Picador. 2004. 359 pp.
ISBN 0 330 36466 9.
Sometime in the night he dreamed about the dead—familiar faces and the others, half-forgotten ones, fleetingly summed up.
So Henry ponders, as this book begins. And in many ways The Master is like a dream. There is a mesmerizing languor to Tóibín's prose, and Henry James, who is "The Master" of the title, moves amongst familiar faces, family, friends and "others, half-forgotten" in the four years through which we follow him.
It is a strange undertaking for an author to try to resurrect the dead using the deceased one's letters, notebooks and novels. Even with the letters of family and friends and the pictures drawn by biographers, one can never be sure how genuinely life-like the restoration is. But Tóibín is an artist, and he has done his work superbly. He also has the grace to call his book a novel (not a biography, as others might), so we are free to accept his Henry James as an imaginative creation and to regard these four years of James' life as a story.
In fact, there is no need to know anything about the Henry James (1843 - 1916) of literary fame, or to have read any of his work, in order to enjoy The Master. Tóibín's Henry is a fully realized, sympathetic character. He is educated, sophisticated, well-travelled, but a bit of an enigma. Family and friends clearly are important to him, but he guards his privacy and a certain solitude, not fiercely (there seems to be little fire in his blood), but with meticulous care. Through his own thoughts and actions, we come to see him as a person whose emotions are complex: as one who enjoys the privileges of his status as a well-known writer, and who can use this status to remain aloof and watchful, and as one who is sensitive to the undercurrents around him, aware, always, of the narrative potential in any situation.
The life of Tóibín's Henry follows the pattern of his literary namesake between January 1895, when his first play opens (disastrously) in London's West End, to May 1899, very shortly after the suicide in Venice of his close friend and colleague Constance Fenimore Woolson. He moves between England and Italy; buys Lamb House in Rye as his permanent writing retreat; allows a society friend, Lady Wolseley, to furnish it with treasures for him; and employs the Scot, William McAlpine, as his stenographer. All the time he labours at his writing, looking for themes, planning and imagining his stories, and dictating them sentence-by-sentence to McAlpine. He is a prolific writer.
Yet it is through his thoughts and memories that we come to know him. he thinks often of his family, especially of his dead sister Alice, and his cousin, Minnie Temple, who also died young. He admires these women for their intelligence and idependence, much as he admires Constance Fenimore Woolson. His thoughts about men, other than those of his close family, are more guarded, but his respect for his young "treasure" of a servant, Burgess Noakes, is clear, as is his admiration for Hendrik Andersen. It is consistent with Henry's own reticence and self-doubt that nothing about his sexuality is spelled out. We may speculate or guess, as did his friends and acquaintances, but Tóibín declines to do this for us.
Tóibín realistically recreates the atmosphere, social mores, gossip and style of the Victorian society within which Henry lives and thrives, and it is the curiosity of members of that society about Henry's sexuality which Tóibín conveys. That sort of delicate, beautifully imagined and evoked atmosphere pervades The Master and, using all his skills, Tóibín has managed to immerse himself in Henry James's life and work until he feels he understands the man and can present him to us.
This is not biography, although Tóibín's Henry may very well be as like the Henry James of literature as is actually possible to convey, but it is absorbing fiction. I don't now feel inclined to rush off and read everything Henry James wrote, but I did enjoy The Master, and I will happily read anything else that Colm Tóibín writes.
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