On this date in 1843, Henry James was born. In his honour, I’m posting my review of Colm Tóibín’s fictional biography of the American writer.
Henry James is sometimes called the father of the psychological novel. What Tóibín does is to present a psychological portrait of the man, imaginatively inventing James’ thoughts and feelings over a five-year period when he is in his 50s (between January 1895 and October 1899).
There are numerous flashbacks to crucial events in James’ past so the reader learns of his relationship with his parents and siblings (especially his elder brother William and his sister Alice), his evasion of the American Civil War, his love for his cousin Minnie Temple, and his friendship with Constance Fenimore Woolson.
One of the aspects of his life that Tóibín explores is James’ repressed homosexuality. His attraction to men is shown in his relationships with Oliver Wendell Holmes, a manservant in Ireland, and the sculptor Hendrick Andersen, yet he chooses to deny these feelings. After the trial of Oscar Wilde, one of James’ friends suggests that because of the moral climate, anyone else who might face charges of indecency would be wise to leave England. He tells James, “’I wondered if you, if perhaps . . .’” and James replies sharply, “’No. . . . You do not wonder. There is nothing to wonder about’” (72).
In fact, James seems to totally cut himself off from his feelings. At one point, he thinks about being glad he “preserved his own thick shell” (295). There is a constant tension between his attraction to people and his desperate need to withhold himself from them. For example, he loves his sister but when she becomes ill and could use more of his attention, he withdraws and leaves her in the care of a friend. The same thing happens with his beloved cousin Minnie Temple; after her death, a friend asks, “’Do you ever regret not taking her to Italy when she was ill? . . . a winter in Rome might have saved her. . . . You were her cousin and could have traveled with her. You were free, in fact you were already in Rome. It would have cost you nothing’” (112). James also develops a very strong friendship with Constance Fenimore Woolson, but when she seems to make demands on his time, he avoids her because her plans “would interfere crucially with his inviolable need to make his own arrangements and do as he pleased” (236). Only after her death does he realize, “He had let her down” (241).
Of course there is a price to be paid for continually avoiding emotional involvement and observing the world rather than participating. In the end he is alone, as the final image of the novel emphasizes: he wanders alone the rooms of his home “from whose windows he had observed the world, so that they could be remembered and captured and held” (338). When he speaks of the “stories of disappointment” which he is writing, with one character who realizes too late that “his failure, . . . his own coldness, is the catastrophe” and another who recognizes that “it is our duty to live all we can, but it is too late’” (334), James is describing himself. One of the most memorable images in the novel has James facing a large bookcase of his books and his eyes filling with tears (292). There is such a powerful note of sadness at the thought that his concentration on writing, not life, has meant he has missed so much though he has worked so hard.
One of Tóibín’s accomplishments is to show how incidents and memories are the genesis of James’ writing. He speaks about raiding his own memories (183), and an acquaintance tells him, “’We all liked you, and I suppose you liked us as well, but you were too busy gathering material to like anyone too much. You were charming, of course, but you were like a young banker collecting our savings. Or a priest listening to our sins. I remember my aunt warning us not to tell you anything’” (265). One of James’ saddest observations concerns the death of Minnie: “he felt a sharp and unbearable idea staring at him, like something alive and fierce and predatory in the air, whispering to him that he had preferred her dead rather than alive, that he had known what to do with her once life was taken from her” (115). What he did is to make her the heroine of his novel The Portrait of a Lady.
The style of the book with its elegant vocabulary is evocative of James’ style though it is much more easily readable because Tóibín avoids the overly long sentences which are James’ trademark. The restrained and formal tone conveys James’ personality.
As are Tóibín’s other novels, this one is complex and moving. It portrays a writer confronting his failures and inadequacies as a human being. The reader may be shocked at James’ ruthlessness, but also feel sympathy for someone so filled with self-reproach. The book has been much-honoured and understandably so.