This novel is one I’ve had sitting on my shelf for many years. I picked it up at a used bookstore years ago because I liked the cover. I honestly didn’t have a clue what it was about. As with many books I own, it languished on my shelf until I gave myself a reason to pick it up. Once I figured out it was a novel about the life of Henry James, I began looking forward to reading it very much. I’ve admired James ever since reading The Turn of the Screw in high school. To this day, it remains one of my favorite books. I love the psychological nature of James’s work, and Toibin has done an excellent job delving into the aspect of his personality and interests that led him to have an interest in exploring the psychological nature of his characters.
If you don’t like the work of James, you probably won’t like this one. But really, if you don’t like his work why would you read it in the first place? Toibin does a fabulous job writing in a voice that pays homage to the tone and timbre of a Henry James novel. James wasn’t exactly a figure in literary history who participated in the more salacious aspects of high society. He was more of a silent and watchful presence, a solitary figure who kept to himself and didn’t kick up a fuss. He was liked and respected by many but had few very close confidantes.
Born in New York and not feeling as if he fit properly in American society, James would immigrate to Europe following the Civil War, eventually settling in England where he would remain until 1916, eventually renouncing his U.S. citizenship. He remained single, and to this day there is speculation as to his sexuality, which Toibin does touch on to a certain extent. The prevailing thought seems to be that he was a closeted gay man who chose chronic bachelorhood over a sham marriage to a woman and stolen indiscretions in dark corners with men. As he was a contemporary of Oscar Wilde, it’s no surprise that he would desire to keep such a truth secret after seeing the complete character assassination and vilification of someone in his same industry.
Like its subject, this novel is introspective and holds a much more quiet power. It details how his experiences of loss, friendship, and travel shaped his views of the world and inspired his various works. It’s certainly not thrilling, but it is illuminating for those with an interest in James, his work, and the time period. I wouldn’t call it a page-turner, because sometimes you have to take some breaks from the inane 19th century conversations between the well-to-do members of British society. I do feel it’s ultimately worth the effort. Toibin writes skillfully, and I think he’s crafted a fitting tribute to a legendary figure in literary history.
Interestingly enough, as a footnote, Henry’s brother, William, is a pretty important feature in this book. Though I feel The Master really glosses over him, William James was a formidable and wildly interesting person in American history, deemed the “Father of American Psychology.” Here’s a fabulous resource on him from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Dr. Wayne P. Pomerleau from Gonzaga University. Honestly, from what I’ve read, I feel like a book about him would be far more interesting than one about Henry. Sorry, Henry. I still love you.
Published April 19, 2005 by Simon & Schuster. Original publication May 25, 2004. ISBN 064178421X. Paperback. 338 pages.