.

The Boulevard became even more brilliant as the evening went on and Hyacinth wondered whether he had a right to occupy the same table for so many hours. The theatre on the other side discharged its multitude; the crowd thickened on the wide asphalt, on the terrace of the café; gentlemen accompanied by ladies of whom he knew already how to characterise the type—des femmes très chic— passed into the portals of Tortoni. The nightly emanation of Paris seemed to rise more richly, to float and hang in the air, to mingle with the universal light and the many-voiced sound, to resolve itself into a thousand solicitations and opportunities, addressed, however, mainly to those in whose pockets the chinck of a little loose gold might respond.20

11What little Hyacinth now realizes with painful intensity is that he has intelligence and sensibility enough to appreciate the finest gifts of life but that, at the same time, they are possible only in a world of wealth and leisure from which he is for ever excluded. Turning his back on the crowd he then decides to go home. He follows the Boulevard towards the Madeleine, passes down the Rue Royale and, leaving the human swarm behind, reaches a square that lies quiet and beautiful under the summer stars and whose historic character had made a deep impression on him from the day of his arrival. The whole passage that follows is significant because it brings us to the very heart of James’s meaning:

  • 21 Ibid., pp. 331-332.

The place itself—the Place Louis Quinze, the Place de la Révolution—had given him a sensible emotion from the day of his arrival; he had recognised so quickly its tremendous historic character. He had seen in a rapid vision the guillotine in the middle, on the site of the inscrutable obelisk, and the tumbrils, with waiting victims, were stationed round the circle now made majestic by the monuments of the cities of France. The great legend of the French Revolution, a sunrise out of a sea of blood, was more real to him here than anywhere else; and, strangely, what was most present was not its turpitude and horror, but its magnificent energy, the spirit of creation that had been in it, not the spirit of destruction. That shadow was effaced by the modern fairness of fountain and statue, the stately perspective and composition; and as he lingered before crossing the Seine a sudden sense overtook him, making his heart falter to anguish—a sense of everything that might hold one to the world, of the sweetness of not dying, the fascination of great cities, the charm of travel and discovery, the generosity of admiration.21

  • 22 In “The Function of Criticism” Matthew Arnold wrote: “In spite of the extravagant direction given (...)

12What the place evokes in Hyacinth’s mind is the French Revolution about which he first seems to take the same view as Matthew Arnold: he recognizes in it the spirit of creation, the “magnificent energy,” the sincere passion for the things of the mind that made it possible because it found its motive-power in the intelligence of men, not in their practical sense.22 But unlike Matthew Arnold, Hyacinth places himself out of history and out of time. History is change, as appears from the two successive names of the place and from the vanished guillotine, which had once been the centre of attraction on the square. The dead past only sets off an order of ideas that are universal and permanent. The shadow of the Revolution is indeed effaced by the “modern fairness of fountain and statue, the stately perspective and composition.” Politics is effaced by Art. This marks a turning point in Hyacinth’s consciousness. He now undergoes a conversion that had been prepared ever since his first meeting with the Princess. He realizes that he has offered to die for a false god and that he is ready to fight for the very things he first wanted to destroy. Comparing the guillotine, a symbol of death, of change, of transiency, with the fountains and statues, a symbol of art, of beauty, of permanence, he understands that what holds him to the world is what has made it beautiful and harmonious in spite of death, of suffering and of the clocked time of history. The young man has a last step to make in order to reach the very bottom of his heart. All his thoughts concentrate on his friend Paul Muniment, the cold, practical man of action who did not hesitate to sacrifice him to the political cause:

  • 23 The Princess Casamassima, p. 332.

The tears rose to his eyes as they had done more than once in the past six months, and a question, low but poignant, broke from his lips, to end in nothing. “How could he—how could he—?” It may be explained that “he” was a reference to Paul Muniment; for Hyacinth had dreamed of the religion of friendship.23

13This last sentence throws light on the difference between the two men. Hyacinth is a dreamer in love with ideas, like the philosophers who sowed the seeds out of which the French Revolution was to grow but who did not mind what would become of those ideas once they were put into practice. Unlike him, Paul Muniment is a man of action who begins where philosophy ends and who pays attention to things and people only when they can be grist to his mill. A friend is less important to him than a cause. He takes a practical and collective view of things, and his lack of passion enables him to sacrifice a friend without wincing when he is ordered to.

14Hyacinth’s long meditation and his pilgrimage to the bottom of his heart now come to an end. There is no going further and he must retrace his steps. He has evoked his revolutionary grandfather and his revolutionary friend only to realize how little his faith resembles theirs. What immediately follows the above quotation is a letter he writes from Venice to the Princess. He tells her that he now knows exactly where he stands and that he no longer believes in the cause to which he has pledged his life. He disagrees with Hoffendahl and his friends because their single-minded obsession with the destruction of the higher classes and with the—hypothetical—happiness of the poor also includes the sacrifice of greater values, just as Paul Muniment’s involvement in politics includes his sacrifice of friendship. What now supremely matters to the young man is the great achievements of which man has been capable throughout his history in spite of suffering:

  • 24 Ibid., p. 334.

The monuments and treasures of art, the great palaces and properties, the conquests of learning and taste, the general fabric of civilisation as we know it, based if you will upon all the despotisms, the cruelties, the exclusions, the monopolies and the rapacities of the past, but thanks to which, all the same, the world is less of a ’ bloody sell ’ and life more of a lark—our friend Hoffendahl seems to me to hold them too cheap and to wish to substitute for them something in which I can’t somehow believe as I do in things with which the yearnings and the tears of generations have been mixed.24

  • 25 Ibid., p. 335.

15He has come to loathe the idea of redistribution and sees in it nothing but social envy and jealousy, “the intolerance of positions and fortunes that are higher and brighter than one’s own.”25 Though he knows that he is poor and that he will never belong to the happy few who are able to enjoy the best gifts of civilization, he does not want to raise his hands against them and to die with “that odious stain” upon his soul. Poor little Hyacinth’s only fault is to have lived in darkness and not to have known at the start who he really was. When the light of Paris stimulates his mind and makes him discover his true self it is too late because he has already engaged in the wrong cause. In the preface James associates the names of Hamlet and King Lear with that of his obscure bookinder: like theirs his inner conflict is unresolvable.

16In the stories discussed so far James often takes his hero away from the stage where his little drama is being acted, and what happens “off stage” is extremely important for the understanding of the general meaning of the book. It is in front of the ruins of Fossy that Gabrielle de Bergerac and Coquelin become aware of their impossible love; it is in the country that Longmore understands his secret fear of life and decides, for once, to surmount it; it is in Paris, far from Lomax Place, that Hyacinth Robinson understands—too late—what he really is. In each case there is a concrete symbol that epitomizes the problem and reflects the hero’s inner conflict: the feudal castle whose beautiful proportions conceal a social system based on tyranny and iniquity, the young couple whose careless vitality makes the observer overlook the moral flaw in their union, the guillotine whose shadow is effaced by the achievements of art. There is an obvious similarity between the way James leads his hero to the centre of the book in The Princess Casamassima and the way he had led Longmore to the centre of the tale in Madame de Mauves. James comes closer and closer to his meaning by a succession of steps that finally concentrate on a concrete symbol containing them all. The succession Saint-Germain—country—inn—couple in Madame de Mauves is clearly repeated here in the succession London—Medley—Paris— Place de la Révolution—guillotine. What Hyacinth discovers at this central point is “the sweetness of not dying,” just as Longmore had arrived at the conviction that there is no better policy in life than to grasp unsparingly at happiness. This newly acquired awareness in the hero marks a turning point in his attitude to life: Longmore decides to waive the question of morality and to propose to Euphemia; Hyacinth Robinson no longer believes in the revolutionary cause, and the rest of the book is nothing but his struggle to reconcile incompatible values.

17Significantly, the pistol with which the little bookbinder shoots himself through the heart at the end of The Princess Casamassima can also be considered as the concrete symbol that marks the most important turning-point in James’s artistic sensibility. So far James had always paid attention to the social implications of art, especially in Gabrielle de Bergerac and in The American. He had wondered whether the price paid for art and manners in old civilizations was not too high. After The Princess Casamassima the artist definitely prevails over the democrat. Underneath the mutability and the transiency of politics, there is the everlasting continuity of art. In The Tragic Muse, written a few years later, the towers of Notre-Dame rise up in the air, as indifferent to their social or religious associations as a Greek temple. Paradoxically, James had to write a “social novel” to free himself of social preoccupations altogether.


1 Walter Pater, The Renaissance (London, 1961), pp. 223-224.

2 The Art of the Novel, p. 59.

3 Ibid., p. 60.

4 Ibid., p. 59.

5 The Princess Casamassima, p. 283. The quotations are form the Harper Torchbooks edition (1959) which follows the text of the New York Edition.

6 Ibid., p. 247.

7 Ibid., p. 271.

8 Ibid., p. 302.

9 Ibid., p. 318. My italics.

10 Ibid., p. 280.

11 Ibid., p. 318.

12 Ibid., p. 319.

13 A parallel between The Princess and Les Illusions Perdues has been drawn by Ivo Vidan in “The Princess Casamassima between Balzac and Conrad,” Studia Romanica et Anglica Zagrabiensia, 21-22(1966), 259-276. James had translated Lorenzaccio in his youth.

14 James himself may have succumbed to his hero’s hunger for associations and he may have thought of Beaumarchais, whose father also was a watchmaker and whose sister, like Florentine Vivier, had been seduced and abandoned by a nobleman.

15 The Princess Casamassima, p. 320.

16 The Wings of the Dove, I, 223.

17 The Princess Casamassima, p. 319.

18 Ibid., p. 321.

19 Ibid., p. 321.

20 Ibid., p. 331.

21 Ibid., pp. 331-332.

22 In “The Function of Criticism” Matthew Arnold wrote: “In spite of the extravagant direction given to this enthusiasm, in spite of the crimes and follies in which it lost itself, the French Revolution derives from the force, truth, and universality of the ideas which it took for its law and from the passion with which it could inspire a multitude for these ideas, a unique and still living power; it is—it will probably long remain—the greatest, the most animating event in history.” Lectures and Essays in Criticism, p. 265.

23 The Princess Casamassima, p. 332.

24 Ibid., p. 334.

25 Ibid., p. 335.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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