The Master by Colm Toibin


This is a fictionalized biography of Henry James written with the restraint and the pace of his quiet writer’s life.  The copy I read is now bristling with sticky notes to mark passages of interest — so many it’s quite daunting.

Before I began the book, I read a short biographical sketch, and continued as I went along to check sources to read about his friends and their connections to Henry James.  And there were many who were well-known, including his brother William, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and many more who came to visit him in his little house in Rye near the coast in Britain.

His devotion to writing and the life he creates for himself is appealing.  He expresses happiness at having the evening free of social engagements, though he clearly enjoys visits of his friend Gosse who brings him countless stories of friends in their circle and beyond.  They discussed the difficulties of Oscar Wilde with great interest.

He was a problematical friend to have, especially if you were in need of emotional support.  His ability to connect to others was terribly constrained.  His long time friendship with the writer Constance Fenimore Cooper often involved meeting for 24 hours in some small town.  They stayed in separate hotels and met for daily walks or perhaps dinner.  He never mentioned her to their mutual friends.  When she did, he withdrew, and after she killed herself, he burned letters he found in her rooms.  So there he is at his worst.

Some of his friends, and the stories they told him, turned up in his books to their dismay.  But when he was 57, he met a man who seemed to be modeled on a character in one of his books (Mallet in Roderick Hudson).  They remained friends, possibly lovers, for the remaining 15 years of his life, but only saw each other perhaps seven times.

This was a thoroughly pleasurable read, although I had to have many rests from its quiet intensity.

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