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Review: The Master by Colm Tóibín

I had some random conversations with my children today.

  1. On getting home, my daughter greeted me with, “Look at this English Language assignment on the Suffragettes.  Do you think Draco Malfoy is a good character?  And did you know that China got rid of their one child policy last week?”
  2. I asked my other daughter, “What did you do at college today?” “I went to book club.” “Don’t you have to have read a book to do that?” “No, you just go and talk about what you are reading, and then they have a raffle and give you a free book.” “What book did you get?” “The Communist Manifesto.” “What’s that about?”  “It’s the thing that Karl Marx wrote.”  “Oh!  you mean the actual Communist Manifesto.”(I’d assumed that there was some novel out there with a clever reference in its title.)
  3. To my daughter (not the mathematical one, the other one): “How did you do that??  I thought I was the only person in the world who’d memorised their Home Hub code!” “It’s because I had to type it in so often.  I can’t remember our phone number, though.”

They’re both back at college/school today after half term.  I worked all week, as I was too busy to think about taking leave, but I did have the office all to myself.  I am not sure if I have mentioned that after a “trigger” incident in the office I tend not to have speech radio on any more and stick to 6Music.  Being by myself gives me a chance to catch up on Radio 4 readings and dramas.  I especially enjoy the ones that are too hammy and embarrassing to have on while anyone else is there, such as the Marple and Poirot adaptations that are on iPlayer at the moment.  The acting is just soooo terrible!

My favourite play has been Hattie Naylor’s J’Accuse, a dramatisation of the trial(s) and imprisonment of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer convicted of treason, and the way it divided France into those who saw the case as an appalling miscarriage of justice and those who saw the conviction as vital in upholding the rule of law and society as it stood.  Hattie Naylor also dramatised Samuel Pepys’s diaries for radio; she has this skill of making the events unfold clearly enough for total non-historians like me, without being clunky in the exposition, and has this amazing sensitivity for portraying characters without turning them into stereotypes.  I learned so much about French society at the end of the nineteenth century from this very enjoyable play.

I was also surprised to enjoy a reading of Virginia Woolf’s Flush, which is Elizabeth Barratt Browning’s world from the point of view of her pet dog.

It wasn’t so much the bizarre premise that had previously put me off Flush, but the problems I usually have with historical fiction.  I have started reading too many books/seen too many films that go along the lines of “Einstein went fishing, walked round for a bit then went home and had a furious row with the President of Israel.” ie veering from the so-mundane-why-include? to the that-can’t-possibly-have-happened-why-include?

The one thing that I do really like in historical/biographical fiction is where a genuine attempt is made to understand and create sympathy for the likely motives of the characters.  Naylor heart rendingly captures the anguish of the wrongly imprisoned Dreyfus, and even if her Pepys and his wife didn’t really share the same understanding that they do in her Diary dramatisations, their sympathies towards each other highlight their very human reactions to the events around, making the history more relateable for the audience.

The last and best recent example of this biographical sympathy is Colm Tóibín’s The Master, a novel about the Henry James’s later years.

It took me three goes to get past the slow start, which has Henry James wandering randomly about pondering as he waits for the premier of his first play, Guy Domville, to finish.  But the chapter picks up quite dramatically, and you really feel for and understand what James is going through as he worries about how his play will be received, as Tóibín takes us through his thought processes so logically and thoroughly.

The book moves on to look back on different aspects of James’s personal life, and the influences each of these had on his works.  There is James’s dead sister Alice; his dead cousin Minny; a phantom illness that James had as a young man, encouraged by his mother; the effect of the American Civil War on the young James; the fact of his having escaped fighting in it, and the class implications of American society.  This latter point Tóibín, an Irish writer, expands into an astonishingly understanding exposition of the effect New England society in the late 19th century had on its writers.

I was still moved early on to think – I wonder…?  This time however, I wasn’t wanting to go and check out a fact because it seemed preposterously unlikely, but rather because I was so impressed with the way something had been described that I wanted to know more.

I’m now reading A Brief History of Seven Killings, the Booker Prize winning novel, which also takes historical events as its basis.  Although Marlon James has quite a different approach!



  1. I have The Master in the 746 I think, but it hasn’t really appealed to me before. I’m a big fan of 6Music too and love getting the office to myself to play some music while I work!

  2. Me too for 6Music, love it, we listen to it all the time. And I love the conversations you and your daughters have…I had a very interesting one with Daughter on Saturday when she taught me all about plague doctors while she carved an image of one onto the pumpkin. It was a fascinating history lesson! You do very well to get past three tries of a read, I can’t do that and I admire you greatly for sticking with it!

    • It’s really great when kids start getting their little niche interests! For my daughter, it’s all sci-fi and Dr Who and action movies. I guess you must have quite a lot of music talk in your house.

  3. I love ‘The Master’. I’ve read it twice now and it just gets better. But then I love anything Tóibín writes. I believe he is considered an expert on Henry James. I think there is a volume of essays that I haven’t yet managed to track down.

  4. now you’ve just reminded me, I used to have The Master on my shelf, bought from a used book sale but after years there I donated it to a used book sales. LOL. Now that I’ve visited New England, and visited Edith Wharton’s summer home where she had Henry James as a frequent dinner guest, I want to read The Master. It’s always like that. A book can sit on your shelf for years untouched, and after you’ve given it away you wanted to read it. Anyway, good that you and your daughters talk and share. They are very informed. One thing I must add though, true, China has scrapped their One Child Policy, and replaced it with a Two Child.

    • I didn’t realise that about the Two Child thing, they weren’t making a big thing about it on the radio programme I listened to, there was a lot of focus on the past problems that were caused by One Child, such as the lonely children, and the burden of caring for aged relatives.
      It does seem a bit daft to bother carrying on with the policy at all when it doesn’t seem needed any more.
      Hope you find a copy of The Master and enjoy it!

  5. I’ve had The Master on my shelves for ages and must get around to reading it. I read David Lodge’s version of the same story Author, Author, first when they two books came out at the same time (David Lodge wrote a really entertaining essay about this nightmareish coincidence ‘The Year of Henry James’) and I needed to forget it a bit before reading Toibin’s version. I’ve probably waited long enough, though! And I adore hammy production of Agatha Christie novels so I must check out the iplayer! Such things are immensely comforting! Loved your conversations with your daughters – they did make me laugh. 🙂

  6. Loved reading about your random conversations with your girls Denise! Hope you’re all well and looking forward to the silly season 🙂

  7. Denise, just stop by to wish you and yours a Merry Christmas and all the best in the New Year! Trust you’re well. Enjoy your holidays with your daughters.

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