This is the story of a princess who wants to be a revolutionary, a revolutionary who wants to be a nobleman, and a brilliant novelist who quite loses his way by trying his hand at something he is not really very good at. The princess of the title is estranged from her princely husband, an Italian nobleman, and she has all the beauty and brains of a classic James heroine—more really. But she has a fascination for the teeming underclass of Victorian Britain and the seething politics and class unrest that threatened revolution on all sides in that turbulent era. The hero is Hyacinth Robinson, the illegitimate son of a British nobleman and the French woman who murdered him in a passion; he is a bookbinder by profession, a gentleman by blood, and someone who comes to dabble in revolutionary circles, and eventually agrees to be the instrument of a bloody assassination attempt.
The story could seem seriously dated and improbable, but only if you forget how really terrifying the anarchists of that time were. They were that era’s terrorists, and they struck with great violence and cruelty. Crude bomb-makers blew themselves up in crowded trains and cozy cafes in Paris, crackpots from obscure political sects took potshots at crowned heads and political figures. And more victims fell than just the Archduke and Archduchess of Austria at Sarajevo. William McKinley, the U.S. president, was assassinated, as was an Austrian empress, a French president, an Italian king and a Spanish prime minister. The crimes were vicious, shocking, and deadly, just like today. And they fascinated and appalled the aristocracy.
This novel is James’ attempt to give them a thrilling glimpse into this murky world and to depart from his usual haunt of the drawing rooms and ballrooms of the rich and privileged. In this he was ill-advised and he should have stuck with the subjects and the class that he knew so well. This is an attempt to give a Dickensian peep into the seedy underworld of the London poor and the politicians and terrorists that were stirring the pot of civil unrest there, and James simply does not pull it off very well. The great central plot device of the novel—the impending assassination attempt—hangs over the novel for 600 pages, but in the end it is what the English call a damp squib, a firework that fails to go off. And 600 pages of that is far too much, leaving one feeling like the Emperor Joseph II, who supposedly said to Mozart on hearing “The Abduction from the Seraglio” for the first time: “That is too fine for my ears–there are too many notes!” There are too many words in this novel for the scant plot it seeks to advance, the characterizations of working class people are neither convincing nor sympathetic, and are not even particularly interesting. James should have left this world to Dickens and stuck to the world he knew so well and which adorns his other, much better, novels.