In The Master, Colm Tóibín paints a fascinating portrait of the author Henry James (1843-1916). James was an American who spent most of his life in Europe — moving around the continent with his family during childhood, and then settling in England permanently as an adult. The book is set in the 1890s, when James’ reputation was already well established, although the English found it difficult to place him in their class structure. As one woman said to James at a party, “But you have an advantage. You are an American and nobody knows who your father was or who your grandfather was. You could be anybody.” (p. 24) James’ New England pedigree was neither understood nor valued, but his literary talent allowed him to move freely in English society.
The story unfolds through James’ point of view, and in recounting events of the 1890s his mind often wandered back to earlier times. In this way, the reader learns a great deal about James’ relationships with his parents and siblings, his cousin Minny Temple, and the American novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson. The reader also experiences James’ joy in finding the perfect place to live and work: Lamb House in Rye. The setting is idyllic, he takes great enjoyment in decorating his new home with all the right sort of furnishings, and he is struck by a certain sense of predestination:
when he walked into the upstairs room of Lamb House, and into the room where he himself would sleep, he believed he had come into the room where he would die. As he studied the lease, he knew that its twenty-one years would take him to the tomb. The walls of the house had witnessed men and women come and go for almost three hundred years; now it had invited him to sample briefly its charm, it had enticed him here and offered him its unlasting hospitality. It would welcome him and then see him out, as it had seen others out. He would lie stricken in one of those rooms; he would lie cold in that house. The idea both froze his blood and comforted him at the same time. (p. 125)
Tóibín also exposes James’ sexual ambiguity and repression, and does so in a manner consistent with the time period. It’s evident that his relationships with women are platonic. His interactions with certain men are described with allusions to homosexuality, but these are never explicitly stated in the text, just as James would have needed to keep these feelings to himself. I found this aspect of James’ life rather sad. He was unable to be truly intimate with anyone, and was seen by some as a bit of a cold fish. But I also found James an endearing character, and The Master has piqued my interest in reading James’ work.