The Master 
by Colm Tóibín.
Picador, 360 pp., £15.99, March 2004, 0 330 48565 2
Show More
Show More

‘It’s, on the whole, I think,’ Henry James wrote to Edmund Gosse, ‘a queer place to plant the standard of duty.’ The letter is dated 7 January 1893, 29 years before the OED’s earliest instance of queer used in relation to homosexuality, and it’s clear that James wants the word’s older meaning: ‘strange, out of the ordinary’. But it’s also clear that something else is going on. James is discussing what he calls the ‘marvellous outpourings’ of John Addington Symonds – two years later, thinking of Symonds in connection with the trial of Oscar Wilde, James calls them ‘fond outpourings’ – which constitute a privately printed pamphlet on love between men. ‘The exhibition is infinitely remarkable,’ James says. ‘It’s a queer place to plant the standard of duty, but he does it with extraordinary gallantry. If he has, or gathers, a band of the emulous, we may look for some capital sport.’ James goes on to wish Symonds had more humour – ‘it really is the saving salt’ – but acknowledges, with a little humour of his own, that ‘the great reformers never have it.’

Leon Edel, the editor of the letters, suggests James ‘is being coy about the entire subject’, but he seems rather to be busy saying several things at once. ‘Outpourings’, ‘exhibition’ and ‘capital sport’ allow for a normative sense of what’s queer, a view from the conventional centre. But ‘gallantry’ pulls the word in another direction. ‘Queer’ doesn’t necessarily evoke homosexuality, or only homosexuality, even here, but it does seem to be speaking up for difference. It still means ‘strange’, but hints that such a quality might be a point of honour or praise, as in Hopkins’s ‘counter, original, spare, strange’. Symonds is planting the standard of duty in an odd place, by any standards available at the time; and in the right place, James is intimating, because the real ethical imperative is not where convention puts it (Symonds’s pamphlet was called A Problem in Modern Ethics). By the time of the Wilde trial, of course, James knew the very idea of ‘sport’ in such a context was cruelly inappropriate.

I came across these phrases because I was reading some of James’s letters in parallel with Colm Tóibín’s remarkable new novel, which situates James’s tender and timid yearnings in love in a whole life of losses and evasions, but I already had lying around in my mind an argument Tóibín advanced in these pages, in 1999, about homosexuality and secrecy. ‘The gay past,’ Tóibín wrote then, ‘contains silence and fear as well as Whitman’s poems and Shakespeare’s sonnets, and this may be why . . . it is so easy to find a gay subtext in Kafka’s novels and stories.’ These works, Tóibín goes on, ‘dramatise the lives of isolated male protagonists who are forced to take nothing for granted, who are in danger of being discovered and revealed for who they really are . . . or who are unfairly whispered about . . . or whose relations with other men are full of half-hidden and barely hidden and often clear longings.’ The gay present, we hope, is less haunted and harried, but here as elsewhere, the old days have a habit of lingering on, and even if the present were paradise we would still need to respect and understand the past.

I remembered the passages on Kafka best from this piece, and I remembered that Tóibín had wittily characterised James’s story ‘The Beast in the Jungle’ by saying: ‘It is as though some traces of Kafka had arrived in Lamb House.’ But I had forgotten the extended discussion of James, where Tóibín argues, against James’s more recent biographers and many of his critics, that the novelist did not express his ‘homoerotic sensuality’ in his books. ‘It is astonishing how James managed to withhold his homosexuality from his work.’ What he managed to do, Tóibín suggests, is depict the damage such withholding can cause, the waste and desolation it leaves in a life. In ‘The Beast in the Jungle’, a man tells a young woman that he believes he has a special destiny, that he is ‘being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible’, the spring of a tiger in the jungle. The man refuses all other experiences, including that of allowing himself to love the young woman, or indeed anyone else, and waits for the big event. The woman dies, but that is not the event. There is no event. There is nothing, although the man does finally realise that nothing was precisely his destiny, that his life was rare and strange, prodigious and terrible, because he had, to a quite unheard of degree, managed to postpone it entirely, turn it into pure expectation. This is a story, Tóibín says, ‘about a man who realises that his failure to love has been a disaster; but it is also . . . about a gay man whose sexuality has left him frozen in the world.’ Thinking of Symonds’s queer place, we might say it is also a story about a man who misplaced his duty. He thought he had to save up his feelings, as if they were a treasure; he ended up just not spending them, and perhaps had no great store of feelings to spend. Perhaps. Neither he nor anyone else will know, since he missed his whole life by waiting for life to happen.

And yet this is not quite James’s own story, and Tóibín’s novel is a rich revision of this set of ideas. We first meet James in 1895, dreaming of his dead mother and his dead aunt, and preparing for the first night of his play Guy Domville. The play is a disaster, James is brought out on to the stage at St James’s Theatre, hissed at and humiliated. It’s not hard to see that James wouldn’t like this (who would?), and, besides, his theatrical failure was a serious setback to his financial plans. But critics and biographers have often wondered why James was so distressed by this fiasco, and Tóibín has an intriguing theory. James thought he was protected from feeling, and he wasn’t. This is the significance of the dream. ‘With his parents dead and Alice gone, he had believed that nothing could touch him. Thus his failure in the theatre remained a shock, something whose intensity and sharpness he had never thought he would have to deal with again. It was, he had to admit, close to grief, even though he knew that such an admission was close to blasphemy.’ James can’t dream of his sister, Alice, because she is too near to him in too many ways (‘He had become a writer and she had taken to her bed’; ‘They had both recoiled from engagements, deep companionship, the warmth of love’), and he probably can’t bear to dream of his restless and frightening father. In the dream the mother and aunt want something James can’t give them. ‘The word that came to him, he was sure he dreamed the word as much as the scene, was the word "beseeching".’ The theatre reciproc-ates by failing to give him what he wants, and he registers both disappointments as varieties of grief – now implicitly redefined as feelings that won’t sleep and can’t be appeased.

This James certainly has his secrets, and likes the idea of secrets. ‘Everyone he knew carried with them the aura of another life which was half secret and half open, to be known about but not mentioned . . . He ” had never loved the intrigue. Yet he liked knowing secrets, because not to know was to miss everything.’ He recalls the attraction he felt, when young and in Paris, for Paul Joukowsky, who had invited James to his room. James waits on the street, looking up at Paul’s window, simultaneously knowing he will not go up to the room and storing up memories which will later make him wonder ‘if these hours were not the truest he had ever lived’. This is ‘The Beast in the Jungle’ with a difference: not a life frozen by waiting and denial, but a life haunted by the memory of frightened desire. A few years later James meets the young sculptor Henrik Anderson, and briefly imagines they may have some sort of life together; Tóibín’s sympathy for James is at his most delicate here. James remembers the night on the pavement in Paris as a ‘vigil ending in defeat’, and sees that his disappointment in Anderson – the young man is ambitious, has other connections to cultivate – is ‘but a way for him to experience again, but more sharply now, the sense of doom which came with longing and attachment’. But defeat and doom are only part of the story, as Tóibín makes clear. He evokes James’s ‘state of bewitched confusion’ in relation to his hopes of Anderson, and the night in Paris would be a defeat only if he succeeded in forgetting it.

The novel borrows one of James’s favourite narrative methods without attempting anything like a pastiche of his style. The story is told through the thoughts, perceptions and encounters of a single character, the ‘vessel of consciousness’ James so loved, and that figure is framed as a grammatical third person (‘Sometimes in the night he dreamed about the dead’). James himself did this a lot, lending his own idioms, for example, to the wishes and guesses of children, or a young woman in a telegraph office. The effect in James is of a sort of translation: the material comes from the minds of the characters but is couched in words they probably don’t have. In Tóibín’s novel the same principle works backwards, but very well. Language is taken away from James rather than given to him, which brings him closer to us than he might otherwise be. Not that Tóibín’s language is jarringly contemporary or slangy. It is just not an imitation; it is lighter and less ornate than the Master’s own. The question to ask with novels about historical persons, perhaps, is not whether the fiction is faithful to a given reality, since the reality is usually what needs thinking about. The question would be whether the fictional person can plausibly meet up with whatever facts and settled notations we have, and I have no doubt that The Master gives us a genuine intimacy with one of the people who might have been Henry James.

The chapters of the novel have dates as titles, and take James from January 1895 to October 1899. These are the years of The Spoils of Poynton, What Maisie Knew, The Awkward Age and ‘The Turn of the Screw’, and at the end of the novel James is thinking of ‘The Beast in the Jungle’ and what will become The Ambassadors. The external events of this time are the Wilde trial, James’s lease and then purchase of Lamb House in Rye, visits from various Americans, and the lugubriously comic episode of his drunken butler and housekeeper – he is too kind and too embarrassed to sack them until the butler can no longer hit the glasses when he is pouring wine at dinner. There are plenty of flashbacks, all the way to the Civil War and beyond, and many dead people live again before they die again. James revisits Alice’s illness and death, the family memories of what came to be called his father’s ‘vastation’, his encounter with his version of the beast, or in this case the bird, in the jungle, ‘a huge obscure shape in the night, an angry, broken, pecking bird of prey, squatting in the corner ready to take him’. In Tóibín’s account, William and Henry James were with their father at the time, but they were very small boys (aged two and a half and one) and understood nothing, although they were ‘terrified by the sight of his fear and the sound of his whimpering voice’. Out of this vision the father wrote what was to become his most famous sentence, and although Tóibín doesn’t propose this explicitly, we could construe the James of the novel as a man in desperate dialogue with his father’s claim: ‘The natural inheritance of everyone who is capable of spiritual life is an unsubdued forest where the wolf howls and the obscene bird of night chatters.’ For Henry James the younger the forest might be madness rather than spiritual life, and while he wouldn’t claim that there are no wolves or obscene birds, he would dispute their prominence. He has his own vision too, or rather he adopts his mother’s. At the end of Tóibín’s novel, four of the Jameses sit reading by the fire in Lamb House: William and his wife (another Alice), their daughter Peggy, and Henry. The brothers have had some of their usual disputes, William has been imperious and irritating, Alice suddenly mischievous and liberated, Peggy has discovered reading and been much disappointed by the end of The Portrait of a Lady, but all the adventures and annoyances have quietened now, and everyone is amused and in good humour. James says: ‘This was my mother’s dream for us.’ ‘That we would end up in England?’ William asks. ‘No,’ Henry says, smiling. ‘She always dreamed that we would, each of us, sit enjoying our books while she and Aunt Kate did their work, that there would not be a sound for hours but the turning of the pages.’ Alice asks if it was ever like that. James says: ‘Never. My father would start an argument or your husband would kick something over or the younger ones would begin a quarrel.’ Peggy looks up from her book and asks James what he was doing at the time. James says: ‘I would dream of an old English house and the fire blazing and nothing being kicked over.’

This is a dream of peace but it is not an evasion of life. There is a curious, not to say queer paradox here, though. James’s life is full of evasions, but what makes this novel so persuasive as a reading of his relation to the jungle or the forest is that the evasions themselves are not evaded – either by Tóibín or by his central character. What did James evade? The Civil War, for one thing (and so did William, although not their other brothers, Wilky and Bob). James had a mysterious back ailment, never diagnosed and never treated, which Tóibín presents as the result of a subtle family conspiracy: the mother keeps asking him how he is, but doesn’t leave open the possibility that he is all right, the father doesn’t want to face the moral outrage that James’s faking an illness would represent, and James wants a world where nothing is being kicked over. Tóibín is neither forgiving nor accusing on this subject: just alarmingly precise. James thinks it is not wisdom that keeps him out of the war, but ‘something closer to cowardice’, yet he is also glad of it, whatever it is. When his brother Wilky joins Colonel Shaw’s regiment, later to be monumentalised on Boston Common, James stays away from the parade, savouring ‘as deeply as he could, this quiet and strange treachery, his own surreptitious withdrawal from the world’.

When his friend Minny Temple, the source and model for Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove, wanted to come to Europe before she died, James put her off, and her friends accused him of depriving her of a last joy. James doesn’t think this accusation is unjust. ‘He had denied her when she asked him gently for help.’ But the great denial in Tóibín’s book involves James’s friend Constance Fenimore Woolson, an American novelist just as queer as he was in one sense and perhaps not queer enough in another. Tóibín lists Lyndall Gordon’s A Private Life of Henry James among the books that helped him, and this subtle and evocative work opens with an extraordinary scene, which Tóibín duplicates and amplifies. Out on the lagoon at Venice, James and a gondolier are drowning, one by one, a whole load of women’s dresses. Or one woman’s dresses. They belong to Constance Woolson, who fell or threw herself to her death from a window in Venice at the beginning of 1894. James is dealing with her papers, and has finally devised this extraordinary method of dealing with her clothes. James was sure Woolson had committed suicide, and that she was mentally disturbed, and he was inclined to say the whole business had nothing to do with him, close as the two writers had been at times. But he knew better, or at least in Tóibín’s novel he knows better. He had depended on Woolson, created an intimacy, and then detached himself from her, because he valued his independence so highly. ‘He retreated into the locked room of himself, a place whose safety he needed as desperately as he needed her involvement with him.’ More desperately, as it happened. It’s worth comparing this sentence to Tóibín’s truly Jamesian remark about what James thought about Woolson’s possible feelings: ‘Her happiness, such as it was, came, he believed, from the perfect balance between the distance they kept from each other and their need for no other company.’ Tóibín also writes: ‘And for the sake of something hidden within his own soul which resisted her, and because of his respect for convention and social decorum, he had abandoned her.’ He didn’t cause her death, but his actions, and his lack of actions, allowed it to occur.

It looks as if this James is refusing all deep involvements with others, and so is not a gay man frozen in the world, but a man for whom sexuality of any kind is just one of many entanglements to be avoided. This is true, Kafka might say if he were invited to Lamb House, but that is how many gay men used to talk in the past. What Tóibín’s novel suggests when we put the pieces together is that James’s deepest affective experiences were those of fear and longing in relation to his desire for men and that he also protected himself, for the sake of his writing, from much of what other people call life. The immediacy of remembered desire rescues him from the coldness of his refusals, and lends his fiction its uncanny air of being full of secrets that perhaps even he doesn’t know. This James has not listened to the howling wolf or the obscene bird, and no beast has sprung in his jungle. But he has avoided his own worst nightmare, which is that of missing life entirely. By protecting his privacy he has preserved his guilt, and gained his eerie acquaintance with shadows and silence and fear. In one extraordinary scene in Tóibín’s novel, James looks at the whole wall of books in his study at Lamb House – all his own books, in their various editions – and when Anderson, who is staying with him at the time, asks him if this writing career was what he planned, an old ambition (‘Did you not say this is what I will do with my life?’), James turns away, his eyes full of tears. His books are what he has done with his life, but they derive their mysterious authority from what he didn’t do, and knows he never would have done.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences