Colm Toibin – The Master


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.


24 thoughts on “Colm Toibin – The Master

  1. Toibin is such a wonderful writer, but I feel I would need to be reasonable familiar with the work of Henry James to get the most out of this book. The Turn of the Screw is the only one of his works that I’ve read so far, partly because it’s short and possibly more accessible than some of the others. Where would you suggest I go next with James? I’d be interested to know…

    1. I think James’ life is interesting even if you are not so familiar with his books. It does speak of the development of The Turn of the Screw. Some of the short stories are stunning. The Spoils of Poynton, The Figure in the Carpet, The Lesson of the Master are all wonderful. Portrait of a Lady is the novel I know best and I think you would enjoy that.

            1. I’m not sure I could have borne his convoluted writing style through the longer novels, which is why I opted for the novellas — hope to try a few more.

              We visited Lamb House in Rye a couple of years ago, the Sussex home he had for a few years when he moved more permanently to England, so almost feel I owe it to him! I’ve discussed aspects of James in various posts here, if that helps you:

              1. How interesting that you have visited Lamb House. He moved there in the years covered in The Master and a great deal of the book is located there. Does it still have a beautiful garden?

                1. And now I have followed your link and seen a little of Lamb House. Thank you. I also enjoyed the excellent discussion on The Turn of the Screw. One point Toibin makes several times about James is his sensitivity to the plight of children and his compassion for their often unkind or neglectful treatment by adults in their lives who should be protecting them.

                2. Lamb House is now National Trust and they keep the garden relatively simple: lawns, a shady walk beyond those, and a veg plot behind the street wall by where the Garden Room used to be. Some random pics in this review only partly convey a sense of the outside space:

          1. And if you want to read a wonderful discussion of James and The Spoils of Poynton go here

            The Spoils Of Poynton by Henry James

  2. I’ve only read Toibin’s occasional articles in the Guardian but admired his writing. As I’ve also admired — I won’t say ‘enjoyed’ — four of James’s novellas this may well be another title to remember for the future.

    1. I have read and liked books by David Lodge in the past, but have read some quite negative views of Author Author. In my view Colm Toibin has spent a lot more time in research and his book is thus a more balanced and sympathetic account of James. I liked your review of The Spoils of Poynton.

    2. Here is a quote from Eileen Battersby’s review of Author Author in The Irish Times 6-11-2004

      Lodge’s closing quip, “Henry, wherever you are- take a bow”, is a fitting finale for what is a sloppy, overly casual, and at times embarrassing effort from a veteran writer and critic, who does know better, but has, with this contrived novel, served himself almost as badly as he has Henry James.

      Did put me off somewhat

  3. This book is I think Toibin’s masterpiece. To capture James voice is remarkable and to give so much life to who James really was is extraordinary.

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