The Master

themasterThe Master
by Colm Toibin
2003 /338 pages
rating 4/contemp fiction

Imo, this is a fictionalized character-driven study of Henry James based on as many letters, diary entries, and other evidence as Toibin was able to find and sometimes the imaginings of other books and writers, notably Shelby Novick whose 1996 biography of James, “The Young Master” (1996), created quite a ruckus.

The first third or so makes for a good read, especially if the reader is familiar with the life and times of Henry James and his work. The over-arching tension seems to revolve around gaining insight into James’ sexuality – fascinating when the book came out (the same year as Author, Author” by David Lodge another novel about the sexuality of James).

Toibin assumes that James was a very closeted gay, although … Leon Edel, James’ biographer, took serious issue with this idea and he and Shelby Novick, another biographer of James (The Young Master – 1996) had a long and spirited debate on the old Slate site, I believe. I sided with Edel – if we can’t really show this was the case, then it has no business being assumed.

By Edel:

Since then it has become generally accepted that James was likely gay but so circumspect in his manner it was almost completely secret and truth is, he may never have acted on the longings he expressed in a few brief places (letters not destroyed).

Anyway, the first time I read The Master I was not pleased and when one of my awesome reading groups selected it as the July 1 read I thought I might forego the privilege. Ah well, a little time on my hands and more than a decade has passed, perhaps …

I read the Kindle sample – nice smooth writing and I didn’t really remember the scenes as Toibin wrote them although I knew the material from reading James and about his life. So I bought the book and started in –

Yes, I can play “spot the book” pretty well, – so far we have “What Maisie Knew” and “The Turn of the Screw” as well as “Daisy Miller” – there will be others I’m sure, probably most of them.

The chapters are organized in chronological order starting in January of 1895, the month Guy was produced in London, but within the chapters the memories unfold and here’s where I start having difficulties with the book. It just seems so contrived and awkward.

As for Toibin it takes some kind of chutzpah to think he can get inside the head, heart and soul of Henry James in the way he attempts in “The Master.” James would be aghast – I can’t remember where I picked this up but it seems to me James was firmly against reading an author’s biography into his works and yet we have Toibin reading Alice’s death firmly behind “The Turn of the Screw.” Lots of other examples – it’s almost a theme.

Chap 5 – May, 1896 –

And then there’s the fascination/repulsion re Oscar Wilde. Toibin also wrote about that, a review of a book of Wilde’s letters which include visiting Algeria with Andre Gide.

And now we come to the invention of James with Holmes where my rating drps from a 6 to a 4.

“In other words, Henke claims that a discussion of issues of gender was central to the critical rehabilitation of our James today, after his formal reception whereby New Critics assigned him his canonized position as a pre-Modernist author, a canonic figure of American national literature. To put it bluntly, his homoerotic interest is no longer a shame but an attraction for us.”

” Toibin also dramatized a scene in which the young James sleeps naked in the same bed with Oliver Wendell Holmes — a scene, Lodge points out in his essay, probably derived from Sheldon M. Novick’s 1996 revisionist biography, “Henry James: The Young Master,” in which Novick suggested that James experienced his “initiation” into sex in 1865 and that his partner was very likely Holmes.”

Yup, there it is, my old objectionable part- yes, putting a naked James in the arms of a naked Oliver Wendall Holmes is still beyond my pale, consummated or not. I believe the evidence is much too slim for that leap. I’d like to know where reading between the lines ends and projection on the part of the publicly gay Toibin begins.

Portrait of a Novel” a new bio of James’ “Portrait of a Lady” by ________ now has my attention – we’ll see but that might take awhile.

6 Responses to The Master

  1. jameswharris says:

    I liked The Master, but I know little of Henry James. After reading The Master I read Portrait of a Lady, and was somewhat disappointed. I plan to give James another try, but Toibin made him more interesting than the one book of James I read.


  2. I like most of James’ work, but his last two novels are mind-boggling difficult. Imo, the best are The Americans, Portrait of a Lady and Daisy Miller – The Turn of the Screw is excellent. I’ve got a few novels left to go but I’m not in a rush. The commotion about his sexuality has become stupid, imo – he wrote the same kind of stuff to his women friends. lol


    • jameswharris says:

      I’m rather indifferent to the sex lives of authors. Although I find it fascinating that when Dickens was writing Great Expectations he was having an affair with a young woman who was always with her mother. I wonder if the mother is portrayed as Mrs. Havisham, and the Ellen as Estella. My curiosity makes me wonder if he ever got lucky with Ellen Ternan.

      Actually, if Henry James was gay it might be very important in understanding his work, but from reading the one novel of his that I have it didn’t seem important. I just finished rereading Breakfast at Tiffany’s and it would have been significant if “Fred” had been stated as gay. The novel is so much grittier than the movie that Capote should have gone all out.


  3. That Dickens Ellen Ternan thing was quite the scandal – yes, indeed, Dickens did “get lucky” and after the Boz left his wife (Dickens was a complete jerk about this) he and Ellen lived mostly together until Dickens’ death.

    I’ve never read the Capote – I loved the movie when I was about 14. 🙂


    • jameswharris says:

      Even though I saw the film about Ellen Ternan, and bought the biography, which I haven’t read, and I can’t remember what proof there was. Is there any conclusive proof that Dickens had sex with Ternan? I forget things so easily. There was speculation. The reason I wonder is Great Expectations. It’s such a novel of sexual frustration, and crushed desires.


  4. I don’t know that kind of detail. I think I only looked some stuff up on the internet. It kind of stopped interesting me after awhile. I love A Tale o Two Cities and a lot of other books by Dickens – I think I don’t care much for the man. (Otoh, I can’t read Stephen King but as a man I respect him a great deal.)


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