By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
This fall, I’m teaching a course on the works of Henry James. The Princess Casamassima, his novel about revolutionaries in late-19th-century London, was not on the course’s reading list originally, but after the events on September 11, I not only found myself thinking about it constantly, but bumped The Bostonians for it in the hope that my students would find Casamassima as useful as I have.
England in the late 1800s was no stranger to agitating socialists and anarchists from the Continent, and Irish Fenians were setting off dynamite in crowded public places. Henry James moved to London in 1886, and The Princess Casamassima, he writes, came directly “from the habit and interest of walking the streets,” allowing the multitude of impressions to suggest their own meanings and revelations. The book’s hero, Hyacinth Robinson, James writes, “sprang up at me out of the London pavement.”
Hyacinth is a young man with a fine, sensitive nature who has grown up in a dismal corner of London in abject poverty. His parentage is a source of shame and conflict: His French plebeian mother murdered his corrupt, English-aristocrat father and was imprisoned for life. Although he is quick to learn, Hyacinth’s education and refinement have been limited by his resources; he becomes a tradesman, a fine bookbinder. At the bindery, he is mentored by an anarchic Frenchman, and through him Hyacinth meets the quietly fanatical, inscrutable, immensely charismatic revolutionary Paul Muniment. In his attempts and impulses to please these men, to distinguish himself, to be part of a greater cause, and to give vent to his own anger and envy, Hyacinth finds himself “in deep” in revolutionary schemes.
So deep does he go that he takes a vow to become an assassin, one who cannot expect to survive the act. The time and place of his sacrifice are to be announced, and for some time, he hears nothing. Ironically, after Hyacinth agrees to this mission, his life begins to open up.
Despite the century that has elapsed since its publication, The Princess Casamassima is filled with characters who today seem uncannily familiar. There are the rough-talking tradesmen who debate politics in a tavern, but take no action. There’s Hoffendahl, the underground political leader, a torture survivor with a reputedly vast, multifaceted scheme of terror in which Hyacinth is but a bit player. There are upper-class sympathizers, bleeding-heart liberals, and rebellious aristocrats such as Lady Aurora Langrish, who visits the poor and longs to marry the working-class fanatic Muniment. Above all, there’s the Princess Casamassima, beautiful and miserably married, who dabbles in revolutionary politics partly to find meaning in life and partly to torture her estranged husband, a stupid Italian prince.
Desiring to “know” a poor person, the princess invites Hyacinth first to her opera box and then to her grand house, where he is exposed to culture, beauty, calmness, servants, beautiful sheets — and takes to them all like a fish to water. Hyacinth, now knowing the finer accomplishments of humanity, falls in love with life for the first time. But this shift in ä his spirit comes too late and will not save him.
Reviewers at the time of the novel’s publication complained that James’ knowledge of politics and terrorism was imprecise, but James was not concerned with exact historical details. He was more attuned to the hidden drifts, the motives, the psychological currents in a society with vast, demoralizing divides among its citizens — which, to an American in England, must have seemed extreme — and he used his own imagination to fathom these dark corners of civilization. James would defend his approach in a preface to a later edition of the novel:
The effects I wished most to produce were precisely those of our not knowing, of society’s not knowing, but only guessing and suspecting and trying to ignore, what “goes on” irreconcilably, subversively, beneath the vast smug surface . . .
The result is therefore not a dated, historical document but an eerily prescient, interior novel about the etiology of terrorism in the human heart — one that offers insight and illumination into today’s own version of what James called the “mysteries abysmal.”Michelle Huneven is the author ofRound Rock. Her new novel,Jamesland, is forthcoming from Knopf.Daniel Akst
Once upon a time there was a great nation riven by culture wars, paralyzed by bitterly partisan politics and addicted to media sensation. Despite the lengthening shadow of a peculiarly modern evil, its people could not shake the trauma of a previous war and many now seemed pathologically unwilling to fight. On the positive side, they had a lot of great food.
France in the 1930s was not a pretty picture, but as painted by UCLA emeritus historian Eugen Weber in The Hollow Years, it is a fascinating one, with some obvious parallels to America today. I turned to Weber’s book shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11 not because I doubted we would fight, but because of the surprising response of some of my friends.
Defeatism is the only word for it. Military action would certainly fail, these people felt, killing only the innocent while riling terrorists further. Instead we must figure out why on Earth these people hate us so much. (The implication, in a privileged group of Americans already filled with guilt and self-loathing, was there were very good reasons indeed.) Perhaps we really should rethink our support of Israel. And surely the spread of McDonald’s and Coke had made us legitimate targets. Anything — anything! — but war.