These synopses are not intended to summarize every significant event in what is, after all, a long and complex novel. They are more in the nature of a ‘finding guide’, so that the major scenes can be tracked down without scanning through hundreds of lines of text. Obviously, flicking through the pages of a book, in its normal codex format, looking for key names is much easier than trying to flick through a large computer file on screen! The book numbers in the broad summary (below) take you down to the chapter-by-chapter synopsis, where the book and chapter numbers are links into the appropriate points in the text file.

1st level synopsis   (summary)

We learn the tragic life story of Hyacinth Robinson, craftsman bookbinder, the illegitimate son of a French seamstress and an English nobleman, culminating in his involvement with the revolutionary working-class movements in 1880’s London.

2nd level synopsis   (by book)

note: the division into books is not logically necessary and in places does not match the chronological division of the narrative; this synopsis therefore summarizes the main contents of each book, not the full narrative, for which, see the chapter by chapter analysis

Book first

We are introduced to the ‘primal scene’ of Hyacinth’s childhood through his mother’s death in prison, and to most of the main characters of the story.

Book second

Hyacinth Robinson is introduced to the Princess Casamassima by a mutual acquaintance who knows of their revolutionary instincts and she takes him up. She is estranged from her Italian husband. Hyacinth, carried away by fervour for the cause takes a vow to assist it.

Book third

Through a long stay at the Princess’s rented country-house Hyacinth gets a taste of aristocratic life. On his return he finds the ‘aunt’ who brought him up is dying. She leaves him a small legacy.

Book fourth

Hyacinth’s sensibilities are further refined in Paris and Venice. Back in London he is less sure of the utility of violent action.

Book fifth

The Princess gradually spends less time with Hyacinth and more with his friend Muniment, who seems more involved with revolutionary activity. They are tracked by the jealous Prince to a disreputable looking house. Hyacinth’s childhood friend Millicent is sympathetic but not encouraging.

Book sixth

Hyacinth receives secret instructions to assassinate a Lord but instead commits suicide with the supplied pistol. His body is discovered by the Princess.

3rd level synopsis   (by chapter)
Book first

Miss Pynsent, a poor dressmaker, receives a visit from a prison warder, Mrs Bowerbank. The mother of the illegitimate boy Hyacinth Robinson whom Amanda Pynsent has brought up, is now dying in gaol, having been convicted years before of murdering Lord Frederick, the putative father; she now wants to see her son for one last time. When the small, delicate child has been fetched from playing by Millicent Henning, one of the other local children, the ladies are unable to decide whether such a visit would be good or bad for him, in the long run.


That evening, Amanda Pynsent discusses her dilemma with her close friend, the theatre violinist, Anastasius Vetch. His cynical view of society is unable to help her decide what to do for the best.


‘Pinnie’ takes Hyacinth to Millbank prison, whose high, dark walls and dank atmosphere on the banks of the brown Thames have a debilitating effect. Florentine Vivier, an emaciated shell of her former beautiful self, talks only French, so Hyacinth, while horrified, remains unenlightened even when submitting to a farewell kiss. Even so, he asks no questions of Pinnie on the way home.


Some ten years after the fateful prison visit, Miss Pynsent, still in the dingy surroundings of Lomax Place, is surprised by a teatime visit from Miss Henning, long lost sight of and now resplendent in fine clothes as a shop girl in one of London’s finest department stores. The big brash girl stays an hour as if waiting for Mr Robinson to return from his job as a craftsman bookbinder.


Millicent catches Hyacinth arriving as she is leaving and, after some badinage at the expense of Miss Pynsent and Lomax Place, he walks her home to Pimlico, via a coffee-house.


As Hyacinth wonders about the absence from work of the French master craftsman Monsieur Poupin, the reader is filled in with our hero’s life in the ten years since the prison visit. Mr Vetch was instrumental in getting him apprenticed as a bookbinder through his contact with the Frenchman, who came to England after the failure of the Paris Commune in 1871.


M. Poupin is in bed, nursing a severe cold but being cheered by his wife’s making herbal teas and by a revolutionary friend Paul Muniment, who is a employed by a wholesale chemist in South London. Hyacinth is intrigued by a secret the two men apparently share. When Eustache Poupin tires, the new friends leave together and head for the flat Paul shares with his invalid sister in Camberwell.


Rose Muniment is receiving a visit from Lady Aurora Langrish, daughter of an aristocrat but dedicated to alleviating the condition of the poor. The bedridden young woman and the shy peer’s daughter have sparkling conversations however and a bantering discussion of persons and politics ensues. Rosy engineers her brother’s escorting Lady Aurora home to Belgrave Square by the continuation of Hyacinth’s visit.


Rosy prattles on for the next half-hour: about Lady Aurora, about Paul and her own family background in the north and about their current situation. Paul joins the banter when he returns.


Several months later Hyacinth has to set Pinnie’s mind at rest about his interest in Millicent, or rather, about hers in him! – he does not envisage marrying her. The narrator amplifies their situation with some examples.


Millicent wants to be taken to a posh theatre, so Hyacinth approaches Mr Vetch for a free pass to one of the ones in the Strand. In a retrospect of his dealings with Vetch, we find out how Hyacinth reacted to the prison visit by asking Pinnie, years afterwards, and discovering much of the truth about his mother. Anastasius seems remarkably well informed about Hyacinth’s activities, both with Millicent and with Paul Muniment and the revolutionaries at the ‘Sun and Moon’ public house in Soho, but promises to get the requested order.

Book second

From their front row seats in the theatre balcony, Millicent and Hyacinth find themselves observed by someone in one of the boxes to the left of the stage. Captain Sholto has recognized ‘Mr Robinson’ from having met him at the revolutionary meetings in Soho and now wishes to introduce him to the Princess Casamassima. After taking him to the box at the end of one of the intervals, Sholto returns to chaperone Millicent.


Hyacinth has a whole act of the play to compose himself in the presence of ‘the most remarkable woman in Europe’ and her aged companion, but fails. Separated from her Italian husband, the Princess is interested in the alleviation of social ills and the possibility of revolution. She realizes that Sholto, acting as her investigator, will never get close to the heart of such things and promises to write to Hyacinth to invite him to call.


Hyacinth tells Paul Muniment of his encounter, but the latter is not impressed with aristocrats ‘slumming’, unless for philanthropic reasons like Lady Aurora. It is she Hyacinth and Pinnie find in attendance when they visit Rose Muniment. Lady Aurora has suggested she give Rose a sofa for day use, so a plan is hatched for Pinnie to make a pink dressing gown to go with it.


Leaving Pinnie and Rosy talking together, Lady Aurora and Hyacinth discuss the Muniments, the poor generally and Lady Aurora’s situation in particular, whilst looking out over the London rooftops. Then Paul returns, with Captain Sholto, surprisingly, having met him at the ‘Sun and Moon’. Tea is made and is consumed amid the rather strained atmosphere engendered by Sholto’s questions. Nevertheless, on the break up of the party, Hyacinth accepts Sholto’s invitation to take a nightcap at his Mayfair flat, where they discuss the Princess and her estranged husband.


Prince Casamassima has come to London to ask his wife to return to him, but she won’t meet him. Madame Grandoni, her ageing companion, acts as her messenger to tell him that what he asks is impossible. The Prince is worried about his wife’s extravagant lifestyle, although Madame Grandoni knows that she has not exceeded the allowance he gives her; he also worries about the company she is reported as keeping. To justify his suspicions, Hyacinth arrives, by invitation of the Princess, just before he leaves.


The Princess keeps him waiting, but once in the room is obviously nervous: she gives Hyacinth a cup of tea which he doesn’t really want and seems to find it difficult to keep the conversation from flitting from subject to subject. However she does reveal something about her American-Italian parentage, her separation from her Italian husband and his insufferable family and her interest in the position of the poor. Afterwards he realizes that she also managed to get him to talk a bit about himself. Over the succeeding week he rebinds in sumptuous covers an edition of the collected poems of Tennyson, but when he returns to South Street to present it the Princess has already left town for the summer.


Madame Grandoni had seen the Prince again before she left London with the Princess. She tries to persuade him that he has been handling the matter badly, but will have little or no chance of winning Christina back however he behaves now. He is plainly jealous of the men with whom she is consorting: Hyacinth and Captain Sholto among them.


Hyacinth finally makes his visit to Lady Aurora’s house in Belgrave Square. It has largely emptied and been shut up after the end of the London season, but Aurora has stayed on as she is always bored at the family’s country seat, Inglefield. The French books she has looked out for him do not include any of the modern realist novels for which he had hoped. As he leaves she asks what he thinks of Sholto, whom she considers vulgar.


The narrator reviews Hyacinth’s relationships with his friends of both sexes over the next few months and then picks up the action on the evening in November when our hero, dropping in to a Mayfair public house to change his gold sovereign into silver coins, finds Captain Sholto the sole occupant of the ‘private bar’. Sholto seems flustered at the meeting and, while hurrying him away, they bump into Millicent, who claims to be heading to see a friend who is a lady’s maid in Curzon Street. Hyacinth suspects that the pair had an assignation at the pub. He rows with Millicent but Sholto takes them to a music hall as a diversion.


In the back room of the ‘Sun and Moon’ the usual crowd of vociferous but ultimately inactive workers are assembled. Paul Muniment makes one of his rare visits, to announce that Hoffendahl, the German revolutionary leader, is in London for a few days. Escaping the noise and heat for some minutes in the street outside, Hyacinth so contrasts the ineffectual talk with the necessity for action that, on returning to the room and hearing one of the company challenge the rest that they are afraid of their bloody skin, he leaps on a table and declares his willingness to die for the cause if it will help. Once the crowd have dispersed, Muniment, Poupin and Schinkel take Hyacinth in a cab to meet Diedrich Hoffendahl in the East End of London.

Book third

In late April, Hyacinth is making a weekend visit (Saturday-Monday) to the country-house, Medley, which the Princess has rented for three months from an old catholic family. Madame Grandoni warns him not to become ensnared by the atmosphere but the Princess, when she appears, seems to assume that he will be staying beyond the early train on Monday morning. In discussing aristocracy, Hyacinth describes Lady Aurora to the Princess, who then wants to met her at the Muniments.


In the afternoon the Princess and Hyacinth go for a drive. On their return they have to entertain some of the local county set to tea, to the Princess’s amusement. In the evening it is settled that Hyacinth will stay on: the Princess offering to make up his lost wages, and his wardrobe(!), although he demurs this assistance.


On the Monday, during a walk in the grounds, Hyacinth ends up spilling the beans about his potentially fatal commitment. The Princess is able to name Hoffendahl from her revolutionary investigations on the continent. They discuss what might be the outcome.


On one of his solitary walks in the countryside surrounding Medley Hyacinth meets Captain Sholto on horseback. Despite an extended conversation he is unable to determine the Captain’s attitude and intentions toward the Princess, himself or Millicent Henning.


The Princess gives the Captain permission to stay at Medley. He and Madame Grandoni discuss the Princess before dinner.


Back at Lomax place, after three weeks at Medley, Hyacinth finds Lady Aurora looking after an ailing Amanda Pynsent. He feels guilty and takes it out on Aurora and Mr Vetch for not writing to him – Miss Pynsent had told them not to, since she was convinced that Hyacinth was at an aristocratic house. Mr Vetch questions Hyacinth about his stay in the country.


Pinnie is dying, but it is fully a fortnight before her final breath. This prevents Hyacinth returning to his work at Crookenden’s. Borrowing money from Mr Vetch, he gets a West End doctor to attend, but the latter merely confirms the local doctor’s prognosis. After her funeral Mr Vetch reveals that Pinnie has left some thirty-seven pounds in a savings bank for Hyacinth, hoping that he will be able to see something of the world.

Book fourth

In Paris Hyacinth is dazzled by all his new experiences. Deliberately failing to take up any of Poupin’s letters of introduction to revolutionaries, he gives himself up to reflection on his life, past, present and future.


Hyacinth continues his musings, sitting outside Tortoni’s as twilight falls. Three weeks later he is in Venice and writes a letter to the Princess in which he expresses his new-found appreciation of the fruits of civilization and his disillusionment with the revolutionaries’ idea of destroying them for the sake of levelling out wealth.


Back in London, Hyacinth finds new lodgings in Westminster and then returns to his work as a bookbinder, where he comes in for some ragging from his fellow craftsmen for his extended absence.


Hyacinth finds both Lady Aurora and the Princess with the Muniments when he visits them. Captain Sholto had introduced Christina and she has had the same mesmerizing effect as elsewhere. It transpires that she has given up the house in South Street and sold most of her things. At the end of the visit Hyacinth leaves with her to walk her to her new home, in Paddington.


After their four or five mile walk through London they reach Madeira Crescent, which is a squalid lower middle class street. However, Madame Grandoni is still residing with the Princess and they have their Italian maid Assunta and a kitchen maid. During his absence abroad Lady Aurora has been showing Christina the London slums.


It is now after the end of the London season, but Lady Aurora has stayed on in her family’s town house in Belgrave Square. Hyacinth pays a call in thanks for her kindness to Pinnie but they gravitate to discussing the Princess’s sincerity. When he next goes to Madeira Crescent, Lady Aurora arrives shortly afterwards. The topic of the Muniments arises on both these occasions.


The following Sunday, Hyacinth spends the day with the Muniments, finishing with Paul and he taking a trip to Greenwich Park. Lying on the grass up on the hill they discuss their respective approaches to the need for revolution. Paul is still in favour of equality but Hyacinth’s views have now changed.


On a Sunday in November Paul pays a visit to Madeira Crescent. He claims this is only because Rosy has been nagging him to do so, but he seems immensely to enjoy his talk with the Princess, even when she suggests that Hyacinth should be released from his vow. Their dangerous conversation is interrupted by Madame Grandoni who, when he has gone, makes a coarse remark about Christina’s having visited Rosy only because of her brother.


Later that same evening Mr Vetch calls in the Crescent. He has guessed from things that Monsieur Poupin has said that Hyacinth is involved in some secret international operation and wants the Princess, whom he believes has influence with it, to get him ‘released’. At first she suggests he should take up the matter with Paul Muniment, but then to protect the latter, she changes her mind and asks Mr Vetch to leave things to her.

Book fifth

Hyacinth spends his spare time during the winter in hand binding some of the Princess’s books, in recompense for her hospitality at Medley in the spring, but she seems no longer to appreciate fine things. They make forays together into London slums, but Hyacinth can only see the undeserving poor and Christina takes to going with Lady Aurora, although his visits to Madeira Crescent continue. One evening he meets Aurora leaving distractedly, having had a scene with her hostess. In the ensuing discussion Hyacinth and Christina have differing views of the aristocrat’s tendre for Muniment.


The same subject arises in Rosy’s teasing of Paul as he gets dressed up on a Saturday evening to call on the Princess. After tea at the Crescent the two depart for an appointment at what is presumably a revolutionary ‘safe house’.


An hour later, Madame Grandoni receives a visit from the Prince Casamassima, who has returned to London to find out why his wife has moved out of South Street and what she is doing with the money he provides. He has been watching the Madeira Crescent house, and has followed the Princess and the tall man to a suspicious house in Chiffinch Street, in the north east postal district. Now he has come back to find out what Madame Grandoni knows. When she explains Christina’s involvement with revolutionaries he vows to stop supporting her. Towards the end of their conversation Hyacinth arrives. Subsequently the two men keep a renewed watch on the house and see the ‘guilty’ couple return and enter it.


Hyacinth spends a Sunday with Millicent. She insists on going to church in the morning and then they walk in St James’s and Hyde Parks. Eventually he tells her the story of his illegitimate birth and his mother’s murder conviction and death in prison. Millicent is eminently sympathetic as she is about the way the ‘precious Princess’ has dropped him.


It seems that Millicent’s evening is spoken for, so Hyacinth ends up making an impromptu visit to Belgrave Square. Lady Aurora comes to the small waiting room from a formal dinner and in their casual talk each becomes aware of the other’s response to the relationship, whatever it is, between Paul Muniment and the Princess.

Book sixth

As it is still relatively early in the evening, Hyacinth now makes tracks for Lisson Grove, where he finds the Poupins entertaining Schinkel. On his entering, the three divert their conversation, so Hyacinth guesses that something is ‘up’: Schinkel has received a secret communication for him, but Madame Poupin wants to destroy it unread.


Hyacinth waylays Schinkel outside the Poupins and receives his sealed letter, together with the story of its covert delivery early on the Sunday morning. Together they wonder why Paul Muniment has not been trusted to deliver it. On returning to his room in Westminster, Hyacinth finds Mr Vetch waiting for him. The latter’s sixth sense has brought him and he extracts a promise from the young man that he will ‘never do any of their work’.


Next day Hyacinth goes to Madeira Crescent. The Princess is out and Madame Grandoni has finally packed her bags and left for Italy. Allowed to wait by Assunta, when the Princess returns they discuss the difference made by this departure. Also the Princess is confident of her and Paul’s sincerity and Hyacinth’s change of opinion, whilst the latter is afraid for what may happen to the Princess if she continues her revolutionary actions.


The next evening Muniment tells the Princess that he has received a letter from the Prince announcing that he is ending her maintenance because she is giving most of it to men like Muniment. A slightly acrimonious dispute as to the consequences of this cessation ensues, leading to the revelation, from Paul, that Hyacinth has been given his task: to shoot an aristocrat at a society garden party, for which his ‘aristocratic’ bearing will be camouflage.


On the following day Hyacinth wanders round London thinking. He goes into Millicent’s store out of a desire to see her, but when he does glimpse her she is with Captain Sholto, modelling a new dress. That evening Princess Casamassima takes a cab to Westminster. She finds Schinkel watching Hyacinth’s lodging house and introduces herself. He is infuriatingly careful about the situation, but eventually she can restrain herself no longer and makes him break into the appropriate room. Hyacinth has shot himself, not the targeted Duke, with the pistol supplied by the organization.