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The Master by Colm Tóibín

2004, Picador

This fictionalized account of the life of writer Henry James during the years 1895-1899 is oh, so beautifully written. Anyone who admires Henry James' work is sure to be touched by this book and its many themes: society, family, death, the ordeal of losing parents, love, homosexuality, sexual oppression, intimacy or lack thereof, the writer as observer of life, not partaker in it.

The most exciting for me, besides the discovery of Colm Toíbín, was the insight (or imagination) woven into the story regarding the birth of a writer's ideas, and their link to that writer's life. In one passage, Henry James reflects that he and his sister have been "banished" from normal lives. The following passage details the germ of his story idea about a brother and sister, "banished siblings," bringing to mind James' The Turn of the Screw. 66-8.

I enjoyed "meeting" Henry James' brother William, "the father of modern psychology"; his sister, the diarist Alice James who is often ill; and the writer Constance Fenimore Cooper.

Toíbín's Henry James says of Alice: Life itself seems to be the root of her malady.

Constance replies: I think it's difficult for all of us. The gap is so wide...between using our intelligence as women to the full and the social consequences of that.

Henry James: She really has done nothing except stay in bed.

Constance: That's precisely what I mean...I mean that the consequences get into the marrow of your soul. 244-5

Constance Fenimore Woolson

I was haunted by an event following the tragic death of Constance (for which some readers will put the fault on Henry James). Is it friendship or guilt that drives James to take responsibility for disposing of her unwanted belongings, abandonned in her Venice apartment by her family? In an eerily beautiful yet devastating scene, Henry and Tito, Constance's gondola driver, take her dresses and other items to a lagoon she had visited often.

Before he reached for the first dress, Tito blessed himself and then he laid the garment flat on the water as though the water were a bed... 269 For the two men, the respect due to Constance outweighs the horror of their actions. Some of the dresses had floated to the surface again like black balloons, evidence of the strange sea burial they had just enacted, their arms and bellies bloated with water....Tito moved towards it, and blessing himself once more, he found its centre with the pole and pushed down, nodding to Henry as he held it there as if to say that their work was done; it was hard, but it was done." 270-1

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