Led by Sheridan Hay
Wednesdays, 6:00-7;30 p.m., 4/10, 4/17, 4/24, 5/1, 4 sessions
Unusual in the Jamesian canon, The Princess Casamassima is a relatively neglected work, dealing not with rarified lives of privilege, leisure and wealth but with their opposite. The novel explores the half-secret world of radical politics, revolutionaries, assassination plots and the squalid existence of London’s poor in the 1880s -- ‘the huge tragic city, where unmeasured misery lurks beneath the dirty night.’ Owing a debt to both Dickens and to Zola, The Princess Casamassima will make Jamesians reconsider their notions of the Master’s oeuvre, although his gift as the ‘historian of fine consciences’ was never better illustrated.
Following the character of humble bookbinder, Hyacinth Robinson, a ‘presumptuous adventurer, with his combination of intrinsic fineness and fortuitous adversity,’ The Princess Casamassima is James’ attempt at a naturalistic, broad social documentary picture of contemporary political movements and issues. Written not long after the spate of terrorist bomb attacks and assassinations that rocked London and much of Europe, James does touch upon some larger, recognizably Jamesian, themes – the preservation or destruction of civilization; the transfiguring value of art and the moral beauty of courage, however ambiguously portrayed. The bewitching, beautiful, bored Princess herself is thoroughly Jamesian, while the resentful working-men of the ‘Sun and Moon,’ anarchists plotting to foment a socialist revolution, show James at his realist best. Serialized from 1885 to 1886, the novel is, like all of James’ work, not rapidly read or simply comprehended but perfect for discussion and permanently relevant. James’ opaque style (less convoluted here than the late works) with its qualifications and subtle paradoxes, is strangely matched in a story of secret conspiracy, social disorder and the appalling cost borne by the great many for the indulgence of the few. The last popular resurrection of the The Princess Casamassima was during another tumultuous time – the 1960s. We return to it now, as questions of moral action are once again upon us.
For the first meeting please read BOOK FIRST (pages 53 to 173 in the Penguin Classic edition, the text of which is the first edition, not the revised New York Edition of 1909, but as there were few changes any edition will suffice).
Sheridan Hay, MFA, is a writer and teacher of literature and creative writing. She worked for many years in publishing including at Penguin, Simon and Schuster and HarperCollins. Her first novel, The Secret of Lost Things(Doubleday/Anchor) was a Booksense Pick, a Barnes and Noble Discover selection, short listed for the Border's Original Voices Fiction Prize, and nominated for the International Impac Award. A San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and a New York Times Editor's Choice, foreign rights have been sold in fourteen countries. Sheridan has led many reading groups at The Center for Fiction on 19th century novels, including those of Melville, Hawthorne, George Eliot and Henry James.