Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín; drawing by David Levine

Originally one of the Cinque Ports of South England, the old town of Rye organizes a festival every summer which usually includes a talk on Henry James, who for some years lived in, and finally owned, Lamb House, a dignified eighteenth-century residence of modest size near the church. When invited to give such a talk some years ago, I took as a topic the contrast between Henry James’s “ghostly” stories and those of M.R. James, provost of Eton College and later of Kings College, Cambridge. The pair were in no way related and probably never met. M.R. James’s Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, works of art in their own way, deal in very solid horrors, apparitions made of sheets or conjured out of the pages of an old book. By contrast, Henry James’s ghosts, notably those in The Turn of the Screw, have their being in the mind, the mind and imagination of a master writer.

The Henry James lecturer was housed for the night in Lamb House, and while I cannot pretend that anything in the least ghostly happened to us there, that is to me and my wife, Iris Murdoch, we both had a disquieting sense—we slept badly—of being aware of the Jamesian mind when it was, so to speak, domiciled in Lamb House. The character of the Master, his fears, hopes, and depressions, his anxieties and his solitudes—his solitudes above all, and the unending process of creation which all these inspired.

It is the mind of the Master in all these different aspects that makes a subtle subject for Colm Tóibín’s fifth novel. All his previous novels have had their own sort of distinction, particularly the last, The Blackwater Lightship, shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize, which tells the moving story of a woman who leaves Dublin for her grandmother’s seaside house to care for a brother dying of AIDS.

Of course, Tóibín does not make the mistake in this latest book of using a Jamesian style and manner of writing as if from the Master’s mind as well as from his pen. As a novelist he has his own, complete, individuality. He takes James’s mind and life as a subject, but for a novel that is all his own. He begins with the great crisis of James’s later life: his total failure as a man of the stage. From our perspective, we can see that James was doomed to failure here and yet he longed for success as a popular playwright. Money and popularity were what he was hoping for, and a well-made play, such as he used to see in Paris when he was young, could be a work of art as well as a popular success.

The result, Guy Domville, was a historical drama with a reasonably subtle Jamesian plot—the hero has to choose between family duty and his own personal and spiritual inclinations. Unfortunately James’s producer, George Alexander, was involved in a feud with a claque that frequented the theater, and he allowed James to be thrown to the wolves. “I’m the last, my lord, of the Domvilles,” pronounces the hero at the climax of the last act in Tóibín’s recreation of the scene. “It’s a damned good thing you are!” comes a shout from the pit. Even after this debacle James was presented for a curtain call, and again the rowdies raised a burst of jeering. For James, who had avoided watching his play until near its end, spending the evening around the corner at a performance of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, the violence to which he had been suddenly subjected was traumatic. He foreswore the theater on the spot, all the more fervently because in contrast to his own poor Guy Domville, Wilde’s vulgar and “flashy” piece was having a great success.

Tóibín is writing a novel—his own novel. So he makes his own use of drama and story in the Master’s life. Without overstressing it, he brings out the degree and depth of James’s innocence where such theatrical matters were concerned. His friends and the audience who had been invited applauded loudly, but the applause was drowned out by the crescendo of loud, rude disapproval which came from the people “who had never read his books.”

In a sense, the most remarkable feature of the whole deplorable incident was, as Tóibín writes, the way it brought out James’s essential toughness, his altogether exceptional powers of endurance and recovery:

He told himself that the memory would fade, and with that admonition he tried to put all thoughts of his failure out of his mind.

Instead, he thought about money, going over amounts he had received and amounts due; he thought of travel, where he would go and when. He thought of work, ideas and characters, moments of clarity. He controlled these thoughts, he knew that they were like candles leading him through the dark. They could easily, if he did not concentrate, be snuffed out and he would again be pondering defeats and disappointments, which if not managed could lead to thoughts that left him desperate and afraid.

He woke early sometimes and when such thoughts took over, he knew that he had no choice but to rise. By operating decisively, as though he were rushing somewhere, as though the train were on time and he was late, he believed that he could banish them.

What seemed a shocking failure in fact turned out a blessing in disguise, as may be inferred from entries in James’s notebooks, not quoted by Tóibín but evidently drawn on by him. James set to work on his later novels convinced that, thanks to this theatrical fiasco, he now possessed a “key” which would open both the “dramatic” and the “narrative” locks. The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove show in a sense how right he was. The Wings of the Dove in particular has a dramatic power and fluidity that have several times been brought out by effective stage adaptations.


Neither William nor Henry, the two elder James brothers, took part in the Civil War, but Tóibín is concerned to show that their two juniors did, joining the 54th Massachusetts, a black regiment commanded by the family friend Colonel Robert Shaw. The colonel was killed at the regiment’s abortive attack on the Confederate stronghold of Fort Wagner, and Wilky, the youngest James brother, severely wounded. The James parents, who had done all they could to keep the two eldest out of the war, even concocting an imaginary back injury for Henry’s benefit, were distracted by the sight of Wilky on his stretcher, but Henry proved a loyal and attentive nurse and companion, his behavior movingly described by Tóibín:

When Henry went back to his room he lay on the bed and concentrated on the infected wound in Wilky’s side which the doctors had cut open but which had not been cleared of infection. No amount of wishing, he thought, could do anything to alleviate his brother’s suffering. He went down to the hallway and sat close to Wilky, who was groaning softly. He moved closer to him…and held Wilky’s hand for a moment, but since this seemed to cause him pain he withdrew it. He wished that his brother could smile as he had always smiled, but his drawn face now appeared as though it would never smile again.

No wonder Henry’s mother nicknamed him “the angel.” He had great gifts of sympathy, and it is these which also gave him the powers of understanding the people and motives he invented and imagined in his fiction. It is no doubt true that his power of feeling, of what Coleridge would have called an “esemplastic” awareness of the world, had as its counterpart a kind of basic refusal. Henry understood, but he did not, perhaps could not, act. The curious irony is that when—as the Notebooks record—Henry had revealed to him, as a result of the stage disaster, that drama for him was for novels, not plays, he nonetheless came no nearer to engaging the attention of the “people who never read his books.” In fact, he only forfeited in large measure the attention of the people who had. “I wish…that you would write more clearly,” a woman tells James at a dinner party in The Master. Readers who had admired and enjoyed Washington Square and The Portrait of a Lady found themselves unable to cope with The Golden Bowl and The Wings of the Dove, no matter how significant to their author his new dramatic method may have been. The sales, alas, spoke for themselves. And Edith Wharton was driven to secretly subsidize the New York edition, in collusion with James’s publishers. (Brother William urged him to write an American novel, perhaps on the subject of the Puritan Fathers, but Henry only replied with weary civility that “it would all be humbug.”)

Tóibín gives a brilliant and imaginative account of James’s relations with the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson and the bizarre ending of what might be termed their “affair,” a posthumous ending but one of the darkest comedy. She was the grandniece of James Fenimore Cooper of The Last of the Mohicans, and in the States, her novels sold a good deal better than James’s own. But she always revered him as the true master of their craft:


He came to understand that his presence was powerful for her, and that everything he said and wrote was contemplated by her at length in private. To her he was a mystery, even more so than she was to him, but she put more thought and energy, he believed, into solving the mystery, or at least attempting to divine its properties, than he ever did.

They were close friends for nearly fifteen years, and once shared a house in Florence for six weeks. Tóibín suggests that Fenimore, as James always spoke of her, was painfully lonely and may well have wanted to marry him, but was too proud of her independence to admit how much she needed his company. “She had a way of abruptly leaving his side as though she feared he was about to dismiss her and could not tolerate the pain and humiliation of that.” She was also a great friend of James’s sister, Alice, a friendship encouraged by James insofar as it deflected Fenimore’s interest from himself. She often visited Italy, staying, for choice, in Venice.

She was often in a state of melancholia. Partially, this may have been the result of her unrequited feelings for James, who, for his part, knew exactly how to take from their friendship what he wanted while diplomatically ignoring the feelings for him which he knew too well she possessed. Of their time together in Florence, Tóibín writes:

She knew, as he did, that…this would be a respite for him, from his full solitude, or his London life, or his other travels. But for her the season, the house and his steady presence would make this time the most gratified and beguiling of her life.

Further depressed by the aftermath of a bad bout of flu, Fenimore jumped from the window of her Venice lodgings. She was not killed at once but died soon after.

James was appalled by the news of her death, and also filled with alarm. In Tóibín’s finely imagined account, he

thought in cold fright about his own refusal to come to Venice and his not letting her know this directly. He was sure that his not having made arrangements to see her must have depressed her deeply. And thus, as he stood at the window, it struck him that she might have killed herself. And that was when he began to shake and had to move towards an armchair in his study, where he sat frozen, making himself go over and over the facts of her existence during the previous year.


She had no doubt kept his letters, discreet as they had always been. Asked to go through her papers on behalf of family and friends, he hastened to Venice, removed his own letters and those from his sister Alice, and burned them. But there was a much trickier problem—what was to be done with Fenimore’s clothes? Henry and Fenimore’s part-time gondolier, Tito, seem independently to have arrived at the same solution. As Tóibín imagines them, like fellow conspirators, they whisper to each other the time and place. When the moment comes Henry helps to load the gondola. Tito ferries him to a distant part of the lagoon beyond the Lido. Fenimore, says Tito, had been particularly fond of this lonely spot, and he had often taken her there. There her clothes should rest. But as any woman could have told them, there was likely to be a problem. Tóibín describes the whole episode with deliciously somber humor. Moreover, it actually happened. Few novelists and least of all James himself could have made it up.

At first, all goes well. The clothes, tightly packaged, sink down and disappear, watched by Tito “with a slow set of peaceful gestures….” But then things go wrong:

In the gathering dusk it appeared as though a seal or some dark, rounded object from the deep had appeared on the surface of the water. Tito took the pole in both hands as if to defend himself. And then Henry saw what it was. 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. As they turned the boat, Henry noticed that a grayness had set in over Venice. Soon a mist would settle over the lagoon. Tito had already moved the gondola towards the buoyant material; Henry watched as he worked at it with the pole, pushing the ballooning dress under the surface and holding it there and then moving his attention to another dress which had partially resurfaced, pushing that under again, working with ferocious strength and determination. He did not cease pushing, prodding, sinking each dress and then moving to another. Finally, he scanned the water to make certain that no more had reappeared, but all of them seemed to have remained under the surface of the dark water. Then one swelled up suddenly some feet from them.

“Leave it!” Henry shouted.

But Tito moved towards it, and blessing himself once more, he found its center 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. And then he lifted the pole and took up his position at the prow of the gondola. It was time to go back. He began to move them slowly across the lagoon to the city which lay almost in darkness.

Tóibín’s own mastery of his subject is undemonstrative but not less than absolute for that. All the James fam-ily come alive as he recreates them from the perspective of Henry’s inner thoughts. More shadowy, but that in any case would be in the nature of things, are James’s friends—men friends, that is—like the young Danish-American sculptor Henrik Andersen, for whom he felt an agitated affection which the sculptor, often in Rome, hardly bothered to pretend to return. Andersen reminds Henry of his character Roderick Hudson, also an American sculptor in Rome. Both Hudson and Andersen, Tóibín writes, once installed in Rome, “were looked after by an older man, a lone visitor” who “appreciated beauty and took an interest in human behavior and kept passion firmly in check.”

[James] knew that his own involvement with Andersen, the way he listened and studied the sculptor’s words and movements, had interested Andersen enormously, but that Andersen, in turn, had watched Henry hardly at all, had chosen to believe him as not in need of close observation…. What he had taken from Henry was Henry’s interest in him…. He talked but did not listen; he grew silent, Henry noticed, because he knew the effect his silences had on others.

Even William and his wife, Alice, and their family, although welcome for visits at Lamb House, were not encouraged to stay too long. At the end of his novel Tóibín portrays one such departure—William’s last—with Henry’s gnome-like little man of all work, Burgess Moakes, pushing their luggage to the station by wheelbarrow. Henry was not sorry to see them go. He loved his elder brother, but now “Lamb House was his again. He moved around it relishing the silence and the emptiness.” Solitude and daydream were his truest friends, the friends of his power to imagine, and to create.

This Issue

July 15, 2004