On The Master, and Our Regret that Henry James Was Not Given His Due For Being the Hot Bear that He Was

30Jan08

There is something oddly unsatisfying about The Master, Colm Toibin’s 2004 treatment of the life of Henry James. Odd because we almost always love Toibin’s prose, which is elegant but unpretentious, and — unlike so much contemporary fiction — never shifts tenses or otherwise calls attention to itself in a distracting or superfluous manner. Occasionally we were perturbed by the occasional Hallmark moment — such as when Toibin writes that James “would treasure hearing of their lives and activities” (italics ours) — but these were few and far between, and we found ourselves much more frequently underlining passages that pleased us; Toibin himself is a master of capturing the regret and nostalgia that comes with any serious introspection, and relays this in a subdued but beautiful tone that feels entirely in keeping with James.

Other things we loved about the novel include the structure, which proceeds chronologically through a five-year period of the author’s life — at which point he is already in his fifties — but fills it out with memories of his youth, and the way Toibin effortlessly relays events in James’ life that had the most impact on his fiction, including some of our favorite novellas — The Aspern Papers and The Beast in the Jungle come to mind — as well as his most popular novels, including The Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of The Dove. We thus emerge from the novel with a much better appreciation of at least some of the people who mattered to James, including his older brother William (the philosopher), his cousin Milly Temple (who died of cancer in her twenties), his precocious and bitter sister Alice (whom Toibin more than insinuates was gay, and who also died young), and a handful of high-society types with whom he associated in London and abroad, on the continent.

Toibin’s overarching theme, however, is that James’ life was marked by an anxious desire to indulge in life — even as he remembers it — and what we are told in every instance is an unwillingness to do so; thus we are presented with a man whose longings never once cross over the carefully constructed walls of restraint he builds around every aspect of his life, except for — obviously — his fiction, into which he pours everything. It is this thesis that strikes us as problematic, because it just doesn’t seem plausible that a man of James’ wit, insight and — frankly — experience could have made it through his long life with no more than a single night in the arms of another man (in this case Oliver Wendell Holmes, when as teenagers they shared a bedroom one night in New Hampshire on their way to visit Milly Temple). Yet this is all that Toibin gives us; a few times he describes James’ platonic interactions with similarly inclined men with whom he shares an attraction — there is a servant and a young sculptor (Hendrik Anderson) who even visits James in his country house in Rye — but with whom (Toibin is careful to point out) nothing physical ever happens, so that we as readers practically feel our own eyes brimming with the same tears of frustration as we are told that Henry lies in bed listening to the movements of his guest or servant one room over.

The problem with this treatment, of course, is that it seems less rooted in any kind of truth than a contemporary pressure to “downplay” the homoeroticism — and the real-life events that inspired it — that courses through so much James’ work. This is a shame because we feel that Toibin’s sensitivity as a writer (and a gay man) would have done great justice to this facet of Jame’s life, and might have made other episodes of the book feel less strained, such as the stilted description of James’ friendship with Constance Fenimore Woolson and her resulting death (to wit: it seems highly dubious to us that she killed herself (as Toibin implies) as a result of an unrequited love for James — whose interest in men was hardly a secret — than her depressive, artistic nature).

So we are left with the sense that Toibin wrote this book for an audience that did not include many gay men, which may have been commercially pragmatic — though we have our doubts — but nevertheless impairs the integrity of the book. Even the cover of our paperback edition somewhat bizarrely features not an image of James (or any other character in the book) but one of his fictional heroines (presumably Milly Theale) staring out over the Grand Canal in Venice. (Seriously, wtf?)

By contrast, when we see photographs of James taken during the era in which the book is set, we are not confronted with an asexual dandy but rather a man with an intensely thoughtful and — yes — virile expression, who in modern terms more than sets off our “gaydar”; in short, a “hot bear.” (Not that we’re advocating use of the term in a piece of period fiction, but merely making a point that he exudes far more than the pinched asexuality Toibin gives us.)

Nor along the same lines can we believe that his relationship with Hendrik Anderson (and many others) did not extend beyond a yearning from one bedroom over. These were men, after all, who had fled the social puritanism of Boston for London, Paris and Rome; and if James was not as “flagrant” as say, Oscar Wilde, it cannot be denied that they traveled in the same (gay) circles. In the history of civilization, has there ever been such a circle whose members did not have a deep (and first-hand) appreciation for the physical dimensions of what gave them their outsider status, regardless of how they talked about it publicly? (We suspect not.) Rather than describe his characters in the code of James’ era — which is more or less to pretend that such things don’t exist — we wish that Toibin (as he did with every other aspect of James’ life) would have given us a greater window into the truth.

Here are some photographs. You decide.

Henry James in 1890 at the age of 47. Asexual or hot bear?

Henry James on the beach in 1897 at the age of 54. Asexual or hot bear?

Henry James in 1907 at the age of 64, with “young friend” Hendrik Anderson. Asexual or hot bear?

For our thoughts on a recent book review in The Times that also suffers from this brand of coy and insidious homophobia, click here.

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