On Lionel Trilling and The Princess Casamassima

Posted on | June 5, 2010 | 7 Comments

One of my favorite essays in Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination is “The Princess Casamassima,” his impassioned reading of Henry James’s 1886 novel.  It’s always seemed to me one of the most incisive accounts of how a novel might address the social role of politics without resorting to pamphleteering.  In this essay, Trilling declares James the apotheosis of the “moral realism” that was his critical project.  (Though if we are to be chronological, one might say Trilling anoints himself the heir of James.)  Trilling himself didn’t quite have the talent for literature he might have hoped—his novel The Middle of the Journey is clever but clunky—and in James, he finds the melding of literary idealism with heavy-hearted morality that he has dreamed of for the novel.  No other writer, Trilling declares, “has, like him, told us the truth in a single luminous act of creation.”  As an enchanted college student, I was fully prepared to agree (I wrote my senior thesis on Trilling).  The only problem was that, until just a couple months ago, I hadn’t read The Princess Casamassima.

I came late to Henry James.  My first foray into the Jamesian world of manners and subtext was The Wings of the Dove, and its endlessly mannered sentences put me off for years.  It was only when, traveling in rural Hungary, I came upon a bookstore with exactly two offerings in English—The Portrait of a Lady and The Da Vinci Code—that I reconsidered.  Faced with doubling either Dan Brown’s or Henry James’s total sales in Szigetvár, I made the obvious choice.

The Princess Casamassima stands apart from the rest of James’s work in its direct engagement with the political questions of its day.  In brief, it’s the story of Hyacinth Robinson—a working-class bookbinder of dubious parentage—his father a British lord, his mother the French prostitute who killed him—who, having been taken under the wing of a mercurial princess, begins to question the radical politics to which he has dedicated his life.  Trilling sees the novel as the rare work of art that realizes its own social cost: Hyacinth “recognizes what very few people wish to admit, that civilization has its price, and a high one.”  Having finally used a meager inheritance to explore the continent,

He understands no less clearly than before “the despotisms, the cruelties, the exclusions, the monopolies and the rapacities of the past.”  But now he recognizes that “the fabric of civilization as we know it” is inextricably bound up with this injustice; the monuments of art and learning and taste have been reared upon coercive power.

Trilling’s essay on The Princess Casamassima is a model of the “historical-literary” mode he so favored.  It’s an ideal reading of the novel James meant to write, only I’m not so sure he did.  And honestly, I wish he had.  Trilling had my collegiate self so firmly in his thrall that even now, it feels traitorous to disagree with him.

My qualm is this: throughout The Princess Casamassima, the beauty afforded by the aristocratic life and the ideals of revolutionary politics never feel as though they are competing as equals.  James’s allegiance is to the former, and it shows.  In the trappings of the Princess’s life, with all its attendant pleasures, James spares no detail:

The Princess appeared, and they mounted into a great square barouche, an old-fashioned, high-hung vehicle, with a green body, a faded hammer-cloth and a rumble where the footman sat (the Princess mentioned that it had been let with the house), which rolled ponderously and smoothly along the winding avenue and through the gilded gates (they were surmounted with an immense escutcheon) of the park.

Hyacinth’s politics, on the other hand, are hazy.  He is concerned variously with “the social question,” “reality,” “the people,” but the specificies of this injustice, and its imagined remedy, are elusive.  We never even hear the full contents of the clandestine meeting that compels Hyacinth to offer his life to the cause.

Trilling praises James for creating a character who could convincingly hold to two contradictory positions at once, whose “sense of the social horror of the world is not diminished by his newer sense of the glory of the world.”  His essay insists that James has inhabited Hyacinth’s dual worldview in full.  One could even say Trilling oversells it: “Quite apart from its moral and aesthetic authority, The Princess Casamassima is a brilliantly precise representation of social actuality.”  I’ll buy the first two claims, less the third.  The vagueness of Hyacinth’s political commitments calls this precision too much into question.

It’s possible—maybe even likely—that Hyacinth himself hasn’t given deep consideration to his adopted ideology.  But for the novel to have the stakes James intended, we must see these as two worldviews of equivalent force.  Given that the essays The Liberal Imagination were written at the crux of his own transition from political radical to bourgeois moralist, it makes sense that Trilling would sympathize with Hyacinth Robinson’s conflicted relationship to the status quo.  There is more than a little of Hyacinth in him.

James, for Trilling, is the dialectical imagination in action: “together with the imagination of disaster [James] had what the imagination of disaster often destroys and in our time is daily destroying, the imagination of love.”  I don’t mean to say that these two forces can’t co-exist in the space on one novel.  But in The Princess Casamassima, I’m not convinced they do.


7 Responses to “On Lionel Trilling and The Princess Casamassima

  1. Morgan
    June 5th, 2010 @ 12:04 pm

    This is an insightful reading of both Trilling’s essay and James’ book. Thank you! I was particularly struck by your notion of “the dialectical imagination in action.” If Princess Casamassima doesn’t satisfy that, what other books would you suggest do?

    Being more comfortable, myself, in the French than the American novel, some of Balzac’s novels come to mind as pursuing a similar project indirectly, though the social aspects are explored less through characters and more historical events. Arguably Zola too, though the political is more vague and the morality less poignant than general. reputable online casinos australia

    However, you have inspired me to go back to reread some James I read too young. An excellent excuse to go to the bookstore.

  2. JMM
    June 5th, 2010 @ 3:57 pm

    Agreed–James can’t seriously expound revolutionary politics because he loves high culture too much. But why is that a problem? (And is there substantial evidence that he intended to embrace revolutionary politics, here or elsewhere? I don’t know enough of James’s bio to know…) Personally, I love James’s twisty aestheticism–it offers some much-needed resistance to the critical reflex that tries to transform every great novel into evidence of the viability and necessity of radical political struggle. (How is that not hegemonic?) Furthermore, it provides demonstrable evidence of the limitations of a politics based on spreading “awareness”–James is aware, but he still loves the glitter and gewgaws. Anyway, I’ve never read Princess C., but I think you need to revisit Wings–it’s amazing. It’s hysterical in its over-the-top Jamesianness, with its indirections and understatements that become so beautifully tortured that they end up irresistibly coquettish and playful…I could go on about it for hours. usa welcome online casinos

  3. atlas
    June 5th, 2010 @ 5:24 pm

    Morgan – Maybe “War and Peace”? That’s my knee-jerk reaction, but I’d have to think about it some more. Though I don’t think the idea of the “dialectical imagination in action” has to be specifically political…

    John -is that you? Thanks for reading! You’re probably right about Wings, especially given how much I’ve loved James since. For what it’s worth – and I don’t think my post made this clear – I actually liked Princess C., and don’t think James needs to be a radical to be great. In fact, it’s to his credit that his novels don’t support that kind of aggressively political mode of reading. I simply don’t think the novel functions in the terms Trilling wants it to. (Also, just looked at your blog — now I want to read Trollope!)

  4. Emanuele
    July 6th, 2010 @ 12:45 pm

    Thanks a lot for your post. Where can I find (for free) Trilling’s essay “The Princess Casamassima” published in The Liberal Imagination? Thanks a lot.

  5. atlas
    July 7th, 2010 @ 10:00 am

    Thanks for reading! I’m afraid I don’t know where, or if, the essay is available for free online. But “The Liberal Imagination” is definitely worth reading if you can track down a copy.

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  6. Shirley McRae
    June 20th, 2012 @ 9:50 pm

    Oh, dear. How serious! Shall we consider irony? Perhaps even satire. Hyacinth Robinson, indeed!

  7. Mick
    June 25th, 2013 @ 9:14 am

    I greatly appreciated reading your post after having just finished The Princess C. and discussing it and The Bostonians with my parents for several hours last night (incidentally, The Bostonians also “stands apart from the rest of James’s work in its direct engagement with the political questions of its day” (American feminism) and makes a very interesting comparison to Princess); your post inspired me to read what I could of Trilling’s essay that is available on google books. I will say that I thought the two worlds–of poverty and wealth–were well balanced in the novel. I did not feel James needed to go into more specifics about Hyacinth’s revolutionary philosophy (whose slimness for many seems to be a major detraction of the novel); I thought the overall (Dickensian?) gloom of impoverished London was so pervasive and insistent as to support Hyacinth’s motivations that details as to how he would ameliorate it were unnecessary. Hyacinth, in my opinion, was a sentimentalist; the novel balances his sentimental view of the world (evoked so nicely in his frequent walks, his visits to parks, to charming rooms and houses) and like a John le Carre protagonist he is caught between more ruthless forces than he is equipped to negotiate.