”The Master” is not, of course, a novel about just any man, but rather a novel about a figure from the past about whom we know an extraordinarily great deal, through both his own and others’ memoirs, books and letters. As Toibin well knows, ventriloquizing the past is a dangerous affair for a novelist who wants to be taken seriously: just to remind you, he has an indignant Henry tell his supercilious and critical brother (who has suggested he write a novel about the Puritans) that he views ”the historical novel as tainted by a fatal cheapness.” (‘The Passion of Henry James’, New York Times, June 20, 2004)
In Rachel Cohen‘s A Chance Meeting, we learn–in the chapter describing the encounters between Henry James, Annie Adams Fields and Sarah Orne Jewett–that Jewett had sent to, and received praise from, James her collection of short stories The Queens Twin and other Stories. Emboldened by his description of some of the stories there as ‘perfection’, she sent him a copy of her work in progress, The Tory Lover:
Set in Maine and in England during the Revolutionary War, the novel was meant to reclaim a certain historical sense for her town in much the way that she and her sister, Mary, worked to restore their old house and those of their neighbors in a newly preservationist time. [A Chance Meeting, pp. 88]
James’ reaction was sharp and critical, even as he made sure to couch his remarks in the consoling form of being made ‘as a fellow craftsman & a woman of genius & courage’:
The ‘historic’ novel is, for me, condemned, even in cases of labor as delicate as yours, to a fatal cheapness….You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures & documents, relics & prints, as much as you like–the real thing is almost impossible to do, & in its absence the whole effect is as nought; I mean the invention, the representation of the old consciousness, the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world were non-existent….Go back to the country of the Pointed Firs, come back to the present palpable intimate that throbs responsive, & that wants, misses, needs you, and God knows, & that suffers woefully in your absence. [A Chance Meeting, pp. 88]
What makes this criticism of James simultaneously perspicuous and limiting is his concentration on the ‘invention, the representation of the old consciousness’. These remarks are perspicuous because James rightly focuses on that which is most inaccessible to the novelist, but they are limiting because the difficulty of that task of imaginative recreation is precisely that which intrigues the novelist and engages and involves him. Even the failures of the novelist in these attempts at inhabiting the ‘soul, the sense’ of another might make for a noble endeavor, one visible and pleasurably palpable to the reader.