Throughout reading Toibin’s excellent novel based on the life of Henry James, I was intrigued by the title – ‘The Master’. For I wondered while reading it and wonder still what exactly Henry James was the master of?
We first meet James just at the time of the failed premiere of his play Guy Domville and the book takes us both forwards and backwards from that point. We see James naked in bed with a man too afraid to move, or even sleep but excited by the experience. We read about him losing a dear female friend to suicide, a friend he was close to, but never let conversation stray into personal topics. We watch him entranced by the manservant he has attending him while visiting friends, who later visits with his employers and still continues to fascinate James. Another episode follows his adventures with a beautiful male sculptor in Rome, who comes to visit James at his home in Rye but appears only to be after James’ wealthy patronage, not knowing that James is unable to offer him anything of substance.
On reflection I am left feeling that the title is ironic, for while James is indeed the ‘Master’ of great literary fiction when it comes to both theatrical productions and more importantly matters of the heart he is merely a servant.
This is really interesting take on James as a man, I don’t think you need to be a massive fan of his to read this book, nor to have read much of his work, though no doubt big fans of James would enjoy Toibin’s biographical novel. Personally I found this book fascinating and would thoroughly recommend it to all lovers of great fiction.
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