Henry James - The Master by Colm Toibin

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BBC Radio 4, 3 August 2008

In this program the author Colm Toibin (author of the best-selling novel The Master) fielded questions from a specially selected panel of listeners, while offering an insight into James’s technique as an author.


Toibin took the opportunity to reflect on James’s reclusive persona as he gradually withdrew from public life (especially after the failure of his play Guy Domville) and pursued a solitary existence. Toibin argued that James’s behavior seemed paradoxical; while seeking to present himself as the novelist immured in an ivory tower, working out his ideas on paper, he was also preoccupied with making money and acquiring a popular reputation – even at the end of his life. Toibin explored the consequences of this paradox in relation to the late novels. He claimed that James drew on popular dramatic forms: The Wings of the Dove was basically a three-character melodrama. At the same time he explored his characters’ behavior and motives in exhaustive detail. Toibin likened the experience of reading a James novel to viewing an Impressionist painting – every detail could be treated as a composite image in its own right, prompting the viewer/reader to reflect on its construction. At the same time we are encouraged to meditate on the relationship between the image and the complete whole. Sometimes that relationship can be problematic, even ambiguous; this is what gives James his reputation as a ‘difficult’ novelist. However Toibin argued that readers should approach James in a certain way; rather than reading the novels from cover to cover, they should reflect on each incident, how the narrator interprets it and how they themselves respond to it. They should form their own impressions of an Impressionist text.


Perhaps the program could have devoted more time to Toibin’s novel, and how it dealt with Jamesian themes. Nonetheless it provided a fascinating analysis of James’s technique and the demands it places on his readers. The program can be accessed on the web at the address below.