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The Princess Casamassima: Jamesian (Urban) Gothic and Realism

Anne-Claire LE RESTE

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  • 1  Powers (1971), Grover (1973), and Perosa (1978) provided influential naturalist readings of the no (...)

1The exploration of Jamesian Gothic has, understandably, focused on his “ghostly” tales, most notably The Turn of the Screw. Yet Gothic-oriented criticism has left aside novels and tales which might usefully be read “Gothically” as a means to yield insights, not only into the text themselves, but possibly into the relationship between realism and the Gothic. Gothic imagery and its “sense of darkness and suffocation”, for instance, is overwhelmingly present in the famous forty-second chapter of The Portrait of a Lady (1881), in which Isabel, in the course of her “vigil”, comes to feel that she is “shut up with an odor of mould and decay” (635-6). That her realization of the true character of Osmond, her discovery of the reality of her life – and thus of the novel’s plot – should be cast in Gothic terms, is a fact which certainly deserves notice. But I want to focus on The Princess Casamassima (1886), the Jamesian novel which has been most consistently associated with realism. Even if the generic classification of the novel has grown more hesitant, less decisive than it was in the 1970s for instance1, and the evolution of its critical inscription in a literary tradition of variously realist Masters has more or less shifted from affiliation to distance, it is still, at the end of the day, considered as James’s most realist and/or naturalist novel, however obliquely. If the influence of other non-realist fictional modes such as the romance (Bell) has been investigated, the Gothic has gone unexplored, although the influence of Dickens has received its share of critical attention. The only allusion to the Gothic, to my knowledge, is to be found in Lee’s article on The Princess and the canon, where Hyacinth is presented as “an enlisted artist-combatant against Victorian Gothic ugliness and slummage” (117). In his study of the ghostly in James, Lustig wrote that it “resurfaces with increased force” in The Princess Casamassima (85), referring to the spectral figures that pepper the text. Even though the fantastic is admittedly not a compulsory feature of Gothic fiction, I would argue that the “ghostly” does not confine itself to these specific “ghostly notes” (Lustig 4), but is to be considered in connection with the various threads of Gothicity with which James laces his text, so as to appreciate how the novel explores the destabilizing potentialities of the Gothic to test its own realism and probe the question of the representation of reality.

“Peopled with recognitions”2: stepping right into the Urban Gothic

  • 2  I am diverting a quotation from its original context, which is a description of Hyacinth’s feeling (...)
  • 3  On the question of guilt, see for instance Dorothy Van Ghent’s and Julian Moynahan’s articles in t (...)

2If a reader were only given the first three chapters of The Princess Casamassima, he would probably be rather surprised at finding out that it is considered to be part of James’s “most programmatically ‘realist’ phase” (Lustig 4). Chapter 3 especially reads as a purple patch of Gothic literature, with the prison as a dark, labyrinthine castle peopled with uncanny specters. The first two chapters pave the way for such a representation of Millbank through a construction of the opening scenes of the novel along Dickensian lines. James later wrote in the preface to the eleventh volume of the New York Edition that he “was to find fifty other London neighborhoods speaking to [him] only with the voice, the thousand voices of Dickens” (AN 211), and indeed the voice that makes itself heard at the beginning of James’s “London novel” is distinctively Dickensian. Hyacinth is presented as an orphan who has been “rescue[d] from the workhouse and the streets” by Pinnie (PC 70), a poor seamstress who receives the visit of Mrs. Bowerbank, a jailer at Millbank prison. Hyacinth’s mother, whom Pinnie knew from “their working-girl years” (65), was committed there after murdering Lord Frederick, Hyacinth’s alleged father. Florentine Vivier then entrusted her child to her friend’s care; now, nine years later, she is dying and would like to see him one last time. The “female turnkey”, a “woman accustomed to looking facts in the face”, who fixes Pinnie “with the steady orb of justice” (56) and makes her bend her head before her “overwhelming logic” (58), irresistibly recalls another famous literary “emissary from the law” (58): Jaggers, the stern lawyer from Great Expectations, with his towering presence and his habit of “taking everything on evidence” (GE 251). “The big, square-faced, deep-voiced lady who [takes] up, as it were, all that side of the room” (PC 61) acts in as “bullying” a manner as Jaggers (GE 251). The opening scene of The Princess Casamassima enacts a diffusion of guilt strongly reminiscent of Great Expectations3. In front of Mrs. Bowerbank, Pinnie cannot help feeling guilty (56), just as the villagers do when Jaggers questions them, with his “manner expressive of knowing something secret about every one of [them] that would effectually do for each individual if he chose to disclose it” (GE 107). The whole passage is under the shadow of the prison, that “dreadful institution” (PC 65), where Hyacinth’s mother is serving her “dreadful sentence” (69). Pinnie recalls that “dreadful” hour when she last visited her there on account of the child, a “terrible episode” for sure (65), and she can say nothing else now that, confronted with the “terrible, the heart-shaking question” (70) of whether she ought to take Hyacinth there, she “hate[s] the whole dreadful business” (76). The presence of the prison is made sensible through Mrs. Bowerbank herself, who speaks in tones “which seemed meant to resound through corridors of stone” (64). In good Gothic fashion, the emphasis is laid on the nocturnal intensification of terror. Although Pinnie will obviously go there during the day, she is obsessed by the thought of what it might be at night, supposing that “at that time the place must be much more terrible”, and finally putting to Mrs. Bowerbank the rhetorical question: “And at night I suppose they rave, quite awful” (56). Now that Hyacinth, the soon to be orphan, has been shown as “encompassed by all this taint of prison and crime”, to quote from Great Expectations (202), everything is set for the Urban Gothic fireworks display.

  • 4  See Nies and Kimmey for a detailed comparison of both passages.

3If the passers-by describe Millbank to Pinnie and Hyacinth as “a big, dark building with towers, which they would know as soon as they looked at it” (79), most readers are also likely – expected? – to recognize the paraphernalia of the Gothic, from the “uncanny corners and recesses of the draughty labyrinth” (82) in that “huge, dark tomb” (80), to the “dreadful figures, scarcely female”, reminiscent of ominous monks “in hideous brown, misfitting uniforms and perfect frights of hoods” (82). The prison looks as the most ominous Gothic castle, lifting “its dusky mass from the bank of the Thames, lying there and sprawling over the whole neighbourhood, with brown, bare, windowless walls, ugly, truncated pinnacles, and a character unspeakably sad and stern” (79). The “urchin over whom the shadow of the house of shame might cast itself” (79) cannot but evoke the typical Dickensian orphan grappling with the many hazards of London, and an assiduous reader of David Copperfield might well recognize echoes of Dickens’s own description of the “dreary” neighborhood of Millbank prison (chap. 47). To take but the most obvious example, in The Princess Casamassima, the prison “threw a blight over the whole place” (80), while in David Copperfield, “[t]here was a story that one of the pits dug for the dead in the time of the Great Plague was hereabout; and a blighting influence seemed to have proceeded from it over the whole place” (658)4. We also recognize the Dickensian voice of social reform speaking in these touches of comic relief with a purpose such as Pinnie naïvely yet fittingly wondering “why a prison should have such an evil face if it was erected in the interest of justice and order – an expression of the righteous forces of society” (79), which is humorously, and grimly, echoed by Mrs. Bowerbank’s irritation at Hyacinth’s apparent “contempt for one of her Majesty’s finest establishments” (87). Once inside, the description turns markedly to the trope of the labyrinth, as the visitors pursue their “tortuous way into the circular shaft of cells”, which makes Pinnie reflect that “[s]he had never felt so immured, so made sure of; there were walls within walls and galleries on top of galleries” (82). James seems to be using “the full lexicon of Gothic terror”, to borrow Robert Mighall’s expression (219), as words such as “horrible”, “dreadful”, and “terrible” are ruthlessly poured onto the reader; even French-speaking Florentine uses Gothic vocabulary: “Dieu de bonté, quelle horreur !”, she says (87).

4The whole scene thus appears as archetypal. It is constructed so as to conjure up a familiar, expected narrative, by disposing of the potentially unexpected in advance. Thus, chapter 3 starts with the information that Amanda has decided “to reserve the cab for the return, as then, very likely, she should be so shaken with emotion…that it would be a comfort to escape from observation” (78), and unsurprisingly ends with the following: “Miss Pynsent went home in a cab – she was so shaken” (89). In the meantime, the reader has witnessed a prison scene that can be viewed as “already written”, unwinding the yarn of grimness and wickedness conjured up by the very expression “house of shame” (80) – or “shameful place”, as Dickens’s narratives, among others in the same vein, are wont to call it. Similarly, Mrs. Bowerbank had appeared to Pinnie as “a person who represented…a possibility of grating bolts and clanking chains” (56); as soon as she steps into the prison, she finds herself in “a vast interior dimness, with a grinding of keys and bolts going on behind them” (82).

  • 5  I am again diverting the quotation from its original context, which is a description of Medley (p. (...)
  • 6  Seed remarks similarly that "[f]ar from being oppressive or horrific the scene becomes almost comi (...)

5Yet this easily decipherable reading compact is broken as early as Chapter 4, when the overwhelmingly Dickensian topos is compromised by the Zolaesque entrance of the grown-up Millicent, this “daughter of London” who “represented its immense vulgarities and curiosities, its brutality and its knowingness” (93), works “a great haberdasher’s”, in “the department for jackets and mantles” (96), where she models for the customers, and seems to come right out of the labyrinth of luxury of Au Bonheur des Dames, a British version of carefree Pauline. The reader subsequently leaves the first chapters’ openly Urban Gothic décor which then appears more as “a corner of larger spaces and a more complicated scene”5 than as the defining aesthetics of the novel – a departure which might be considered as foreshadowed by Mrs. Bowerbank’s reflection that she is “disappointed in the effect” (88), quite as the reader might be. Throughout the scene, Hyacinth, the decidedly undaunted prospective orphan, refuses to play his role, and “his small clear voice ringing over the dreary room” (87) cannot but spoil the Gothic effect6. There is no fear involved, and thus the conventionally Urban Gothic experiment stalls and ends. This is not to say, however, that the Dickensian reference utterly vanishes, for the novel later mentions Mr. Micawber twice to characterize Madeira Crescent, the lower middle class place that the Princess elects, using parallel sentence structures that call attention to the repetition (417, 477). However, the references are no longer stable as the place also evokes for Hyacinth “the idea of the vie de province, as he had read about it in French works” (482). Moreover, this suspicious insistence on naming Micawber acts as a signal, recalling what James himself wrote two years earlier, in his manifesto “The Art of Fiction”: “[T]he measure of reality is very difficult to fix. The reality of Don Quixote or of Mr Micawber is a very delicate shade; it is a reality so colored by the artist’s vision that, vivid as it may be, one would hesitate to propose it as a model…” (LC 51-52).

6This raises the question of verisimilitude, and reflects on the whole opening of the book, all the more so as the stereotypical Urban Gothic aesthetics of chapter three will not be indulged again. Realism’s politics of representation is most commonly considered as aiming to present a reality that “approximates closely to description of similar experiences in non-literary texts of the same culture”, to borrow David Lodge’s words (25). As George Levine comments, “the philosophical holes in this are large, but no definition of realism can be quite satisfactory. And insofar as this one attempts to get at the connection between fictional and non-fictional experience, it does good service” (8). In The Princess Casamassima though, the connection appears much more to be that between fictional… and fictional experience. The novel ostensibly constructs reality according to recognizable fictional codes, rather abruptly juxtaposing literary topoi whose problematic coexistence cannot but amount to conflict; the reader is presented with a patchwork-like structure, a textual fabric where the stitches are visible, undermining a realistic ethic of representation.

City strollers and the “atmospheric mixture” of London7

  • 7  This is a quotation that, for once, I am not misapplying. During their excursion at Greenwich, Hya (...)

7Yet the “programmatically Gothic” gives way to a description of the city that still retains Gothic characteristics, although in a more diffuse way. The architecture of Millbank prison may be said to be diffracted onto the setting through a predominance of steep staircases, dark walls, and thresholds. To enter Audley Court, where the Muniments live, one has to “pass through a narrow alley, a passage between high, black walls” (131-32) which recall the “high black walls” of the prison (82). Hyacinth repeatedly ascends “steep staircases” in Camberwell, at the theatre, at Lady Aurora’s. To get out of the “Sun and Moon”, he goes through a “dark, tortuous, greasy passage which communicated with the outer world” (293). London’s Gothicity, however, is now predominantly atmospheric rather than topographic. The metropolis is foggy, damp and ugly, peopled with shadows, “silent men”, “ugly, serious faces” (283), and “bedraggled figures” (294). In this ghostly city, light is ceaselessly contending with darkness; street-lamps “[struggle] ineffectually with the brown winter dusk” (130), and Hyacinth must “[grope] his way through the baffled lamp-light” (480). The fog “blur[s] and suffuse[s] the whole place” (106) – two words that are repeatedly used, along with “emanations”, acquiring a formulaic quality. Thus Lady Aurora looks “into the thickening dusk, at…the blurred emanation, above the streets, of lamp-light” (221). Later on, Hyacinth imagines his life in London as an “expanse that sent dim night-gleams and strange blurred reflections and emanations into a sky without stars” (480). The spectral quality of London is thrown into relief by the brightness of the French capital: “Paris expressed herself, and did it in the grand style, while London remained vague and blurred, inarticulate, blunt and dim” (382).

8These streets are ceaselessly paced by Hyacinth, who, we are told, “had roamed through the great city since he was an urchin” (106). On our meeting him again after the ten-year gap between chapter 3 and the dramatic reappearance of Millicent, he offers to walk her home, taking us at last out of Lomax Place, and we follow him on “one of his interminable, restless, melancholy, yet all-observant strolls through London” (102). The expression encapsulates the topos of the nineteenth-century city stroller, an attitude that James will duplicate when writing the preface to the novel, twenty years later, presenting his own process of elaboration as originating in walks about the city: “The simplest account of the origin of The Princess Casamassima is, I think, that this fiction proceeded quite directly, during the first year of a long residence in London, from the habit and the interest of walking the streets.” (AN 59)

9Hyacinth, who, he says, “sprang up for [him] out of the London pavement”, is to watch “the same public show” as himself (60). James takes pains to present the city as marked by a clear-cut class divide – “the world of [Hyacinth’s] work-a-day life and the world of his divination and his envy” (61) – and indeed Hyacinth’s walks take him to a variety of neighborhoods, rich and poor, mirroring his “mixed, divided nature” and “conflicting sympathies” (PC 478). Yet James’s descriptions of the urban spectacle in the preface unmistakably tip the scales in favor of wealthy London, with “the swarming facts” speaking of “freedom and ease, knowledge and power, money, opportunity and satiety” (AN 60). The difference between him and his character is that the latter should find “every door of approach shut in his face” (61). Hyacinth is to be “condemned to see these things only from outside” (60), to be a watcher rather than a doer.

10As soon as we are introduced to this street-walking habit of Hyacinth, another element comes into play, which will remain associated to city-strolling throughout the novel: “the burden which had made his own young spirit so intolerably sore, the inheritance which had darkened the whole threshold of his manhood” (105), namely his mother’s (and alleged father’s) history. This mixture, to borrow a word James uses lavishly, makes him the typical nineteenth-century gothic hero as described by Botting, with “guilty secrets of past transgression and uncertain class origins” as the sources of anxiety (114). The “innocent orphan”, in Pinnie’s mind and text (94), is a character haunted by the “loathing of the idea of repetition”, wrestling with “the idea of the personal stain”, with “the horror of the public reappearance, on his part, of the imbrued hands of his mother” (582-83). Hyacinth’s predicament is framed in terms of the “curse narrative” which Mighall has shown to be a feature of the Urban Gothic of Dickens and the Sensation novelists of the 1860s. Mighall writes that:

a supernatural curse enables, but is at the same time conquered or invalidated by, a clinical discourse which shares its emphasis on ancestry, entailment, and the effects on future generations. But only one version can be allowed authority in the text, as both cannot be true. The two versions of the curse mechanism face each other in epistemological combat. The outcome depends entirely on discursive or generic criteria. (100)

  • 8  "There were certain members of an intensely modern school, advanced and scientific realists, of wh (...)
  • 9  Long considered as "proving" James’s naturalist intention, this statement has nevertheless been in (...)
  • 10  See Graham who examines Hyacinth’s sexual ambiguousness in her chapter on The Princess (177-206), (...)

11Here, it is a specific subcategory of the “clinical discourse” that the Gothic strain faces “in epistemological combat”, i.e. the naturalist tenet of heredity, whose identification is encouraged, both by allusions within the text8, and by James’s now famous epistolary comment to Thomas Perry that the was “quite the Naturalist” – a remark that he made, interestingly enough, concerning the notes he took at Millbank to write the prison scene9. That his potentially “inherited disposition to crime” (371) should be framed in terms of a curse, of which the character is aware, undermines the naturalistic stance. The function of Gothic discourse, or of a specific fashion of the Gothic, is to destabilize naturalism, and “generic criteria” more generally speaking. Incidentally, another element of characterization harks back to the Gothic, although in an earlier form, namely Hyacinth’s feminization, which tends to liken him to a heroine rather than a hero – not of the “fainting” (Botting 2) but definitely of the blushing sort10.

12Yet as the novel draws to its end and the hereditary curse closes in on Hyacinth, London undergoes a rather striking metamorphosis. The “perpetual obscurity” that was said to be characteristic of the “wintry, dusky, foggy streets” (162) is progressively dispelled, as if one type of Gothicity (the curse narrative) displaced another (the ghostly representation of the city). The depictions of London increasingly favor light and clearness, even tending towards cheerfulness, while the urban setting switches from the smoky streets to the green parks. This is how chapter 41 opens: “The essential dimness of the low perspectives had by no means disappeared, but it had loosened its folds; it lingered as a blur of mist, interwoven with pretty sun-tints and faint transparencies. There was warmth and there was light (…)” (521). Then follows the account of Hyacinth’s Sunday stroll with Millicent in Hyde Park, the geography of which is described much more thoroughly than any truly urban neighborhood in the novel. In chapter 44, one small hint of urban London surfaces again, as Hyacinth is waiting for Schinkel and his fateful message “in the dusky, empty, sordid street” (554), but as soon as Schinkel meets him, the German shoemaker suggests that they “go down toward the Park” (555). Lastly, as Hyacinth takes his final stroll in London, he goes “into the streets, into the squares, into the parks”; the progression once again tends to obliterate urban London. He is struck by “the stamp of her imperial history” (583) – an expression which establishes a parallel with the French capital – and twice takes refuge in St James’s Park, where the ghostly silhouettes of Londoners are replaced by swans. The evolution of the novel, following Hyacinth’s strolls about London, seems to enact a radical dissolution of the Gothic aesthetics of the city.

Slum and mansion: anti-gothic?

  • 11  See Mighall for the late Urban Gothic writers’ attention to "filth and stench" (65-68).

13Yet this change of scene, this “dis-Gothicization” of the city, more than merely implying that London loses its ghostly quality, rather points towards an essential lack in what might otherwise appear as a conventionally Gothic construction of the “British metropolis”, namely its dangerousness. For if Millicent warns Hyacinth against “the dangers of the town” (159), one does not feel that “his London” (417) is really such a threatening urban milieu. Hyacinth only brushes shoulders with the inebriated London populace, which is represented more as a procession of ineffectual shadows than as the “beasts” one might expect in a traditional Urban Gothic novel. There is no threatening crowd in the London of The Princess Casamassima, only a few figures, admittedly “as foul as lepers” and “reek[ing] with gin and filth”, yet which merely “elbow” Hyacinth (481). In chapter 21, one member of “the people” does make it to the foreground among the “bedraggled figures [passing] in and out” of the public-house where Hyacinth is to take the step that will lead to his fateful vow. In this fugitive passage of descriptive individualization, the “spongy, purple face” of the drunkard is furtively in the limelight. However, this close-up is wedged between silhouettes and “the brutal blaze of the row of lamps”, a dazzling light that soon erases the glimpse of the man’s face. The description then turns to the glitter of the puddles, highlights the silence and void of the street, and ends on the abstraction of “unmeasured misery” (293). The novel’s representational strategy towards potentially threatening Londoners is actually foregrounded in Hyacinth’s very first narrative stroll in the city, for what he notices then is “the quickened crowding and pushing and staring at lighted windows and chaffering at the stalls of fishmongers and hucksters” (106). The “ING” form disposes of the subjects and presents only processes. Significantly, Hyacinth feels, in the same passage, that he moves “in the midst of… impressions” – not people. The truly poor are conspicuously absent from a novel which professes to focus on them; Hyacinth’s insistence that he will not starve if he stays out of work, to the Princess’s great regret, is too recurrent to be candid. When they are mentioned, it is often in a way that contradicts their traditional Urban Gothic representation. Thus when the Prince asks Madame Grandoni how Christina can “bear the dirt, the bad smell”, she anticlimactically replies: “Everyone here has a sponge, as big as your head; you can see them in shops” (258)11. As for the related problem of crime, apart from the story of Hyacinth’s mother, it plays no direct part in the plot, but only figures as one of the topics discussed by the revolutionary characters. Policemen are scattered along the way, but they are found in the poorer districts such as Lisson Grove (554) as well as in the wealthy areas such as South Street, Mayfair, where a “lonely policeman” stands on the corner, “covering a yawn with a white cotton hand” (233).

  • 12  Strangely yet interestingly enough, Graham describes The Princess as "one of two novels that he wr (...)
  • 13  Similarly, there are scattered references to "the workhouse", but only as something that might hav (...)

14It thus comes as no surprise that the slums, which constitute one of the loci of fin-de-siècle Urban Gothic, should also be conspicuous by their absence12. Although they are constantly alluded to, they remain radically outside the representational frame13. Hyacinth, supposedly a representative of poor London, has no first-hand knowledge of the very poor areas of the city: “a hundred things Muniment had told him about the foul horrors of the worst districts of London, pictures of incredible shame and suffering that he had put before him, came back to him now, with the memory of the passion they had kindled at the time. (445-446, emphasis mine)”. These “pictures of incredible shame and suffering” – a rather abstract phrase – are consistently denied us within the narrative, even when Hyacinth eventually undertakes the expedition, accompanying the Princess into “the bad quarters – in St Giles’s and Whitechapel” (464), “the darkest places, the most fetid holes, in London” (476). Yet this is all we will ever know about them. The last mention of slums is undermined by an ironical allusion to their exoticness, a cliché pushed to its breaking point by the absurd reference to continental tourism: “before the winter was over Hyacinth’s services in the slums were found unnecessary. He gave way with relief, with delight, to Lady Aurora, for he had not in the least understood his behavior for the previous four months, nor taken himself seriously as a cicerone.” (477)If there is no urban danger, and the slums are confined to the margins of the text, it is unlikely that the city should be represented as a labyrinth. And indeed, despite occasional hints such as the mention of “the shabby sinuous ways which unite these laborious districts” of Soho, Islington, and Pentonville (270) or of the “long, circuitous walk” with the Princess (418), it is never shown as such. On the contrary, Hyacinth moves from place to place with impressive ease. The only time when Hyacinth loses a sense of his whereabouts is during the drive to Hoffendahl’s (255), but here the city is not represented at all. Neither “a gloomy forest” nor a “dark labyrinth”, it is most definitely not presented as “a locus of real horror” (Botting 11).

  • 14  Bell argues that "[o]ne has only to consider the elusive evocation which stands for upper-class li (...)
  • 15  Seed notes that "the whole episode forms a kind of pastoral idyll" (34), and Tintner analyzes the (...)
  • 16  The reference to the unnamed Octave Feuillet novel could also be construed as an indirect Gothic h (...)

15But then that account merely represents one half of the matter. The novel is composed, not only of the (professed) representation of poor London but also of “[i]ntimacies with a princess”, and “visits to fine old country-houses”, as Hyacinth himself phrases it (371). The Victorian Gothic also relied on “extreme poverty” as on “extreme wealth” (Mighall 55). James was well aware of that, as is shown in his 1865 review on Mary Elizabeth Braddon, in which he grants Collins “the credit of having introduced into fiction these most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors”, adding that “[i]nstead of the terrors of Udolpho, we were treated to the terrors of the cheerful country-house and the busy London lodgings” (LC 742). Might the Gothic terror of The Princess Casamassima then be displaced onto the more familiarly Jamesian location of the country-house14? It first seems as though it might well be during Hyacinth’s stay at Medley, the Princess’s rented country-house, with its “queer peep-holes and all manner of odd gables and windows on different lines and antique patches and protrusions” (299), its façade that “lifted a variety of vague pinnacles into the starlight” (300), and its rooms where dressing-glasses emit “ghostly glances” (301). The hint is reinforced by the Princess’s mention of the “haunted chamber”, and the “secret stairway which had served in the persecutions of the Catholics” (308). However, the Gothic potential of these references is debunked by such comments as the Princess’s noting that she is “a Catholic, you know – but oh so little!” (432), or her comically detailed, parenthetical description of the specter said to be haunting the house: “a dwarfish ghost, with an enormous head, a dispossessed brother, of long ago (the eldest) who had passed for an idiot, which he wasn’t, and had somehow been made away with (…)” (308). Furthermore there is certainly nothing Gothic about the pastoral note on which the Medley chapters end15, or indeed about the inside of the manor, with its “bright”, “large and sunny” drawing-room “upholstered in fresh, gay chintz, furnished with all sorts of sofas and low, familiar seats and convenient tables” that hold “great bowls of early flowers” and are littered with “books, newspapers, magazines”, and “photographs of celebrities, with their signatures” (305)16.

16James seems to raise Gothic expectations only to deflate them. The “Gothic world of slum or mansion” (Mighall 76) is definitely not to be indulged in The Princess Casamassima otherwise than as parody.Simultaneously with this dissolution of the Gothic politics of representation, the novel enacts a progressive enervation of the numerous ghostly figures in the text. In Millbank prison, the spectral inmates are not “real ghosts”, but are still strongly evocative of the Gothic tradition; however, they are soon cast aside. The shadowy figures which people the dark London streets represent a further weakening of the original meaning of the word “ghost”, as they no longer represent any threat – nor do the “real”, rather picturesque ghosts that pepper the text (at Medley, or in Paris). James seems to be illustrating the precept that he will later formulate in his preface to The Turn of the Screw: “[g]ood ghosts, speaking by book, make poor subjects” (AN 175).

“Lurking in improbable forms”17: Gothic princesses and Jamesian terror

  • 17  Another diverted quotation, originally applied to the "forces of the revolution", of which it is s (...)

17But this account of the novel leaves aside the eponymous Princess who, as the haunting presence of the text, consistently eludes attempts at understanding, or even literally “seizing”, “making sure of” her. She is the truly dangerous, and ghostly, element in the novel. Her unexpected appearances and disappearances repeatedly disrupt the narrative, hence the fantastic sentiment governing the characters’ relations to her, “a vague apprehension that one might suddenly stretch one’s hand and miss her altogether from one’s side” (398). She is the pivot around which everything revolves, but she is also a missing pivot, through her elusiveness, and because both characters’ and readers’ attempts to make sense of her are frustrated. Unsurprisingly, she is the character who triggers reactions of uneasiness at best, fear at worst. Her husband evokes how far she might go as “a haunting fear”; as he says this, tellingly, “his pale face and disturbed respiration might indeed have been those of a man before whom some horrible specter had risen” (238). The comparisons Madame Grandoni uses to describe her incapacity to deal with the Princess all have to do with catastrophe and pain, such as being scalded, or the Tiber overflowing (193); she always resorts to “violent metaphor[s]” (236) when it comes to Christina. London is once described as “an immeasurable breathing monster” (480), but appears less and less so, if at all, while Paul’s description of the eponymous character as a “monster” (227) seems more in keeping with her radically unintelligible quality.

  • 18  In addition to the Princess, Fussell lists Mrs. Bread in The American, Madame Merle in The Portrai (...)
  • 19  Consequently, as Wagenknecht noted, a trifle superlatively, "[t]here can hardly be a character in (...)
  • 20  Some critics have felt differently. Grenander wrote that "[a]t the conclusion of The Princess, one (...)

18In addition to being occasionally defined as “the cleverest woman”, or “the most remarkable woman” in Europe, she is repeatedly described as “the most beautiful woman” on the continent. These compliments are variations on “an adjustable formula” (Fussell 87) that James often resorted to – more often than not to denote shallowness on the part of the speaker – although never to such an extent as in this novel18. In The Princess Casamassima, the rhetoric of the superlative goes beyond the merely formulaic, operating rather in a manner similar to Mighall’s description of the representation of Jacob’s Island, whereby each superlative “serves to remove the object from the known, placing it beyond fixed referents, and establishing its remoteness from all experience” (44). James is using the full range of the aesthetics of excess to increase the effect of defamiliarization created by the Princess, which the other characters can only register with their own imperfect, cliched formulas. She is certainly James’s female character whose beauty is most insistently presented as beyond any other, “the only woman…whose beauty never for a moment falls below itself” (236), as well as one of his characters whose motives are least comprehensible19. Her superlative beauty functions as a sign of her radical unintelligibility, for she offers no more than her seemingly flawless, impenetrable surface, “too beautiful to question, to judge by common logic” (195). She is consistently portrayed in terms of brightness and “dazzling light” (401), which may at first appear antithetical to the Gothic trope of darkness; yet in both cases, what is at stake is the saturation of vision and the impossibility of making sense of a colorless, blinding surface that defies description. At the end of the novel, her course is undetermined, contrary to the other characters whom the readers can well imagine leading their narrative lives unchanged. Her trajectory calls for an unimaginable “outside of the text” in a novel that Hyacinth’s suicide seemed to end so neatly. If, according to what James later wrote in the preface, Christina Light was, at the end of Roderick Hudson (1875), one of “those ghosts we have conjured but not exorcised” (AN 73), she can neither be said to have been “exorcised” as the Princess Casamassima in the novel bearing her name20, and remains, to the end, a “model of the unsatisfactory” (PC 250).  

19Robert Mighall has shown how “the emphasis which motivates Gothic fiction” is “the representation of the nightmares of history” (57), but James’s conception of history was quite different from that of the traditional (Urban) Gothic writers. As he wrote in the preface to “The Aspern Papers”: “I delight in a palpable imaginable visitable past – in the nearer distances and the clearer mysteries, the marks and signs of a world we may reach over to as by making a long arm we grasp an object at the other end of our own table”. (AN 164) – the anti-Gothic statement par excellence. Mighall further defines what “provides the terrifying pleasure” of Gothic texts as “the conflict between the civilized and the barbaric, the modern and the archaic, the progressive and the reactionary” (9). This opposition is indeed present in ThePrincess Casamassima, but the terms of the Gothic equation are reversed. What is Gothicized is the “modern” present, severed from any connection with the past, apart from the mythic French Revolution (393). Madame Grandoni thus describes the Princess as having “thrown herself with passion into being ‘modern’”, and she adds: “[t]hat sums up the greatest number of things that you and your family are not” (259). She is speaking to Christina’s husband, a prince from “an old Catholic and princely family” (577), with “a powerful prelate” for an uncle (255) – an “aristocratic-barbarian background” (Fussell 108) which should mark him as Gothic, were it not for his hopeless innocuousness. The “Revolution” on the contrary is consistently associated with darkness, terror, and sublimity. At the “Sun and Moon”, Hyacinth wishes that they might gather “the myriad miserable out of their slums and burrows” and “awaken the gorged indifferent to a terror that would bring them down” (293). The conspirators constantly refer to what is being planned “in the dark” (330, 401, 485); Hoffendhal is said to be sublime (291), as well as Hyacinth (331, 549) and Paul (390). This inversion thus disposes of the Victorian Gothic’s discourse on history. The gothicization of the revolution, however, could be viewed in the light of the “threats of disintegration” that Botting describes as being intrinsically linked with the birth of the Gothic novel (5), an anxiety as to the perils looming over civilization that James could be considered as sharing in the light of some of his rather alarming epistolary comments on the state of the British nation. Yet the revolutionary characters in the novel talk more than they act, in an often bombastic language whose inflation is exposed within the narrative as “silly bits of catchwords” (151), “hollow and rococo” (405). The revolutionary threat is presented, in the end, as rather ineffectual.  

20If the Gothic is intrinsically linked with history, it is also closely concerned with an “analysis of the limits of rationality” (Smith 2), and this is undoubtedly the point on which James’s novel most sustains anxiety. Through the Princess, James resolutely casts the historical drama of the Gothic in epistemological terms, progressively divesting it of its visual accessories and stripping it down to its – Jamesian – core.  Jamesian terror is not so much a conflict between the civilized and the barbaric as between the rational and the irrational, intelligibility and the unintelligible. Significantly, James used the word “Gothic” in such a meaning when he later wrote the preface to The Princess, in which the “teller of a story” is said to have to “make it out, distinctly, on the crabbed page of life, to disengage it from the rude human character and the more or less gothic text in which it has been packed away (…)” (AN 63). The “gothic” here is presented as the force against which the writer must contend to construct a coherent narrative, as the “terrain of formlessness” (Smith 23) that the novelist must conquer to achieve “a deep-breathing economy and an organic form” (AN 84). James was particularly obsessed with form and the delimitation of reality, as is shown, for instance, in his famous statement in the preface to Roderick Hudson: “Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so”. (AN 5)  Throughout the prefaces, he states his concern for order and structure, an insistence that reveals more than it masks his deep anxiety about the essentially formless nature of his material. As critics have relentlessly noticed, he wrote novels that can be (and have been) likened to those “large loose baggy monsters” (AN 84) that he condemned in his preface to The Tragic Muse. Punter has underlined the link of Gothic fiction with the notion of taboo. What surfaces in The Princess Casamassima is the central taboo for both James and realism, i.e. the essentially formless, “gothic”, nature of the real, whose nagging presence persistently disrupts attempts at representing reality in a coherent manner, at giving it form and meaning.  As is the case with any taboo, its “victims” cannot help returning to it – nor can The PrincessCasamassima refrain from conjuring up the Gothic in its various guises. As one of the topoi used, then abruptly cast aside, it questions the notion of verisimilitude, i.e. the very possibility of the representation of a non-textual reality, more specifically here the urban reality. As an alternative stance to naturalism, it challenges one of the dominant literary discourses claiming a privileged link with reality. Most radically, as lodged into the unaccountable Princess, it jeopardizes the very possibility of making sense at all, and thus representing the real, contradicting impulses towards rationality, not letting reality build itself coherently and intelligibly by refusing to give it the seizable presence it needs to lend itself to realistic representation.

Postscript: On Theorizing Realism and the Gothic

21The Gothic as the obverse side of realism is of course a commonplace of critical discourse. Punter has defined its “general opposition to realist aesthetics” as the criterion according to which “one could apparently most simply define a unitary ‘Gothic tradition’’’ (182). Yet the version of realism that surfaces in such accounts is too often strangely one-sided. Thus when Punter writes of “the purified material to which realism claims access” (189) or of “the moral certainties of realist fiction” (212), one wonders to which works he is referring. In the same way, when Botting argues that “[t]he Gothic strain existed in excess of, and often within, realist forms, both inhabiting and excluded from its homogenising representations of the world” (12), one cannot help questioning whether such homogeneity ever existed in realist fiction; if it did, it certainly concerns a very limited variety of “realism”.

22According to Punter, “the Gothic writer insists that “‘realism’ is not the whole story” (186). The quotation marks he uses here betray that he is referring to an ideal, abstract conception of realism – one that likely was never fully realized. It might thus be useful to confront theories of the Gothic with criticism that focuses solely on realism, or, rather, on specific realist writers. Writing on “English fiction from Frankenstein to Lady Chatterley”, Levine has explored “the ultimate self-destruction of realist techniques”, convincingly arguing that  “[t]he irrational and rebellious are latent in every important English realist novel, and within every hero and heroine there is a Frankenstein – or his monster – waiting to get out. The hero carries the narrative’s burden of creation”. (35) For him, “the monstrous is an aspect of all ‘realistic’ literature”, and “the representation of it is part of the strategy of realism” (24). Prendergast has examined French realism, focusing on the troubled definition and application of the concept of mimesis, showing, for instance, how “the logic of the Flaubert text is such that the very condition of an anti-mimetic reading is the equally valid possibility of a strictly mimetic reading; each ironically shadows the other, and the text is not finally reducible to either” (15-6). Or else, as Romano writes in his book on Dickens and Reality, “the failure of literature to represent faithfully the real is the defining preoccupation of realism” (95). In other words, realist fictions cannot but challenge their own realist claims in one way or another; they too keep insisting that “realism” – a comfortable, self-confident belief in the possibility of representing reality – is indeed not the whole story. From this perspective, the relationship between the Gothic and realism might be redefined, and the Gothic viewed, in novels such as The Princess, as one of the modes through which “realism” necessarily subverts itself.

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——. Great Expectations (1861). Ed. Edgar Rosenberg. New York / London: Norton, 1999. [GE]

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——. The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces. Ed. Richard P. Blackmur. New York / London: Scribner, 1953. [AN]

Lee, A. Robert. “Odd Man Out? Henry James, The Canon and The Princess Casamassima”. Tensions and Transitions (1869-1990): The Mediating Imagination. Ed. Michael Irving, Mark Kinkead-Weekes and A. Robert Lee. London: Faber and Faber, 1990. 103-20.

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Miller, Elizabeth Carolyn. “The Inward Revolution: Sexual Terrorism in The Princess Casamassima”. The Henry James Review 24 (2003): 146-67.

Nies, Frederic, and John Kimmey. “David Copperfield and The Princess Casamassima”. The Henry James Review 10 (1989): 179-84.

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——. The Cosmopolitan World of Henry James: An Intertextual Study. Baton Rouge / Londres: Louisiana State UP, 1991.

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Walker, Pierre A. “The Princess Casamassima’s ‘Sudden Incarnation’ and Octave Feuillet”. Texas Studies in Literature and Language 31 (1989): 257-72.

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1  Powers (1971), Grover (1973), and Perosa (1978) provided influential naturalist readings of the novel, which were progressively challenged. Anderson, for instance, countered the argument of the three critics in his 1983 article.

2  I am diverting a quotation from its original context, which is a description of Hyacinth’s feelings as he takes a stroll in the park at Medley, and muses that "[h]is whole walk was peopled with recognitions; he had been dreaming all his life of just such a place and such objects; such a morning and such a chance" (301).

3  On the question of guilt, see for instance Dorothy Van Ghent’s and Julian Moynahan’s articles in the Norton edition of Great Expectations.

4  See Nies and Kimmey for a detailed comparison of both passages.

5  I am again diverting the quotation from its original context, which is a description of Medley (p. 299).

6  Seed remarks similarly that "[f]ar from being oppressive or horrific the scene becomes almost comic because all [Pinnie] can register is a fluttering bewilderment; and in the cell pathos itself is largely pushed aside by the lugubrious humor from Miss Bowerbank’s stolid comments and Miss Pynsent’s small embarrassments. The firm ironic control over the perspective insulates Hyacinth from any emotional disturbance." (32)

7  This is a quotation that, for once, I am not misapplying. During their excursion at Greenwich, Hyacinth and Paul contemplate "the distant, atmospheric mixture that represented London." (443).

8  "There were certain members of an intensely modern school, advanced and scientific realists, of whom Hyacinth had heard and on whom he had long desired to put his hand; but, evidently, none of them had ever stumbled into Lady Aurora’s candid collection, though she did possess a few of Balzac’s novels" (264). The tribute to naturalism sounds too "candid" – though slightly devious in its omission of names – to be taken at its face value.

9  Long considered as "proving" James’s naturalist intention, this statement has nevertheless been increasingly viewed with distrust. Anderson rightly notes that "[i]t would be a mistake to take this remark literally" (347). Bell comments similarly that James’s use of the word "naturalist", as well as his mention of "taking notes", is ironic, "contained in invisible and sometimes even visible quotation marks" (152). Still, there remains that James was aware this his novel could be interpreted as emulating the Naturalists.  

10  See Graham who examines Hyacinth’s sexual ambiguousness in her chapter on The Princess (177-206), and Miller who discusses the feminization of Hyacinth as compared with the "masculinization" of Millicent.

11  See Mighall for the late Urban Gothic writers’ attention to "filth and stench" (65-68).

12  Strangely yet interestingly enough, Graham describes The Princess as "one of two novels that he wrote in the naturalist vein, sketching life among London’s poor" and as "riddled with grotesque descriptions of prisons, ports, and slums" (205). In fact, there is only one prison, and its depiction begins and ends in chapter three; there is no mention of any port, at the most a twenty-line description of the Thames (439), rather reminiscent indeed of the longer description of the river in Great Expectations; and no direct representation of slums – Audley Court being, we are repeatedly told, no slum, although it is a poor neighborhood assuredly. What Graham describes is what The Princess professes to focus on, through the discourse of its main characters as well as through the preface, not what the novel actually represents.

13  Similarly, there are scattered references to "the workhouse", but only as something that might have been for Hyacinth (see p. 115 or 388). The possibility of the workhouse is one of these Dickensian plots which Hyacinth is shown as having escaped, such as working as an errand-boy for the stationer, "a dreadful bullying man, with a patch over his eye", to which Amanda replies that "she hadn’t sunk so low as that – so low as to sell her darling for three shillings a week" (118).

14  Bell argues that "[o]ne has only to consider the elusive evocation which stands for upper-class life at Medley on the occasion of Hyacinth’s visit there to realize how James, himself already a habituated country-house visitor, declines the opportunity to depict a familiar world" (163). It is true that, compared with other Jamesian novels, descriptions are scant in the Medley chapters, but they are still more detailed than any representation of the urban reality.

15  Seed notes that "the whole episode forms a kind of pastoral idyll" (34), and Tintner analyzes the Medley chapters as depicting "a Keatsian paradise" (85).

16  The reference to the unnamed Octave Feuillet novel could also be construed as an indirect Gothic hint. In chapter 22, the Princess gives Hyacinth the last number of the Revue des Deux Mondes and "call[s] his attention, in particular, to a story of M. Octave Feuillet" (307). When she reappears, she then presents herself to him as "a sudden incarnation of the heroine of M. Feuillet’s novel" (308). There has been some speculation as to the identity of the novel; both Walker and Tintner propose La Petite Comtesse as a likely candidate, and give convincing hypotheses as to the narrative function of the reference, focusing on attempts at "clarifying" the character of the Princess. Yet Tintner herself, describing the plot of La Petite Comtesse, mentions the main character’s scholarly interests which isolate him in a monastic cell while he is doing research on a ruined abbey. She further quotes him as observing that "our time…is not without certain basic resemblances to the first years of the Middle Ages, with the moral disorder, material good, and barbaric violence" (Cosmopolitan World, 69) – a quotation that certainly sounds rather Gothic, even if neither La Petite Comtesse nor The Princess Casamassima can be pigeonholed as Gothic novels. Given the mischievous Gothic hints that James scatters in the Medley chapters, it is not altogether unlikely that the Feuillet reference may be just such another clue – another red herring.  

17  Another diverted quotation, originally applied to the "forces of the revolution", of which it is said that "[t]o lurk in improbable forms was precisely their strength" (486).

18  In addition to the Princess, Fussell lists Mrs. Bread in The American, Madame Merle in The Portrait of a Lady, and Mrs. Temperly in the tale of that name (87). He also includes Verena Tarrant in The Bostonians, although the formula is given a twist there, as Ransom rather spuriously tells her that she might be "the most charming woman in America" (1162). The other examples Fussell gives are all concerned with Europe, France – or even, occasionally, the world. He might have added that, in The Portrait of a Lady, the expression is applied not only to Madame Merle (a compliment paid by Mrs. Touchett, whose lack of subtlety is notorious), but also to the male "villain", Osmond, who, Isabel says, wanted her "to think of him as he thought of himself – as the first gentleman in Europe" (PL 634).

19  Consequently, as Wagenknecht noted, a trifle superlatively, "[t]here can hardly be a character in American fiction concerning whose motives there has been more critical speculation than Christina Light" (66). She has been interpreted in the most passionate ways, ranging from the utterly negative (a capricious, heartless femme fatale) to the positive (a romantic, compassionate idealist). All these conflicting interpretations are supported by the novel, at one time or another, which compromises any clear-cut judgement of her character.

20  Some critics have felt differently. Grenander wrote that "[a]t the conclusion of The Princess, one feels, as James must have felt, that she has been at last ‘completely recorded’" (319). I feel, rather, that she is left even more "en l’air" than Isabel at the end of The Portrait. Her extra-narrative future is the only one which is mentioned (i.e. her resuming her life with her husband), but the possibility is improbable and, again, radically unsatisfactory.

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Anne-Claire LE RESTE, « The Princess Casamassima: Jamesian (Urban) Gothic and Realism », E-rea [En ligne], 5.2 | 2007, document 5, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2007, consulté le 25 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.161

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Anne-Claire LE RESTE

Université Haute Bretagne - Rennes 2

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