The 1880s Political Novel That Could Have Been Written Today

The Princess Casamassima, published more than 100 years ago, carries a warning for America today.

Cutouts of drawing of Bloody Sunday against a blue background
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

In correspondence with other writers over the years, Joseph Conrad often referred to Henry James as “The Master.” He would not be the only writer to do so. James was a writer’s writer, the kind who attracted the adulation of his peers. Conrad once described James’s writerly talent as a “magic spring” flowing “without languor or violence in its force, never running back upon itself, opening new visions at every turn of its course.”

James died more than a century ago, in 1916, but his reputation has come through the 20th century nearly unscathed. Between the taut psychology of The Portrait of a Lady, the dizzying world of What Maisie Knew, and the nuance of The Ambassadors, James has retained both his status as one of America’s greatest writers and his perennial place on college syllabi. But even James has had some of his stories lost to time. The Princess Casamassima is largely forgotten; it isn’t one of the books that scholars use to prove James’s genius. Yet it remains startlingly modern, and offers a lesson for our politically chaotic times.

The Princess Casamassima, first published in The Atlantic in 1885, is a strange novel that follows an oddly named bookbinder, Hyacinth Robinson, through encounters with both aristocratic and revolutionary circles in late-19th-century London. The highest drama in the book comes from characters turning up unexpectedly in one another’s parlors, speaking in dense, portentous turns of phrase. The same could be said of any of James’s novels: The action takes place mostly in social subtleties that have largely lost their meaning to 21st-century readers. In most Henry James novels, such as The Awkward Age and The Golden Bowl, the threat to the lives of the characters is some kind of domestic disturbance: adultery, elopement, lechery. In Casamassima, the threat looms over civic life rather than domestic life, and that makes its characters’ super-subtle phrases and actions even more difficult to parse. Yet there is real wisdom to be gleaned for the modern reader.

Casamassima is James’s only “political” novel, and the easiest criticism it faces is that it is not political enough. Americans have seen, especially in the past few years, how easily people can dismiss books and TV shows that fail to endorse or validate their own political worldviews. All too often, people read Ayn Rand or Tracy K. Smith and joke that the other is not worth reading. As polarization worsens, it also becomes more visible throughout culture and daily life to the point of absurdity: Consider, for example, the ubiquity of yard signs that begin with in this house, we believe followed by a string of rhetorically charged slogans. These signs are sometimes the weapons of lawn-ornament wars that reduce political discourse among those who disagree with each other to dueling Blue Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter flags. It’s hard to imagine that the politically disengaged work of Henry James would have much to offer this situation—but the novel is politically disengaged only if we limit our understanding of politics to rhetoric. We can learn something from James about our own politics: how to let go of our political identities in service of political actions.

The names and dates of hot-button political fights in James’s day may have been different, but the polarization is all too familiar. On one side of English politics in the 1880s, the Liberal Party claimed to protect the poor and disadvantaged, but was mistrusted by the people as made up of bureaucrats and performers who cared only about lining their own pockets. On the other, a Conservative Party preached national values tied to nostalgia for a mythologized past, and its members did everything in their power to protect the hyper-wealthy elite who kept them in office. Then a new party emerged. In 1881, the Social Democratic Federation was established. Its early leaders included the writer and visual artist William Morris, Eleanor Marx (daughter of Karl), and James Connolly, who would later be executed for his role as commander in chief of Ireland’s Easter Rising. This political backdrop offered a loose model for James in developing Hyacinth’s revolutionaries. It was a time of extraordinary political turmoil and unrest. Soon after Casamassima appeared in this magazine, police in London violently quashed a Socialist-led protest in an event that came to be known as Bloody Sunday—one of many instances of police violence to go by that name.

Casamassima is less a debate between two sides than a portrait of the tense political scene playing out in London at the time it was published—the novel is a portrait, too, of the dangers of thinking that either side can offer a realistic model for understanding an individual’s relationship to civic society. Hyacinth’s ingratiation with revolutionary circles starts out the way these things typically do: a vague politics supported by occasional attendance at barroom meetings where one performs much shouting before returning home. He is introduced to these meetings by Poupin, an older man from his workplace who seems to speak only in political slogans. It would go no further, except that he meets the Princess Casamassima, an aristocrat who wants nothing more than to devote herself to the Cause so long as there is a real Cause to be devoted to. So Hyacinth gets more involved with socialism in direct proportion to his growing involvement with the Princess, a contradiction that propels the story along. He encounters the beautiful world that wealth makes possible and at the same time pledges himself to someday commit violence for the Cause. The last third of the novel is given up to Hyacinth’s fluctuations of feeling as the possibility of that violence looms and the Princess becomes more and more invested in the Cause herself, giving up the ornate furnishings and artworks she previously surrounded herself with. Finally, Hyacinth is called on to commit an assassination, and the novel ends with the crisis of him deciding whether or not he can bring himself to do it.

James’s novels are concerned almost exclusively with the mind, but in Casamassima every character whose politics are based on ideas is mocked. By the end of the novel Poupin is described in hideous terms: His “ardent eyes, fixed, unwinking, always expressive of the greatness of the occasion, whatever the occasion was, had never seemed to him to protrude so far from his head.” Poupin is no villain in the novel, and in fact the novel has no discernibly malicious character. He does, though, keep repeating the slogans he seems to feel he is supposed to say, rather than taking political action like Hyacinth does, and grows grotesque and insectlike along the way. The upper-middle-class liberals whose politics remain within the bounds of their lawn ornaments might find something to relate to in Poupin. In both cases, there is little expectation that they will act on their political slogans, because they are clearly disinterested in following through on their incessant talk. Opposite Poupin we see Paul Muniment, Hyacinth’s political idol. Soon after he is introduced in the novel, Paul says of Hyacinth, “Look at the way he has picked up all the silly bits of catchwords!” The only people Paul actually respects in the novel are those who visit his bedridden sister, regardless of their stated politics. Paul Muniment has an attitude toward political life that we could use more of today: a politically involved person who doesn’t care about what you say so much as what you do.

The novel has as many defenders of the aristocracy as it does of the revolution. Hyacinth’s foster mother, Pinnie, worships the idea of the aristocracy in much the same way that Silicon Valley fanboys reflexively defend Elon Musk: with an almost endearing lack of information, rehearsed disdain for their detractors, and a mysterious, unimpeachable regard for status. The Prince, the estranged husband of the novel’s title character, is treated even more comically than Pinnie for his contempt toward anyone without a title.

In this way, the Prince comes off as a surprisingly contemporary character—the way he warps everything he encounters makes him conspicuously like the culture warriors who denounce “wokeism” but cannot define it. Not all who support the aristocracy are made fun of by the novel: An old woman named Madame Grandoni lives with the Princess and disagrees with her growing involvement with the revolution, saying throughout that there is a point at which she will no longer be able to stay with the Princess and implicitly sanction her behavior. By the end, Madame Grandoni has left; her clear-eyed understanding of the politics around her and the material role she plays is never treated with anything but dignity.

There is a lesson here too: Rather than degrading oneself like the Prince, skulking around the world looking for clues that your worst nightmares have come true, you should instead be like Madame Grandoni. When you find yourself in a situation that you dislike, or that you think you are inadvertently enabling, simply make your disapproval quietly clear, then leave.

Casamassima shows us how rhetoric makes politics ridiculous and toothless—how ideologies, when rigidly defined by the slogans and catchwords we think we’re supposed to believe in, lose all meaning. This is what makes Hyacinth’s fate by the end of the novel so tragic. Hyacinth got caught up in language, gave a stirring stump speech about his willingness to do more than speak, and was condemned to action he didn’t believe in because the language he had learned to mimic made unsubtle claims that he would fully understand only when it was too late. Too often people today fall into the same trap. They parrot rhetoric without understanding that their words should be based on their actions, not the other way around. In a world of yard signs and bluster, we would do well to learn from Hyacinth’s mistake.

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