BOOK REVIEW – The Master

The Master by: Colm Tóibín – A novel.

AGE: 16+ // GENRE: Historical fiction // PAGE COUNT: 338

*The summary is from the first Emblem Editions 2004 publication of The Master.*


An international literary sensation, Colm Tóibín’s brilliant and profoundly moving novel tells the story of celebrated writer Henry James. While delving back into James’s past, the narrative’s present day takes place over the course of five significant years in the author’s life, during which he produced a sequence of magnificent novels that came into being at a high personal cost. In stunningly resonant prose, Tóibín captures nineteenth-century European landscapes and the loneliness and longing, the hope and despair of a man who never married, never resolved his sexual identity, and whose forays into intimacy inevitably failed him and those he tried to love. Time and again, James, a master of psychological subtlety in his fiction, proves blind to his own heart. In The Master, Colm Tóibín has written his most powerful novel, one that enters the mind and soul of Henry James, the man and the writer, to give us a true portrait of the artist.


Hello! Welcome to another review. I have recently reread The Master in the hopes of delivering a more accurate analysis. (Of course, I also wanted to again experience the brilliance of this novel!)


A psychological tour de force, The Master meditates on nineteenth-century novelist Henry James as a man, a writer, and an observant thinker. Rooted in James’ career as a writer, the novel is shrouded in the phantoms of his past. Colm Tóibín, Irish novelist, revives the figures lost in time, those confined to obscurity but integral to Henry James’ emergence as a writer of great renown. Throughout the novel, Tóibín explores female influences, the culture of the unspoken, James’ sexuality, and the idea of ghosts. Muted in tone and texture, The Master is a beautiful portrayal of the buried emotion that plagues Henry James over the course of five pivotal years.

Tóibín explores the roles and the shared identity of three female figures who each left an indelible imprint on the heart and mind of Henry James. Closely intertwined with James’ identity as a writer, Minny Temple, Alice James, and Constance Fenimore Woolson were united by their imagination which burned too fiercely for the society in which they resided. Devastated by oppression and restraint, they were confined to an expectation of submission and sympathy. Thus, a singular identity emerged and the longing to disturb grew visceral. Although Tóibín captures the desperate need for control, he is also carefully attuned to the desolation that ravaged their mind and body, stemming from a lifetime of persecution. The desperation that drove their reclamation of independence produced an inevitable kind of loneliness and despair, resulting from the sheer exhaustion of such pursuit.

Tóibín focuses very precisely on portraying the psychological suffering that plagued Henry’s sister Alice James as a result of her confinement. Alice James spiralled into a deep depression and ultimately surrendered to oblivion, her oppression having manifested in physical and mental illness. Tóibín captures Henry James’ character as at once reflected in, and influenced by, the suffering of his sister. The very suffering of his female counterparts uproots James’ potential for complacency, allowing The Master to find its footing in James’ identity as a man. As this particular identity grants him the opportunity to pursue a higher education, James is able to internalize the fierce emotion that his sister could not likewise harness and transform it into publications.

Henry James’ longtime friend Constance Fenimore Woolson sought similar ambition and a stage on which to have a voice. Unmarried and reclusive, Woolson was a novelist of lesser prominence, her fiction detailing great American landscapes. Tormented by the patriarchal constraints of like-minded society, Woolson’s runaway mind did not allow her to build a stable life or career. She experienced severe bouts of depression, and thus often sought further isolation in the recesses of great European cities. In the decade or so prior to her death, Woolson developed an intimate but unconventional friendship with Henry James. In the hopes of mitigating speculation and rumour, James ensured their friendship remained unknown, a friendship whose basis rested on the unspoken. Tóibín illustrates James’ difficulty in balancing his deep devotion to Woolson and his desperate need to conceal his personal relationships—especially one that could generate such whispered speculation—from the public’s eagle eye; James was deeply drawn to the safety of the “locked room of himself.” Following Woolson’s death (a supposed suicide), James experiences a deep-seated guilt that corrupts his senses, a suffering that remains purely internal.

Henry James’ cousin Minny Temple was also an intellect. Unlike Woolson and Alice James, however, Temple was neither plagued by psychological illness nor deterred by male superiority, but fiercely passionate about her studies, possessing a radical perspective on the female identity. By challenging the widely embraced perception of women as the fragile domestic, Minny Temple sought a rich and stimulating life. In fact, she was highly influential in the creation of several female figures in James’ work, most notably the protagonist in The Portrait of a Lady. Despite growing up an orphan and passing away at only twenty-four, Temple pulsed with curiosity and determination and intelligence. In contrast to Alice James and Woolson, Temple possessed a ferocity that allowed her to challenge and disrupt one’s complacency. James’ mother remarks, “She has not been disciplined and she has not been cultivated, and we must pity her because her future will be grim.” But it is the very unconventionality of her childhood, arousing envy in the young Henry James and scrutiny in others, that allows her to not only bear such an opinion, but freely express it. Although she was not nurtured into hysteria, Temple similarly suffered from infantilization and belittlement, almost even more intensely than Alice James and Woolson because of the passion that consumed her. In entering Henry James’ mind, Tóibín resurrects the ghosts of these three female figures so as to understand James’ identity as a man and writer.

Henry James’ inclination toward the unspoken is reflected in Tóibín’s depiction of him. Tóibín neither relies on the element of surprise nor that of suspense, for the mystery lies within James’ history. Utilizing the virtues of memory, Tóibín interweaves James’ prolific creation of ghost stories with the resurrection of the ghosts of his past. By mirroring James’ inward nature, Tóibín adopts a tone of implication and quiet connotation. He carefully builds an atmosphere of the unspoken, from which emerges the hazy realm of James’ sexuality. James’ supposed homosexuality is integrated seamlessly into the novel. Tóibín, a publicly gay man, allows it to remain a distant, but nonetheless unambiguous, element of The Master (unlike Tóibín’s very forward approach to Thomas Mann’s sexuality in his most recent publication, The Magician).

Tóibín examines James’ most buried desire by revisiting his perception of Oscar Wilde. Early on in the novel Tóibín reveals James’ distant connection to Irish playwright Oscar Wilde. At first ridden with jealousy and incredulity at the success of Wilde’s plays, James softens when he is informed that Wilde has been exposed as a homosexual and put on trial for gross indecency. In a brief and seemingly insignificant fragment of the chapter, James develops a peculiar fascination with the fate of Wilde’s two children. As James envisions the children, cold and alone, in an isolated apartment building bathed in shadow, “their father a ghostly memory,” Tóibín returns to the core idea of ghosts and, by extension, the unspoken. This scene introduces the idea of the potential consequences of silence and, perhaps, shame. Although Wilde’s trial is not revisited later in the novel, it wields great significance in introducing the idea that a culture of unvoiced sentiments and identities brings only isolation and loneliness. This very idea can be traced throughout the novel and is illustrated in the likes of Alice James, Constance Fenimore Woolson, and Henry James himself.

At the root of the idea of ghosts rests the idea of watchfulness and omniscience. An atmosphere of the unspoken commands a population of observers and the observed. Tóibín uses the idea of ghosts, inherent observers themselves, to capture James’ identity as the watchful novelist and the haunted man. As the past and present blur together, Tóibín explores the stories Henry James creates in which he revives the dead, both as ghosts and characters influenced by ghosts. As the man, James is visited in his dreams and waking hours by a shadowy presence, reminiscent of a lost friend or, perhaps, the buried self that flickers in James’ soul.

As the man and writer, Henry James is comprised of the minds and sufferings of Alice James, Minny Temple, and Constance Fenimore Woolson. Rooted in James’ career, the gradual deterioration of his hand a reminder of the present, The Master is animated by the past as much as it is by the present. By building a novel around the dead, Tóibín reveals the layers of unspoken sentiments and silence that both torment and protect Henry James in his career and inner life. Such ideas of pure psychological immersion reveal, at once, a culture of alienation and artistry. Tóibín approaches the idea of ghosts, the inevitability and importance of their presence, very naturally, as though they are an essential facet of life. Thus, Tóibín cleverly blurs the line between the belief in a phantom presence and an active imagination and mind. He does not confine the idea of ghosts to psychological instability, but rather treats it as a symbol of creativity and curiosity. This fascination with the dead is similarly reflected in Tóibín’s exploration of dreams. He is drawn to watchfulness, to presence. Tóibín’s understanding of sensation allows him to pierce the mind of Henry James and, above all, the man who lies within.


As always, thank you for reading!


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