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.
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.