Colm Tóibín

"The Master"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple SEP 16, 2004)

When his brother William asks novelist Henry James what is the "moral" of his stories, James replies, "The moral? The moral is the most pragmatic we can imagine, that life is a mystery and that only sentences are beautiful, and that we must be ready for change, especially when we go to Paris, and that no one who has known the sweetness of Paris can properly return to the sweetness of the United States."

Focusing on the life of Henry James, Colm Toibin's The Master goes way beyond the usual "novelization" of someone's biography. Toibin has done a tremendous amount of research and has obviously read everything James has written, but he has so completely distilled all of this information, that in writing this book, he actually creates Henry James. Most remarkably, he does this while using the third person point of view to tell the story, preserving the objective tone but bringing forth characters and events so vibrant with life that Toibin's Henry James is the same man that we know from his letters and journals—and from the insights we glean from James's novels

The novel opens in 1895, when James's play, Guy Domville, is booed on opening night. James, now fifty-two, has had high hopes for this play and for a career as a playwright, believing success on stage will put an end to "his long solitary days" and allow him to spend more time among actors, whom he finds fascinating. Wanting to be alone after the play's failure, he accepts the invitations of Lords Houghton and Wolseley to escape to Ireland, where they maintain the Queen's interests in what is now a hotbed of rebellion. The busybody Lady Wolseley, his hostess, has assigned a man named Hammond to be James's manservant, indicating very pointedly to James that Hammond is assigned to no one else and that he "will do everything to make [James] happy." James, however, ignores the implications, and while finding Hammond to be cheerful and friendly, notes the vast social distance between them.

Described as "a great stranger, with nothing to match his own longings, a man away from his own country, observing the world as a mere watcher from the window," James is a lonely and solitary figure throughout the novel, a man unable to form a committed relationship with anyone, either male or female, sometimes wanting companionship but not closeness, and always needing solitude to work. Through flashbacks, Toibin shows how James's early upbringing may have been partly responsible for his feelings of isolation, since he and his three brothers and sister moved with their parents around Europe for years. Lacking a sense of security, dependent almost completely on each other for companionship, and always feeling like outsiders with little or no contact with contemporaries at home or abroad, the James siblings formed close attachments with each other and often mere acquaintanceships with others of their social and intellectual level.

When Henry begins to write, first stories, and then novels, he draws for inspiration on the people he knows best and the events which have affected their lives and his own. His sister Alice, we see, is the model for the little girl in The Turn of the Screw, a story idea James receives from the Archbishop of Canterbury. His sympathy for the children of Oscar Wilde, after Wilde's conviction for lewdness, and the writings of another friend, John Addington Symonds, about the love between two men, evolve into the story of a child whose father is a writer visited by an American who admires his work. His cousin Minny Temple becomes the inspiration for several of his most important female characters—in "Poor Richard," Daisy Miller, and Portrait of a Lady--and when she dies, after James has refused to bring her to Europe because of her poor health, he guiltily gives her a posthumous trip through Wings of the Dove. His brother Wilky's serious wounds in the Civil War, from which he recovered at home, provide James with details he includes in other stories. Virtually every aspect of his life works its way into a James story in some form or other, and as he gets inside the psyches of his characters through his fiction, he reveals his own psyche, his sympathies, and his personal conflicts.

Toibin's dual focus on James's life and how it is embodied in his fiction, give a powerful immediacy and sense of verisimilitude to this novel, so strong that one cannot help but feel an emotional connection to James, no matter how remote he may seem otherwise. His connections to great families, to writers whose names are well known, and to people who are willing to accept him completely on his own terms provide Toibin with unlimited source material. It is Toibin's own talents in ordering this information, bringing it to life, and showing its importance in James's writings, however, which make this novel so important. On the longlist for the Man Booker Prize for the best novel of the year, The Master is a masterful novel which honors Henry James through its careful scholarship and the vibrant recreation of James and the events in his life. A Must Read for lovers of Henry James.

A note to readers : Colm Toibin does not usually name the stories and novels for which Henry James finds inspiration in his own life. The reader who is familiar with James's novels and stories will immediately recognize the similarities between real events and the plots and characters of the novels that James is shown to be creating. Though the reader who is unfamiliar with James's work may find the novel to be fascinating without that literary background, his/her pleasure will increase immeasurably if s/he reads some summaries of the novels or views some of the excellent adaptations available on video. Wings of the Dove, starring Helena Bonham Carter, is an especially fine adaptation of James's most difficult novel. Portrait of a Lady with Nicole Kidman, The Europeans with Lee Remick, and The Bostonians with Vanessa Redgrave are also excellent adaptations, well worth viewing.
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About the Author:

author photo by bruce weberColm Toibin was born in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford in the southeast of Ireland in 1955. The second youngest of five children, he went to the Christian Brothers School in Enniscorthy and then, for the last two years, to St Peter's College in Wexford. In 1972 he went to University College Dublin where he studied History and English receiving a B.A. in 1975. He returned to Dublin in 1978 and began work on an M.A. in Modern English and American Literature, which he never finished.

Tóibín is one of the most widely read journalists in his native Ireland, best known for his regular column in the Dublin Sunday Independent. He has also worked as a teacher, journalist and critic in his native Ireland, as well as in London, Barcelona, New York and throughout South America. He is also a prolific author and editor of fiction and non-fiction and an avid traveller. His novel The Blackwater Lightship was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize.

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