Monday, August 14, 2006
The Author as ‘Master’: Colm Toibin’s Henry James
1895, London. On the opening night of his play, Guy Domville, Henry James was too nervous to actually stay and watch the performance at the St. James Theatre, where it was to debut. Instead, he went down the street to watch a recently released Oscar Wilde play, An Ideal Husband. James found Wilde’s writing to be vulgar and cheap, but the audience ate it up, laughing uproariously at Wilde’s cheeky epigrams and thin double-entendres; as with most of Wilde’s plays, An Ideal Husband would be a smash success. James himself was a famous novelist at a key moment in his career, and his own play was characteristically refined and carefully written, and some critics in the audience (such as George Bernard Shaw), liked it. But the middle-class people in the galley, who had never heard of Henry James nor read his novels, hated it. When James returned from the Wilde play to take a bow for his own play, he was greeted by a schizophrenic audience—genteel applause upfront, and deafening jeers and catcalls from the people in the rear, who either didn’t understand what he was after or knew perfectly well and had no investment in being polite.
James interpreted the reaction as a sign of catastrophic failure, and never wrote another play. Moreover, from this point on, he essentially gave up in his novels any attempt to please Everyreader. I find it an interesting incident, partly because of the unusual intersection of two very different writers. But it’s also telling as a moment where a writer, who normally maintained a strict line between himself and his readers, actually had to face them in person with total immediacy—only to be rejected. Here, for a moment at least, Henry James was not at all “the master.”
This scene figures prominently in both Colm Toibin’s recent novel The Master, a fictional biography of Henry James, and Leon Edel’s ‘real’, five volume biography, first published in 1969. In this post, I’ll talk about both biographical versions of James in turn, and make some limited comparisons between the two. Toibin, I think, draws heavily (perhaps too heavily) on Edel, but also deviates crucially from Edel’s version of James on the crucial question of James’ personal life.
Toibin’s central question seems to be whether Henry James, in the interest of his art, gave up personhood in favor of Authorship. It’s a somewhat familiar Faustian-bargain type of question (Did he become a writing-machine who closed off friendship and love in the interest of maintaining complete control?), but it seems especially salient with James in particular. In the middle part of his life, James became close to a series of women, most of whom he at some point later rejected. At least one of his women friends, the writer Constance Fenimore Woolson, committed suicide after he turned against her in 1894, mainly because he felt she was attempting to become too close. (She was not, as far as we know, a romantic interest; James was probably gay.)
The failure of Guy Domville triggered James to rework his style and his approach to novelistic form. It was during these years, Toibin argues (in agreement with Edel), that James truly came to ‘master’ his craft. This is when he wrote The Spoils of Poynton, The Turn of the Screw, and The Sacred Fount. These were also the years when James started to develop the seeds of the idea that would become The Ambassadors.
The title The Master thus refers both to James’s mastery of his art and his refusal to be drawn into any position of emotional weakness or vulnerability. In the end, I think Toibin does find a way to humanize James, but it’s worth noting that Toibin’s use of psychology in the novel is very limited, almost invisible. The interpretation of the key events is left largely to the reader; a big cathartic explosion would have been anathema to the image of James we see here. Toibin’s approach to James’s sexuality is somewhat understated, though his inferences are clear with regard to James’ relationships with the Russian painter Paul Zhukowsky and a Norwegian-American sculptor named Hendrik Christian Anderson. For Toibin, James’s sexuality is all about discipline and discretion—whatever personal desires he feels for other men must be strictly contained. James protected himself from the scrutiny of biographers and critics fairly well: though he left hundreds and hundreds of personal letters, and was personally well-known in a wide social circle, there is virtually no direct evidence to support the idea that James had active sexual relationships with either men or women. The circumstantial evidence is, however, quite strong: see this 1996 debate between Edel and Sheldon Novick, a more recent biographer who charged Edel with hogging access to James’s letters partly out of an obsessive desire to prevent James’s true sexual orientation from being known. (The exchange continued over several weeks at Slate.)
I haven’t read Novick’s version of James’s life (Henry James: The Young Master), and I only picked up the Edel biography for the first time after reading The Master. Initially, my esteem for Toibin dropped somewhat as I started to read. First, one notes that Toibin directly appropriated the title of Edel’s Volume Five: The Master. Second, as I’ve been reading Volume Four of the Edel (The Treacherous Years), I’ve been struck by the remarkable degree to which Edel’s and Toibin’s descriptions of the opening night of James’s Guy Domville overlap. Here is Toibin:
Instantly, as soon as he set foot on the pavement outside the Haymarket, he became jealous of Oscar Wilde. There was a levity about those who were entering the theater, they looked like people ready to enjoy themselves thoroughly. He had never in his life, he felt, looked like that himself, and he did not know how he was going to manage these hours among people who seemed so jolly, so giddy, so jaunty, so generally cheerful. No one he saw, not one single face, no couple nor group, looked to him like people who would enjoy Guy Domville. These people were out for a happy conclusion.
He wished he had demanded a seat at the end of a row. In his allotted space he was enclosed, and, as the curtain rose, and the audience began to laugh at lines which he thought crude and clumsy, he felt under siege. He did not laugh once; he thoguht not a moment was funny, but more importantly, he thought not a moment was true. Every line, every scene was acted out as though silliness were a higher manifestation of truth. No opportunity was missed in portraying witlessness as wite; the obvious and shallow and glib provoked the audience into hearty and hilarious laughter.
Compare that to Leon Edel’s account of the same incident in Henry James: Volume Four, The Treacherous Years:
Henry James remained to the end of the Oscar Wilde play. He listened to the final epigrams, heard the audience break into prolongued applause and left the theatre with thatapplause rining in his ears. It was late evening. He walked down the short street leading into St. James’s Square. Oscar’s play had been helpless, crude, clumsy, feeble, vulgar—James later would throw all these adjectives at it. And yet—it was almost unbelievable—the audience had liked it. This suddenly made him stop midway round the Square. He feared to go on to hear about his own play. ‘How,’ he asked himself, ’can my piece do anything with a public with whom that is a success?’
There are significant similarities here, which are continued as both Toibin and Edel describe James as he walks out on stage to face the crowd (I’ll spare you further quotations). Both Edel and Toibin imagine James worrying over the fate of his play as he watches the Wilde; both emphasize that he was in some sense surprised at the vehemence of the audience’s rejection of his own work. Edel’s surmise is backed up somewhat by James’s letters, but many of the subjective characterizations ("How can my piece do anything with a public with whom ,em>that is a success?") seem to be essentially invented. Toibin’s appropriation is probably nothing that could be described as plagiarism, but it is intriguing to consider that Toibin’s novel about the life of an author sometimes seems not to be so much authored itself as adapted from Edel’s biography.
Admittedly, this moment of borrowing turns out not to be especially common, and Toibin’s interpretation of James’s personal life is actually quite different from Edel’s. As mentioned above, Edel disputes the idea that James was definitely gay (Edel uses the quaint word “celibate,” and resists the label “gay” or “homosexual,” though he acknowledges that James’s friendships with men were intense), while Toibin takes it as a basic presumption that James was attracted to men, but kept those feelings deeply submerged except in a couple of instances (Zhukovsky, Anderson). And that’s just to mention the most controversial question; there are other straightforward differences of interpretation regarding James’s relationship with his sister Alice, as well as his famous philosopher brother William.
* * *
One final passage from Edel. After Guy Domville, Edel and Toibin show James retreating a bit from the public eye, only to come back writing at a ferocious pace. In the process of giving up on writing drama, James came to the realization that the structure of fiction could be made in the shape of drama. It might not sound like a big deal, but it’s possible this is a sign that James’s thinking was in some sense in parallel with contemporaries like Joseph Conrad, on the threshold of a new era in the novel:
What happened can be read in Henry James’s writings from this point on. The image of the key and the lock [which shows up in James’s diary] was apt: and it applied to his life as well. He was closing a door behind him. He was opening a door on his future. He would never again write hte kind of novel he had written before the dramatic years. The stage had given him new technical skills; these he would now use in his fiction. A story could be told as if it were a play; characters could be developed as they develop on the stage; a novel couldbe given the skeleal structure of drama. The novel in England and America had been an easy, rambling, tell-the-story-as-you-go creation; novelists had meandered, sermonized, digressed, and long enjoyed the fluidity of first-person story-telling; they had taken arbitrary courses every since the days of Richardson and Fielding. Henry Jamesnow saw thathe could launch an action and then let itevolve with the logic of a well-made scenic design. Beginning with The Spoils of Poynton, written during the ensuring months, there emerged a new and complex Henry James of the novel. His work required also a new and complex reader: one who had to be aware he was “following,” not simply reading, a story.
Perhaps what Edel is describing is akin to the move from the ‘readerly’ to the ‘writerly’ that Barthes talks about in “From Work to Text”—the new dimension that is added to the reading experience with the advent of modernist self-consciousness. I’m not sure it quite holds up—is The Spoils of Poynton really very different from what James wrote pre-1895? Is James really a proto-modernist? One would have to go back and re-read those novels to be sure.
I’ve never had much liking for the idea that the reception of Guy Domville marked a watershed in James’ prose style, nor for the larger notion that this style progressively developed toward a perfection evident in the tortuous but luxuriant syntax of the later works. GD has nonetheless become emblematic of his middle period, perhaps because it’s such a good hook off which to hang a biographical narrative (factual or fictive), occluding earlier dramaturgid efforts, which were but one aspect of the elaboration of his sense of story, which was in turn a sense of life. Turning once again to Wood: “Not the pale withdrawer ... but the writer who counseled Grace Norton, in one of his most moving letters: ‘Don’t melt too much into the universe, but be as solid and dense and fixed as you can. We all live together, and those of us who love and know, live so most.’ Live so most: James’s mania for sentences was finally a mania for living, for experience.”
Good commentary, but you forgot to mention that Toibin’s “The Master” is the finest fictional portrait ever drawn of James, and one of the best biographical novels written in the last 20 years. That’s not exactly critical commentary, but simply a statement of love for a book and a writer who’s given me so much pleasure - and I’m not gay. I believe that expressing one’s pleasure (or not) in
experiencing the craft of fiction is an important component of criticism, however unmeasurable it is. I’ve read all of Toibin’s fiction and much of his criticism. He is a master himself, with an ability to express exquisite subtleties of feeling and relationship, and his characters remain alive off the page at least as much as James’do.
Paul, yes. I enjoyed reading “The Master,” but I was a bit chagrined to find substanial overlaps between his version of James and Edel’s at some key points.
But there’s no question about the quality of the work—maybe I should have emphasized that a bit more. I agree with you about the importance of acknowledging pleasure in criticism. I’m teaching this book (Toibin’s “The Master") this fall, and I’m looking forward to it—I think my students will learn from it.
And Nnyhav, thanks for the link to Wood’s article. I’m not a subscriber, but I think my university Lexis-Nexis might let me get to it…
Anyway, Toibin gives another possible theory about the transformation of James’s style, which is the hiring of a secretary, “the Scot.” Once he started composing sentences aloud, so the thinking goes, the structure began to become more florid. I’m not quite sure about that either—isn’t it possible that writing ‘aloud’ might lead one to a more matter-of-fact style?
Sorry, non-sub link (I don’t sub either, tnr’s kinda inconsistent about whether to show or not).
One facts that does affect the interpretation of the failure of Guy Domville’s significance in HJ’s career is that, contray to the claim in the original post ("James interpreted the reaction as a sign of catastrophic failure, and never wrote another play."), James did go on to write more plays, taking up the form at the end of his career. The details are in Edel’s bio. This fact doesn’t affect the post’s or Edel’s argument very much, of couse, but it is good to be accurate.
Jasmurph, thanks for the correction.
I too recently read Toibin’s novel and then went through much of the five-volume Edel bio. I was fascinated by the ways James’ sexuality did or did not show up in the Edel bio. In the first volume or two, from the early 60s or so, there is absolutely no hint that James is anything but a “confirmed bachelor,” more or less. Then, if I read carefully, at some point in the middle of volume three (pub. 1969?) Edel suddenly acknowledged that a certain story could admit a “homo-erotic” (I thought the hypen was funny) interpretation. Then by the final volumes, published in 1971 (?), there is explicit acknowledgment that with Hendrik Anderson and a couple other men James had intense passionate attachments that very well might have involved sex (even if Edel thinks likely not). I was pretty surprised that back in 1971 Edel was admitting this. I recall phrases like “it was love at first sight” and so on. I’m sure Edel resists the label ‘gay’ for James but he does not deny that James’ romantic/sexual impulses seemed to be directed only toward men.
I am curious if in the revised one-volume version of the bio Edel smooths out his takes on James’s sexuality and offers a more consistent line.
p.s. I just took a look at the 1996 Slate Edel/Novick exchange cited above. This comment by Novick jibes with my reading of the Edel bio: “James’ sexual orientation is necessarily portrayed [in Novick’s bio], and I take it for granted--as most scholars do now--that he was a closeted gay man. I don’t think you have ever really disputed this, but you now seem to be shying away from its implications.” This is what surprised me, that in 1971 Edel seemed to be acknowledging that James was a closeted gay man.