Monday, February 27, 2017


It's been a while since I spent some time with good old Henry James, America's greatest social novelist.* And it's only because I stumbled across a nifty-looking biography of the man when Open Road Media had a 24-hour free-for-all on Amazon that I realized I hadn't read any James since Portrait of a Lady. But which to read, which to read?

Then I encountered, somewhere I don't remember, an observation that Princess Casamassima was likely an inspiration for Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, probably my favorite Conrad after Nostromo, and so there I went.

But so anyway, stop me if you've heard this one: Boy meets Princess. Boy falls head over heels for Princess.  Princess loves communists. Boy pretends to be communist to get closer. Princess sees through him but figures she can get him to bring her some real communists. Boy complies and brings her tiny half-French bastard bookbinder. Princess will love bookbinder and pet bookbinder and hold bookbinder and squeeze bookbinder and she will call bookbinder George. Exeunt Boy, with blue balls. Exeunt bookbinder, by his own hand. As such.

Which is to say that neither the Princess Cassamassima, nor the bookbinder, Hyacinth Robinson, is the driver of this plot, even though the book is named for the former and the latter is the point of view character. Hyacinth is so passive that even his choice of profession only comes about via the vigorous exertions of others; the Princess is equally passive, at least until someone finally brings her what she wants and she must work a bit to keep it. 

Doing all the actual work of the novel is a character who hardly appears in it, at least at front and center: the gentlemanly, the cosmopolitan, the conventional Captain Sholto (the Boy), who manipulates everything behind the scenes: he's even partly responsible for the radicalisation of Hyacinth, who might have stayed a drinking dilletante himself had he not been presented with Sholto's annoying example of same. 

And the romance- and- radicalization plot isn't even the only thing. James has at least as much fun with two other stories, both of which would be right at home in a modern high school dramedy: The competition between Hyacinth and Sholto over who a picturesquely poor family " belongs" to (settled, inconclusively but forever, when the Princess sails in and takes it over. They're hers.  They were always hers. You boys were just keeping the sofa warm for her), and the even more brittle-ly funny one between the Princess and one Lady Aurora, better born than the Princess but a middle aged spinster, whose lifetime of actively visiting and nursing and spending her meager allowance on the genuinely poor is somehow made to look amateurish and gauche when the Princess announces that actually, she owns nothing  ( probably because her estranged husband took it all away?) and "when thousands... haven't bread to put in their mouths, I can dispense with tapestry and old china." 

Straight out of, say, Clueless, or maybe Mean Girls, am I right?

What this all amounts to seems to be James' version of social satire,  a take on the class war that doesn't take it very seriously. James' socialists don't really seem to understand socialism, and spend most of the novel trying to hide this from one another while also trying to simultaneously impress each other with how aware and committed they are, and to discreetly pump each other for information as to what they should be doing to further their cause. Thus there are moments of actual humor, genuine laugh-out-loud moments, that I did not expect from James.

Does that mean a re-assessment is in order? It may. But I've got a lot of other stuff going on, so don't hold your breath for one, K?

*Indeed, the last time I took him up, I was just beginning to have joint problems and thought recording audioboo blog posts was a temporary solution until they got better, ha ha ha ha ha ha sob...

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