(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The Master begins with perhaps the greatest professional disappointment of Henry James's illustrious career, the opening performance of Guy Domville in London in January, 1895. James's novels were no longer selling, and he felt blocked as a writer; drama, he believed, would bring a steadier income and reach a wider audience. James left the theater during the performance, and when he returned for a curtain call, he was hustled onto the stage and forced to endure the catcalls and insults of a disappointed audience.

Retreating to his London apartment, James began burying himself in the production of a series of new and increasingly more experimental, daring novels. Colm Tóibín burrows into James's consciousness as he licks his wounds and reviews his life. Thus the novel shuttles back and forth between the late 1890's and events throughout the writer's life, continually examining his friendships and his reticent involvement in others’ lives and affections. Tóibín's James is a consummate observer, carefully watching the lives of others and his own, as if they were objects worthy of clinical examination.

Given Tóibín's consideration of the novelist in his study of gay life, Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodovar (2002), it should not be surprising that one of the novel's central concerns is James's ambiguous sexuality. Various biographies and memoirs have attempted to account for his sexual identity, with Leon Edel, the most comprehensive of James's biographers, regarding the novelist as essentially a celibate who may have had homosexual inclinations. Tóibín sides with those who see James as unquestionably gay but a man so profoundly repressed he could not admit his desires to others, much less himself. The chapter in which playwright Oscar Wilde is destroyed during a court trial because of his homosexuality is magnificent for revealing James's curious fascination with Wilde, whom he regarded as a moral degenerate, yet about whom he was thrilled and terrified to hear the latest gossip of the playwright's degradation.

Tóibín considers four episodes that reveal the novelist's tortured sexual attraction to other men. The first occurs in James's youth when he shares a bed with college friend Oliver Wendell Holmes during a vacation and cannot sleep because of agonizing longing. A second comes as a result of an attraction to Paul Jarowsky, an artist in Paris, who did not reciprocate James's feelings. A young James spends a night planted on a rainy street, staring mournfully at the artist's window, a perfect symbol illustrating Tóibín's image of a man living at a distance from life.

A third encounter, one of Tóibín's creation, occurs during a vacation in Dublin with an army corporal named Hammond who is assigned as James's manservant. Althought the two barely speak, James increasingly yearns for the man's ministrations. The final relationship is with Hendrik Andersen, a Norwegian American sculptor James met in Rome and later invited to stay with him at his new house in Rye, England. Although in letters to Andersen James's attraction seems palpable, the relationship in The Master is one of indirection and understatement. The young sculptor teases the older man with attention yet tries to manipulate him, to no avail, to advance his dubious career. The sexual tension in James's novels, which is extraordinarily elliptical, finds its analogue in the writer's life; indeed, Tóibín suggests, James wrote as he lived.

In his friendships and relationships with family members, James fares no better. He is the boon companion of his sister, Alice, during their youth, yet as they mature, he grows more distant. He disapproved of her close relationship with Katherine Loring, Alice's nursemaid and companion. Tóibín hints that relationship may have been more intimate than simple friendship. James fails to invite his sister to Europe late in her short life and then after her death worries that he may have injured her. Similarly his relationship with his cousin Minny Temple is another exercise in attraction and rejection, and once again a woman sends James letters hinting at a visit that is never forthcoming.

The most disturbing of these friendships is that with Constance Fenimore Woolson,...

(The entire section is 1742 words.)