Last year a friend gave me a marvelous book for my birthday; Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce, by Colm Toibin. This little book grew out of the Ellman Lectures at the University of Georgia that Toibin gave in 2015. The insights into the lives of these men and their influences on their more famous sons were there, but the clarity of the writing made me resolve to read more by this author. That led me to what many would consider to be his greatest book (so far).
The Master covers three years in the life of Henry James; the last three years of the 19th Century, when he was already famous for his short stories and some of his novels, like The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians and The Turn of the Screw. He was yet to write the three books that were published in the early years of the 20th Century, The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl and are regarded as his greatest achievement.
The book is written from the point of view of Henry James. We see him working in a new way after his hand has become too painful from many hours of writing,
He loved walking up and down the room. beginning a new sentence, letting it snake ahead, stopping it for a moment, adding a phrase, a brief pause, and allowing the sentence to gallop to an elegant and fitting conclusion. He looked forward to starting in the morning, his typist punctual, uncomplaining, seemingly indifferent as though the words uttered by the novelist equaled in interest his previous work in the commercial sector.
But also, in a very subtle way, Toibin explores James’ scrupulous nature in relation to family, love and loyalty. While he shows James as confident and diligent when it comes to his work, in these other matters of his own life, he is slow to act, then torn by guilt and self- questioning after the fact. He was close to his brilliant cousin, Minny Temple, who was very ill, but was he, as some friends suggested, the only chance she had of fulfilling her dream to go to Europe, or was she too ill to go? Did he add to her unhappiness?
Minny died in March, a year after he had last seen her, He was still in England He felt it as the end of his youth, knowing that death, at the last, was dreadful to her. She would have given anything to live.
But many years later, Minny, or a character based on her, appeared in The Wings of a Dove.
He has another painful reason for self-scrutiny in the suicide of his friend Constance Fenimore Wilson. Their friendship was close, but James was always aware that perhaps Constance needed more from him than he could give, and he let a distance come between them. Then he hears that she has thrown herself to her death, from the window of her apartment in Venice. He is the friend who has to return to deal with all her papers and effects. Even to the disposing of her clothes, which he, and her favourite gondolier, Tito, can only get rid of by dumping in a canal.
The gondola swayed so gently that Henry was not aware of moving in any direction, merely staying still. As the underclothes sank, he imagined that the consignment lay directly beneath them falling slowly to the ocean bed… (but) some of the dresses had floated to the surface like black balloons, evidence of the strange sea burial they had just enacted, their arms and bellies bloated with water.
Henry James, in this remarkable and sympathetic rendering, is shown as kind and responsible, but with a deep reserve and a sense of self-protection. On several occasions he seems to be drawn to a young man, but he doesn’t allow himself to act on his desires. His deepest drive and commitment is to his writing.
Toibin shows James’ family, his overly caring mother, his dictatorial father, his sister Alice, the sharp-tongued only girl in the family, who takes to her bed, and for whom Henry becomes financially responsible. We see his brother Wilky injured and dying after enlisting in the American Civil War, and we see James deeply concerned over having to sack his cook and her husband who have taken to drink.
Toibin’s James is a man riven by caution and compassion, but whose greatest drive is to show life in his writing. This is a masterly work and one for which Toibin was short listed for the 2004 Booker prize. It was won by Alan Hollinghurst for The Line of Beauty. Thumbs down to that I say.