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Behind The Curtain

Carol Taaffe

All a Novelist Needs: Colm Tóibín on Henry James, Johns Hopkins University Press, 176 pp, £13, ISBN: 978-0801897795

Many of the essays in this collection begin with raids on Henry James’s letters and notebooks. Some provide hints of how his most famous stories began, while others have traces of those which were never written. In his private papers, James is shown worrying about exposure upon the publication of his sister’s diary, or giving instructions for personal letters to be burnt, or – following the very public failure of his play Guy Domville – firmly directing himself back to the work in hand: “I take up my own old pen again – the pen of all my old unforgettable efforts and sacred struggles. To myself – today – I need say no more.” Again and again, this collection uncovers a fascinating tension between the work and the life, the public and the private. Colm Tóibín explores how the life made its way into the fiction, but in a slantwise fashion. James is shown enjoying the effects of his fame, but also guarding his solitude. For all their scholarship and insight, these essays respect the reticence and subterfuge at the heart of Henry James’s work.

All a Novelist Needs brings together Tóibín’s writing on James over the past decade, most of it published after the appearance of The Master in 2004. In effect these pieces lay bare the elements that went into making that novel because they are also explorations of the writer at work. And for that reason, they are as likely to be read for insight into Tóibín’s working methods as for those of James himself. Some are essays, some reviews of the newer biographies of James and his family, others originated as introductions to recent editions of the novels. Because they were written for different occasions they vary in depth and attack, and certain ideas sound as keynotes throughout the collection. But as a whole they are never less than fascinating, together pointing the reader to central preoccupations in Tóibín’s dialogue with Henry James.

The Master was an audacious novel, focused on only four years of James’s life following the spectacular failure of Guy Domville on the London stage in 1895. But time in the novel is fluid, and just as Tóibín’s writer is haunted by family and loss, the echoes of Jamesian images and patterns in The Master also look forward to the achievements of his later years. Condensing the life and the work, Tóibín’s book inhabits the writer in a way no biography ever could, and this collection provides an intriguing complement to the novel. The Master opened with some interesting byways to Henry James, one being his escape to Ireland after the Guy Domville debacle. This collection takes the same route, beginning with an essay on Henry James and Ireland, and ending with a story based on one of his encounters with Lady Gregory. The Irish connection might be an unimportant side route in Jamesiana, as some critics have complained, but it provides Tóibín with a useful key to the lock of the writer’s imagination.

“Henry James in Ireland” gathers up all those disregarded Irish connections. James’s paternal grandfather grew up on a farm in Bailieborough, Co Cavan and joined a wave of Presbyterian emigration to America in the 1790s. There he became friends with Thomas Addis Emmet, brother of the doomed rebel, and the memory of Robert Emmet would remain venerated in the James family ‑ Henry James Snr was adept at reciting the speech from the dock. But his novelist son had little sympathy for Ireland. When his sister’s diary was printed two years after her death, he remarked how the years which Alice spent in England had revealed her to be “really an Irishwoman! … in spite of her so much larger and finer than Irish intelligence”. Needless to say, James did not share what he regarded as her atavistic passion for Home Rule. At the opening of The Master, Tóibín has him holed up in Dublin Castle as a guest of the lord lieutenant, one of a number imported from Britain since the castle’s social season was being boycotted by the Anglo-Irish. Discomfited by the squalor of the mere Irish outside the gates, bored by his courtly hosts, he broods on his recent failure. The Dublin setting highlights a strange coincidence ‑ that Guy Domville’s disastrous run was cut short by the launch of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which played on with the same actors and manager. As Tóibín suggests, the disappointment was made all the more bitter for James since he had little respect for Wilde’s work. But if the brilliant success of Earnest obscured his own shattering failure, those positions would soon be reversed.

Tóibín’s interest in Henry James and Ireland has led him to a suggestive juxtaposition of two very different writers. The secrecy, almost subterfuge, that was habitual to James’s life obviously resonates with the various masks of Oscar Wilde. Where Wilde’s sexuality was scandalously exposed, James’s remained private and ambiguous. Where Wilde was too flamboyantly Irish (as Tóibín has James think), the other writer kicked over all traces of his Irish heritage. Both were artful writers, both taken with the style and architecture of their work. James used his to plumb psychological depths; Wilde played brilliantly on surfaces. Both were exiles who reinvented themselves in English society. One preserved the space and solitude to write; the other, disastrously, did not.

In those first chapters of The Master, Tóibín shows what a novelist can make of a momentary intersection of two very different lives. Without leaning too heavily on a minor historical coincidence, he sets in motion a train of association and suggestion that helps form the architecture of his Jamesian personality. And one of the most fascinating features of that novel is Tóibín’s dramatisation of that same process at work in the mind of Henry James. From a novelist’s point of view he re-creates the indirect processes of the imagination, tracing the gradual manifestation of a story’s pattern and design. It is a novel laced with hints and suggestions of what will later work itself out in James’s fiction. Also laced with Jamesian phrases and paraphrases, The Master reads as a subtle echo-chamber of his work. Moving from that novel to Tóibín’s essays and reviews on Henry James feels a little like stepping behind the wizard’s curtain. But then, The Master is itself a novel that celebrates the writer’s ingenuity as much as his powers of illusion.

In a fascinating essay, “A More Elaborate Web: Becoming Henry James”, Tóibín gives his own account of the imaginative process that is staged at one remove in his novel. He chose to focus The Master on the years 1895 to 1900, he writes, because it was then that Henry James “was building up the images and figures that would constitute the three masterpieces he was gathering all his strength to write”. This essay illustrates the same process in the development of Tóibín’s novel. It sketches the genesis of The Master from his first reading of Henry James on a college holiday in Wexford to the day the writing finally had to begin (when “no matter what happened it would become the opening of my novel”), and the accumulation of images and patterns that followed. Through a combination of accident and research, snatching inspiration from artworks and Venetian scenes and moments in James’s fiction, the novel took shape. And as in The Master itself, the line between autobiography and fiction was constructively blurred:

By the end of The Master I simply did not know if certain moments of the book took their bearings from things that were important for me or were merely inventions, images made to satisfy the pattern I was making in the book, or images made in my own likeness. In the time I was writing the chapter on James and Oscar Wilde, I was hearing stories about priests whom I had known personally going to court for sexual abuse of minors. A few days I was like James himself, sitting at home writing a book, waiting curiously for a phone call to keep me informed about the case against Father X. But maybe this had nothing to do with the Wilde chapter; maybe the book needed such a chapter, whether I needed to tell the story or not.

Though The Master shows Tóibín “riffing” on James, as he puts it, there is also a sense in the novel that one writer inhabits the other. The central figure he creates in that book is both himself and Henry James (and also, of course, neither himself nor Henry James). And a similarly mysterious conjunction of the work and the life in James’s writing is a recurrent theme of this collection.

In many of these essays and critical introductions Tóibín marks the traces of James’s cousin Minny Temple in Daisy Miller or Isabel Archer, or how the streets he walked with the American novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson found their way into The Portrait of a Lady, or how its drama was staged in the rooms of his friends in Florence. But these were not simply transcriptions from life; instead, what a youthful summer with Minny Temple offered, for example, was a “set of configurations” that captured James’s interest and imagination. It is a subtle critical observation that Tóibín makes in a number of essays, and one he dramatised in The Master. In that novel, patterns develop in the writer’s eye that then seem to manifest themselves everywhere he looks. The Turn of the Screw might have its main source in a story told by the Archbishop of Canterbury of two children left in the care of servants in an old country house, but it also evokes the plight of the James children themselves, shuttled around Europe, or Oscar Wilde’s sons, separated from their father’s disgrace and taken off to Switzerland. As Tóibín writes of such patterns:

This is all a novelist needs, nothing exact or precise, no character to be based on an actual person, but a configuration, something distant that can be mulled over, guessed at, dreamed about, imagined, a set of shadowy relations that the writer can begin to put substance on.

This may be all the novelist needs, but what about the biographer? This collection also brings together Tóibín’s reviews of recent James biographies, his prodigious research giving him impeccable credentials in this area. But it is the working insights of the writer that again give him the edge here. One casualty is Sheldon Novick, whose interpretation of some erotically charged letters is found to be a bit “literal-minded”. In contrast to the controversy raised by Novick’s reading of Henry James’s homosexuality, Tóibín renders his sexual life both more ambiguous and perhaps less essential to his version of the writer. Similarly, his repeated praise for the brilliance of Lyndall Gordon’s book (on Henry James, Minny Temple and Constance Fenimore Woolson) is tempered by his own wish not to pass judgement on James’s relationship to these women, but to replicate the sense of moral complexity in his fiction:

Someone who, in another novelist’s hands, could be presented as a villain was, once captured by James’s all-embracing and all-forgiving and oddly ironic gaze, a trapped heroine until terms such as “villain” and “heroine” melted into meaninglessness.

Perhaps where the biographer aims to reveal, to assess and to pass judgement, the novelist is equally drawn to ambiguity and concealment. Tóibín marks how Henry James’s letters home show him to be “manipulating his family with slow doses of conceit”. In James’s fiction, language is “both mask and pure revelation; he played with the drama between circumlocution and bald statement”. Even in the prefaces to his books, Tóibín notes, James freely described the systems and form of his novels while at the same time concealing their roots in life.

In The Master, Henry James is often presented standing at a window, a lone figure watching. Or perhaps that is just the overriding impression left by the novel, because throughout it he is always observing those around him – reading a story in the smallest gesture, tracing the lineaments of the unspoken. In Tóibín’s sketch of the author, those powers of observation seem sharpened by James’s own awareness of what he is capable of withholding. There is a central reticence in his work which Tóibín’s novel masterfully captures. So it is fitting that this collection of essays on Henry James, which does so much to uncover the workings of fiction, closes with a reminder of how fiction can be shrouded in silence and enigma.

Henry James once recorded in his notebook a story told to him by Lady Gregory about a clergyman who abandoned his wife on their wedding night, having found a letter to her from an old lover. He sent her home to her parents though he finally ended by taking her back to live with him, but never as his wife. James did not use the story, but Tóibín does. He imagines Gregory’s relief at spinning it out to the understanding novelist ‑ a heavily disguised version of her own love affair with the poet Wilfred Blunt, her marriage to the much older William Gregory. The anecdote had grown, as Tóibín remarks elsewhere of fiction, out of something that mattered to the hidden self, though on finishing the story Gregory realises “she had said as much as she could say, which was, on reflection … hardly anything at all”. And so this illuminating collection of critical essays on Henry James closes with an image of fiction as a series of Chinese whispers, a brilliant exercise in “coded disclosure”. Tóibín’s editor, Susan M Griffin, notes that with this last piece in the collection he declines to sum up an argument about Henry James ‑ instead he gives us a story. But that story is argument enough.


Carol Taaffe is the author of Ireland Through the Looking-Glass: Flann O'Brien, Myles na gCopaleen and Irish Cultural Debate (Cork, 2008). She teaches in the School of English, TCD and Boston University (Dublin).

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