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The New Republic Online
Thursday, July 1st, 2004


The Master Signed 1st Edition

by Colm Tóibín


A review by Deborah Friedell

"I won't desert you," Isabel Archer promises her stepdaughter, and she doesn't. She lets Caspar Goodwood give her one kiss, "like white lightning," and then she runs away, back to Rome and to her husband, to the stepdaughter whom she is unwilling to sacrifice for her own happiness. But the husband is so horrible, and the stepdaughter such a cipher, that many of Henry James's first readers, including some reviewers, misread the novel, deciding that The Portrait of a Lady suggested that Isabel was going off with Caspar after all. Twenty-seven years later, when James revised the novel for the New York Edition in 1908, he re-wrote the ending so that there would be no doubt of Isabel's selflessness.

In the interim, in The Ambassadors, Lambert Strether finds himself in a position similar to Isabel's, wanting to stop an arranged marriage. But Strether realizes that he cannot do it. He was "prepared to suffer — before his own inner tribunal — for Chad; he was prepared to suffer even for Madame de Vionnet. But he wasn't prepared to suffer for the little girl." The plots of James's novels hinge on these complicated moral calculations of sacrifice. Which characters will the hero deem worth saving? How much of another's pain can one bear to take on? James's characters rarely grow by love: "The more you gave," one heroine discovers, "the less of you was left." And so a child must choose between her devoted governess and her stepparents; a young woman must choose between her father and her husband, her girlhood friend and herself. For James's characters who are artists, there is no intermingling of love and craft: they have the additional burden of choosing between the art and the life. Sculpture or the charming girl? A theatrical career or the charming boy? Choose! Relinquish! Renounce! Something must die so that something might live.

Colm Toibin has written a novel about Henry James that places him in the peculiar situation of one of his own characters. Although Toibin has selected most of his novel's historical details from Leon Edel's five-volume biography and from careful readings of James's letters, the novel's central preoccupations seem more deeply influenced by Lyndall Gordon's feminist biography, A Private Life of Henry James: Two Women and His Art, which appeared in 1998. Gordon argued that James's literary career was marked by his obsession with his cousin Minny Temple and the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, that he listened to them and used them, put his Jamesian stamp upon them, immortalized them in his art, and failed them — sacrificed them — when they conflicted with his ambitions. "James invented himself," Gordon argues, "but he could not have written as he did without partners — female partners, posthumous partners — in that unseen space in which life is transformed into art." Biographers and critics have labored to find similarities between James's acquaintances and his fictional creations, but Toibin takes the opening best entered by a novelist, re-creating the "unseen space" between what James experienced and what he wrote.

The Master begins in 1895, in London, with James, fifty-one, about to suffer public humiliation with the failure of his play Guy Domville. It may be the most famous story about the writer: how, too nervous to sit through his play's first performance, he went instead to see Oscar Wilde's wildly popular An Ideal Husband before walking to the theater where Guy Domville was just finishing. Led onstage by an actor who was either oblivious to the crowd's distemper or vindictive, James was booed off. Toibin describes the fiasco and places his novel in its aftermath, the period that Edel termed "the treacherous years," when James had to find a way to relinquish his hope of trying to please the masses and to start writing after his own taste. Faced with failure, Toibin's James decides "that he was destined to write for the few, perhaps for the future."

Toibin's description of Guy Domville's reception is elegantly chronicled in the style that the writer has increasingly refined in his previous novels — a lucid, quietly precise omniscient narration, which enters characters' minds with detachment, not with ornate Jamesian free indirection. But Toibin's sharpest opening observations have been made before. The marvelous cruelties that dominate the scene (when an actor "uttered his last lines: 'I'm the last, my lord, of the Domvilles[,]' someone from the gallery had shouted: 'It's a damned good thing you are!'") are simply too well-recorded by Edel and by others.

Just when a reader might be wondering about the superfluity of Toibin's book, it benefits from a fortuitous coincidence. Soon after the play failed (it was replaced by The Importance of Being Earnest), James took a trip to Ireland, which is Toibin's home, where he was raised and practiced journalism, and where he has already set two of his most accomplished novels, The Heather Blazing and The Blackwater Lightship. Although the actual events of James's short trip have not recommended themselves to biographers as especially dramatic, Toibin kindles them, and suddenly his novel grows immensely powerful, as though Toibin needed the confidence that comes when writing about one's own turf. He begins to deviate more strikingly from known facts, entering James's mind to offer his observations on the scenes and the conversations that the novel thrusts upon him.

At Dublin Castle, James is waited on by an army corporal named Hammond, who, James decides, possesses "a quiet voice and an air of smooth discretion. The way he moved and took things in suggested that he would remember everything he saw and heard." Another guest at the castle has a young daughter, Mona, a child of "ten or eleven." James watches Hammond and the child at a party and convinces himself that Hammond feels about her as he does.

Henry was disturbed by her, the flaunting of her female self, and her own poised alertness to her allure. ... As each dance ended, a new partner awaited her. In flirting with her and treating her as an adult, they succeeded, Henry thought, in mocking her. They paid no attention to the fact that she was a little girl who had dressed up and should be going to bed. Henry watched Hammond watching her, understanding that he might be the only other person in the room who viewed Mona's frolics with something less than complacency.

The passage invokes the Jamesian theme of innocence corrupted, and the scene will be "echoed" when James later writes What Maisie Knew. But what makes the moment most painful is that there is no evidence that Hammond shares James's sensitivity to suffering, just as the narration offers nothing to confirm James's observation that Hammond is a man on whom nothing is lost. Instead, Toibin subtly suggests that James is only projecting his own most exceptional qualities onto another man, and silently loving him for them — a pattern that horribly replays itself throughout James's life.

Toibin has written vigorously about homosexual desire before, but with James he takes an elliptical approach. We are offered a flashback of James as a young man, standing in the rain for hours, paralyzed by indecision, too frightened to join a man who waits for him. Isaiah Berlin once observed about James's characters that they "possess the appalling characteristic of not having things happen to them, but looking, digging, scratching sometimes, for experience: they prepare themselves like emotional vampires, to absorb & accumulate ... they don't live." Berlin's description is true of many of James's characters, and in The Master it is true of James himself.

To Toibin, James is a man who does everything in his power to resist human experiences and feelings. His honor derives less from moral sense than from shame and timidity. Despite Sheldon M. Novick's controversial Henry James: The Young Master, which argues that James had dalliances with the junior Oliver Wendell Holmes among others, Toibin's James dies a virgin. While news reports of Oscar Wilde's trial for "gross indecency" circle about him, Toibin's James can have no sympathy. "Perhaps a period of solitary confinement will help Wilde," he says. Wilde is hedonism, and James finds his writing vulgar and his morals contemptible. While Wilde can boast of having had sex with five boys in a single night, James is someone for whom "the thing that he most needed to write would never be seen or published, would never be known or understood by anyone." Instead he will write with withering insight about others.

The major theme of Toibin's earlier novels could be said to be grief, which he has explored in nearly every possible permutation, understanding the subtle variations between mourning one's parent and one's sibling, one's spouse and one's child. Toibin's James is a man who is constantly expected to be in mourning — for his parents and siblings; for his cousin Minny Temple, the great friend of his youth; for Constance Fenimore Woolson, the great friend of his middle age. From The Master's first sentence — "Sometimes in the night he dreamed about the dead" — James comes to resemble George Stransom, who, in "The Altar of the Dead," prefers the "expressive patience" of the dead to the living.

Toibin's James does not grieve. When thinking of Minny Temple's death, he realizes, to his horror, that he prefers "her dead rather than alive, that he had known what to do with her once life was taken from her, but he had denied her when she asked him gently for help." Real people, with their complicated motives and dark, secret selves, are terrifying. When Minny is dead, he can fashion her as he wishes, into the perfect American girl, "fresh and open to life, so inquisitive, so imbued with a boundless curiosity and charm and intelligence." She can become Daisy Miller; she can become Isabel Archer; she can become Milly Theale. And when he feels that he is growing too close to Constance Fenimore Woolson, that his privacy is at stake, he refuses to visit her, though he knows that it will lead her to depression. "'Constance,' he whispered, 'I have come as close as I could, as near as I dared.'" She kills herself, and he is finally free. She can become Maria Gostrey in The Ambassadors; she can become May Bartram, the woman who loves John Marcher in "The Beast in the Jungle," and whom Marcher, too frightened of experience, is utterly unable to love in return.

The past decade has amply demonstrated the popular successes of writers' biographies transformed into discrete narratives — The Hours, Shakespeare in Love, Iris, Sylvia — in which the narrative interest lies with a writer's love affairs or illness or suicide, with the writing treated as little more than a hobby, like throwing darts. For Toibin, however, it is James's writing that leads him to seek out the life. His James is always thinking about treatments for stories, jotting down connections and ideas in his notebooks, as Toibin tries to work backward from James's fiction to its possible precipitating events. (James called these highlights of experience "germs.") And so we have Holmes describing the death of Minny Temple — "She turned her face to the wall" — in the same way that Milly Theale's death will be described in The Wings of the Dove. And we have a foreshadowing of both The Golden Bowl and "The Figure in the Carpet" with James taking a visit to a Bloomsbury antiques shop, complete with an intelligent, mysterious dealer, where he is set to purchase an expensive object — in this case a tapestry — until discovering, of course, that it is flawed, containing a botched restoration of "pink and yellow threads which seemed to him faded too, even though they stood out against the rest of the work."

These moments are clever, but occasionally Toibin's novel feels as though best-loved snippets of Jamesian dialogue have been thrust indiscriminately into characters' mouths so that readers of James can smile knowingly. In doing so, the novel argues (as does Shakespeare in Love, with its Will who can barely turn around without hearing a future line already rendered in iambic pentameter) that art is influenced by life. But Toibin is more insightful when he demonstrates how art is influenced by art. In flashback, Toibin shows how the young James begins to understand "the daily, petty meanness of New England, the comic idiosyncrasies of speech or deportment or behavior" by way of Hawthorne, the "dramatic possibilities of a spirited woman being destroyed by a stifling marriage" by way of George Eliot. James's fiction emerges when he tries to imagine how some of his acquaintances might fare if they were placed in the worlds of the novels that he admires.

Although Toibin is not the first to suggest that Isabel Archer was inspired by Minny Temple or that Daniel Deronda might lie beneath The Portrait of a Lady, his rendering of the woman and the book uniting in James's imagination — Minny falling into Gwendolen Harleth's world in Deronda, with "money, suitors, villas and palaces" — is one of the most intelligent depictions in contemporary literature of a writer's mind at work. Toibin lingers over James's seminal encounters with the novels that would come to matter to him, understanding how particular books shape the way in which serious readers understand the world. And what is true of serious readers is particularly true of James, for at the end of his life, his relationships, almost entirely one-sided, with Balzac, Dickens, and Turgenev — and with Hawthorne and George Eliot above all — would be more intense than those he would allow himself to have with anyone else.

Few writers have been so well written about as Henry James. Toibin is a wise and rapacious citizen of the Jamesian universe, an excellent reader of the biographies and of the literary criticism. In the end, though, he does all those works a disservice. For the James whom he creates on the page is a man who seems so utterly real, a creature of such vitality and pain, that he threatens to obscure or to overwhelm the actual man. I imagine that James would have been horrified by such a quantity of vitality; but when in the future I think of James, it will be Colm Toibin's.

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