“The Locked Room of Himself”: On Colm Tóibín’s The Master

June 24, 2013 | 2 books mentioned 9 4 min read

A confession: I haven’t read much Henry James. I read Daisy Miller in college, along with a few of James’s better-known short stories. Later, maybe in grad school, I took a run at one of his novels, though I can’t say I remember which one, or really much else about it except that the sentences seemed to go on for days and I gave up after only a few pages. Reading James made me feel dumb, and while I recognize that feeling dumb is a necessary part of learning new things, there’s only so much time I’m willing to spend struggling to read a book that makes me feel like an idiot. As a consequence, I have lived a James-free existence for the last twenty years.

coverGiven that, I would have figured I would be the last person on earth to enjoy Colm Tóibín’s 2004 novel The Master, a fictionalized account of Henry James’s life from 1895 to 1899, which sounded to me like a highbrow Behind the Music-style wallow in the fields of Jamesiana. But I was wrong. While I’m sure a serious Henry James head would get more out of The Master than an ignoramus like me, I found myself both riveted and deeply moved by Tóibín’s novel despite, and perhaps even because of, my lack of knowledge about Tóibín’s subject.

For me, and for I suspect a lot of contemporary readers, Henry James is something of a blank slate, a cardboard cutout of a nineteenth century Dead White Male Author, essentially interchangeable with any number of DWMAs of the period, from William Dean Howells to Anthony Trollope, whose work I feel slightly embarrassed about not having read. Oddly, this turns out to be a perfect starting place for an author creating a fictional character. Because Tóibín is writing about a real historical figure whose significance is a given, he can skip all the boring expositional scenes that would persuade you that his main character is, despite his limitations, worthy of your interest.

But because he is writing fiction, Tóibín can also dispense with the narrative distance of biography and bring you directly inside that powerhouse of a mind as James tries to make emotional and moral sense of himself. That James fails, and ends the book unable to love anyone outside the pages of his own fiction is his tragedy, but the fact that you care about him anyway, that you spend more than 300 pages hoping James will break free from what Tóibín calls “the locked room of himself,” is Tóibín’s triumph. I have never cared so much about a character I liked so little.

One of the few things I knew about Henry James going in was that he is widely perceived as being the poster boy for the closeted gay Victorian, and because Tóibín is openly gay and because I have no imagination, I assumed The Master would drag poor Henry kicking and screaming out of the closet. Indeed, Tóibín’s James is powerfully attracted to men, and spends one deliciously ambiguous night cuddling naked in bed with a boyhood friend, the future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. But as masterfully as Tóibín handles James’s struggles to keep his homosexuality latent, the central relationships in the book are with women – first with James’s cousin Minny Temple, who died young, and later with fellow novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, who committed suicide at least in part because James could not return her love for him.

covercoverIn these cases, we watch the usually imperious Henry James get positively tiddly with puppy love, and later, when these women need him, we watch in horror as he coldly cuts them off, leading, perhaps indirectly, perhaps not, to their deaths. Then, a bit ghoulishly, he begins to write them into his books. In Minny’s case, he calls her Daisy Miller and has her die in Rome. A few years later, he calls her Isabel Archer and marries her off to a caddish snob named Gilbert Osmond, with whom she lives unhappily in Italy. Tóibín writes:

He wanted to take this penniless American girl and offer her a solid old universe in which to breathe. He gave her money, suitors, villas and palaces, new friends and new sensations. He had never felt as powerful and dutiful. … There were scenes he wrote in which, having imagined everything and set it down, he was, at moments, unsure whether it had genuinely happened or whether his imagined world had finally come to replace the real.

Thus, the problem for Tóibín’s Henry James is not that he is a closeted homosexual, or that he is incapable of feeling love. He feels love profoundly, for women and men alike, but he can’t act on it in any way that might compromise his freedom as an artist, and instead he pours out his love for them in his novels after they’re dead. That, in this case, his love for Minny Temple gave us The Portrait of a Lady may be enough for some. It isn’t for me. As much as I care about books, I think people matter more in the end.

But what makes The Master such a compelling read is that Tóibín has a subtler mind than I do and can see both sides of the question with equal sensitivity. He doesn’t shy away from the human destruction James leaves in his wake, but he also brings James alive on the page, not as a monster or emotional cripple, but as one of the great minds of his age expressing love the only way he knows how.

is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Salon, and The Economist. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, and The Cortland Review. His debut novel, Blithedale Canyon, is due out from Regal House in June, 2022


  1. i just had to comment. what a lovely review. mr. bourne you are modest yet your thoughtful and elegant review is spot on. thank you for the pleasure of reading it.

  2. Didn’t Minnie Temple inspire the female character in a novel other than
    “Portrait of a Lady”? I want to say “The Golden Bowl.”

  3. Colm Tóibín is such a good writer that he could make a saint out of Hitler. If you read any of his other books you’ll understand that he’s one of the… masters of our time. Great article.

  4. “In Henry James’ Reverberator, a key quality of his is at its best-the ability to maintain his ownauthor’s mystification and curiosity about a character unwrapping a little more each time. Not in the standard novelist’s way (with him knowing the whole secret but letting the reader in on it just a little at a time, then teasingly hiding the end again). No, the game is all fair and square-you learn just as he does. You are not “out there” and the author on stage but you are part author-watching people together with shared curiosity and surprise, instead, of being treated like a child who must have his goodies rationed.” from September 15, Dawn Powell Diaries

    Henry James is not to everyone’s taste. Some like EM Foster see little in him, John Banville sees much. All the same, you can’t help but feel greatness like James’ goes beyond taste.

  5. There was something about the post-WWII generation that really did not like Henry James. I had some undergraduate professors who created a similar dislike of James in me, which was really unfortunate. I have now read a great deal of James, and find him delightful. His late style, with the rolling sentences and multiple clauses, can be daunting until you get used to it. James actually is an acute observer of human nature, and really has such a great sense of humor. A.S. Byatt got is right when she wrote: “Henry James, whose countrysides always invoke paradise, whose elegant dreaming facades hide demons.” Some of the earlier and shorted novels are great place to start–Washington Square or What Maisie Knew, for example (Poor Maisie, whose divorced parents did not want her, except to use as a weapon they could fling at each other, and who despite being a young girl, was much more aware of what was going on around her than she probably should have been). And some of the lesser known stories are great as well–say, The Death of the Lion, a great story of writers and writing, with a female writer using a male name and male writer using a female name, etc. And one of the great comic lines from James: “The princess fled as though a revolution had broken out.”

  6. one more thing in regards to the article guys. it seems to me mr. bourne is writing about colm toibin’s writing and his great generosity and compassion towards women and his ability to get into the crux of jame’s complicated feelings. colm toibin gets it right. the article is about colm toibin. (sorry mr. bourne, i do go on!)

  7. Colm Toibin is among the greatest authors alive. I had similar thoughts before reading The Master. If I don’t like James, why would I like this? It was still captivating and demonstrates a completely different writing style from Toibin’s other books. In all his writing, Toibin is a master of developing character – from mothers in Ireland to young men in Argentina to Mary, mother of Jesus. The Master compelled me to re-reread Daisy Miller. For a completely different take on Daisy Miller, see Reading Lolita in Tehran.

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