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The Princess Casamassima

by Henry James

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He sank upon the old yellow sofa, the sofa of his lifetime and of so many years before, and buried his head on the shabby, tattered arm. A succession of sobs broke from his lips -- sobs in which the accumulated emotion of months and the strange, acute conflict of feelings that had possessed him for the three weeks just past found relief and a kind of solution. Lady Aurora sat down beside him, and laid her finger-tips gently on his hand. So, for a minute, while his tears flowed and she said nothing, he felt her timid, consoling touch. At the end of the minute he raised his head; it came back to him that she had said "we" just before, and he asked her whom she meant.--This is the version serialized 1885-86 by the Atlantic Monthly.

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Hyacinth Robinson is a hard-working bookbinder whose moral philosophy begins as an inelegant, ill-considered radicalism. He was born of Florentine Viver who murdered her husband, Lord Frederick, Hyacinth's father. She is doomed to a life in prison, and Hyacinth cannot assume his father's title because of her felonious act. He is adopted by a generous seamstress Amanda Pynsent. His profession and his comrades provide an education of revolutionary convictions, and his sympathies cause him to defend the underprivileged by making a vow with his fellow anarchists that he will kill any aristocrat they name. As he lets this commitment smolder inside his heart, he and his girlfriend Millicent Henning attend the theatre where he meets Captain Sholto who introduces him to the beautiful Princess Casamassima. She is American born and married into her title. Her husband was an Italian Prince who is now distanced from her. Hyacinth is presented to the upper class by the Princess, and he realizes the advantages and charm of this new social realm. He had been told pessimistic things about the aristocrats from his lower class associates, but he suspects that their rancor is stirred by envy. He now has only contempt for his mother and her socioeconomic station while he begins to feel respect and appreciation for his father. He also understands that he is heedful of the Princess and deluded by her. With all these psychological conflicts uncovered he sees that the promise he made to his radical friends is no longer possible for him to keep. He purposefully resolves the conflicts of renouncing his birth mother, honoring his father, and loving his adopted mother.

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When Henry James chose to, as he did in The Princess Casamassima, he could write about the political turbulence of his era with astonishing excitement and directness. The London underworld of terrorist conspiracies that entangles his hero, Hyacinth Robinson, comes alive under his pen with a violence that seems, 100 years later, only too familiar.



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