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Carl Van Doren (1885–1950).  The American Novel.  1921.


Page 204

secret society which—not unlike that in Brockden Brown’s Ormond so long before—was supposed to underlie the whole of modern Europe, ready at almost any moment to break out and set thrones and governments toppling. With the Princess is involved the pathetic Hyacinth Robinson, unacknowledged son of a lord and yet a book-binder by trade, who falls first into the vicious coils of the militant socialists, then into the kindly, though as it turns out no less fatal, coils of the Princess Casamassima, learns to admire the aristocracy, and comes to a tragic end. The story, James said, proceeded directly from his habit of walking the streets of London and reflecting upon the possible lot of some person who should have been produced by this civilization and yet should be condemned, as James decidedly had not been, to witness it from outside—that is, from outside the world of fashion and intelligence. Would not such a humble hero, if sensitive enough, long for all the privileges of such a civilization, plot against them when denied them, fall in love with them when invited to share them even transiently? The Princess Casamassima is James’s answer to his question; it is, moreover, a superb tour de force. Although written as from some timid boudoir or club or milder hearth which trembles fantastically at devouring socialists, the book pleases by its variety and swiftness. It has, in the vulgar sense, a plot. And it is evidence, too, how thorough was the process of saturation going on in its author, that the background, splendid or sordid, of this novel is crowded with aspects of reality in the still life and racy yet believable characters to an extent that makes The Bostonians seem by comparison flat and empty.



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