The Master by Colm Toibin (1955-Enniscorthy, Ireland) is a wonderful novel based on a portion of the life of the great American author, Henry James. We first meet James in 1895 in London, we part company with him in 1899. James was born in 1843 and died in 1916. The period made use of in The Master was the start of the "final phase" of James works where he created his most highly regarded and by most standards his most difficult works.
There have been a number of recent very well done posts on The Master. Ready When You are C. B. has an excellent post comparing the work to a 19th century novel.
I will just mention a few of the things I really like about this book. I like its depiction of the relationship of Henry James to his brother William. Toibin shows great subtly in showing us how that relationship was shaped by James relationship to their father. James was very close to his sister Alice and we see that James gave himself a rare emotional permission to feel deeply about her. He never comes close to recovering from her death.
Toibin also treats the question, though he ventures no answers, of the sexuality of James. James has two emotional relationships in The Master but neither passes beyond barely acknowledged feelings. I really felt the happiness of James when one of the two men stayed with him for a while in his apartment in London.
I really somehow loved the book when James began shopping to furnish his apartment under the guidance of Lady Louise Wolseley who may or may not be having an affair and using her time with James as her cover story. I could almost feel the confusion of James is trying to sort through his self analysis of his emotions toward her. (Her husband was Garnet Wolseley, who had a long career of military service. He was often gone for very long periods and his wife had great resources to do as she wished while the Viscount served the Empire in India, Burma, Ireland and Canada.)
I think you can enjoy this book even if you have not read any Henry James but you will for sure like the book more if you have read and appreciated some his work. Portrait of a Lady and Daisy Miller are two of the most mentioned works in The Master. If you do not like Henry James, I am not sure how you will react to this novel. It is beautifully written. There is not a lot of plot drama, no exciting events.
Toibin lets us see into the creative process of James. We feel the pain of his doldrum periods. I liked the references to Ireland scattered throughout the book.
I really hoped that James would encounter Flaubert, Turgenev and de Maupassant but it did not happen. Toibin does show us some of the reading life of James and I liked that a lot.
I am very glad I read The Master. I think most everyone will like this novel, the exception being those who do not like the work of Henry James.
There is a very perceptive review of The Master at The Book Nook.