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Physical Mobility as Social Power in The Princess Casamassima by Mark Chapman, University of California, San Diego In his preface to The Princess Casamassima, James says that it was his habit of walking the streets of London that led him to develop the history of Hyacinth Robinson: as he phrases it, this character "sprung up" for him "out of the London pavement" (PC v).1 This close association with the streets of London defines Hyacinth's character throughout his story: he loves the sights and smells of the "carboniferous London damp," and the walks he takes through the city are always his most accessible and dependable form of entertainment. The importance of the city of London to the development of one of James's characters is by no means unique to this novel: John Kimmey effectively demonstrates the way James uses London as a setting for three crucial moments in Isabel Archer's history, and Kimmey refers to the importance of the city to characters at certain points in The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl as well. Examining the role of the city in this way is especially useful to a study of The Princess Casamassima, for the walks that Hyacinth enjoys through London are always more than just a pleasant form of transportation. Hyacinth's social sphere expands steadily outward from Pentonville as he makes new acquaintances from increasingly elevated levels of society and is able to visit parts of London previously closed to him; as this happens, his walks through the city come to represent his increasing ability to cross social boundaries. Once he achieves his greatest degree of social freedom, his subsequent gradual loss of that freedom is reflected in the increasingly circumscribed scope of his walks through London. When Hyacinth dies it is as much because he has no place left to walk to in London as it is because of his rash and fatal promise to aid a revolutionary group. At the beginning of the narrative, Hyacinth's situation in life is represented by the location of his home in London: Pentonville is situated midway between the fashionable West End and the poor East End of the city, and Hyacinth's economic and social position is likewise balanced between these extremes.2 Depending on subsequent events, he might improve his situation and establish himself in a higher level of society, or he might follow the Hennings into "the fathomless deeps of the town" (PC I, 64). Mr. Vetch arranges the first step for Hyacinth in the preferred direction: by chance having befriended Poupin at Mr. Crookenden's bookbinding shop, he is able to secure for Hyacinth a position in this establishment . The job in Soho constitutes a major economic movement for Hyacinth away from the limitations he has known all his life in Pentonville. Having made 166 The Henry James Review this move, however, he is, in a sense, cut off from his family—that is, from Pinnie and Mr. Vetch—when he embraces the revolutionary ideas to which Poupin introduces him at the "Sun and Moon" in Bloomsbury. This sequence of events in Hyacinth's life is reflected in the positions of the involved neighborhoods: his lengthy walk from Pentonville to Soho represents his economic escape from his family; Bloomsbury, lying directly between Soho and Pentonville, represents the revolutionary activities that interfere with his remaining peacefully at home and so come between him and his family.3 While Hyacinth is becoming involved with his revolutionary companions, his childhood friend reenters his life. As much a child of the streets as Hyacinth, Millicent Henning is nonetheless quite different as a finished product. While Hyacinth enjoys all the sensations of the crowded London setting, Millicent prefers the finer ones: "she said she liked the streets, but liked the respectable ones . . . she hoped they would soon get into the Edgware Road . . . which was a proper street for a lady" (PC I, 83). Throughout the novel, Millicent's appreciation of the "finer things" affects her friendship with Hyacinth. It causes her, for instance, to be drawn towards Captain Sholto, who represents the wealthier levels of society. Millicent's deceit concerning her growing involvement with the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 165-175
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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