The conversation in the Irish castle about the war lends to a greater understanding of the quiet life he lead around his friends; they, too, were in the dark when it came to the person lying inside the heart of their tragic, literary friend.
If there were a war between Great Britain and the United States, Mr. James, where would your loyalty lie?" Webster asked him during a lull in the conversation after dinner.
My loyalty would lie in making peace between them."
And what if that should fail?" Webster asked him.
A happen to know the answer," Lady Wolseley interrupted. "Mr. James would find out which side France was on and join that side." (30-31)
As the conversation continued, it was made clear that the actual encounter James had had with the Civil War in is reality was unknown to even those close friends, who had taken him in at his darkest hour. Like the questionable sexual affiliation Toibin gives James early on, he also makes clear that James isolates himself from everyone, even those close friends he had hoped would spur him on after what turned out to be an awful theatrical debut, had an image of him which may or may not be accurate. What Toibin makes more clear is that James himself may have actually been so sheltered and detached from his own spirit that perhaps even he did not always have his own answers.
Back at home in April, what seemed such clear success of Oscar Wilde's came under new review. Wilde was reported to share the same romantic inclinations as James himself harbored, but his lack of secrecy posed new problem.
Even before he went to Ireland, Henry had heard that Wilde abandoned all but due discretion.... He was everywhere, flaunting his money, his new success and fame, and flaunting also the son of the Marquess of Queensberry, a boy, as deeply as unpleasant as his father, in Gosse's opinion, but rather better-looking, Sturges allowed himself to admit." (66)
In fact, Wilde's marriage was also understandably on the rocks as a result, but none matched the free-fall into which the news of the public relationship would thrust his character. While Wilde stood charge for sodomoy, Gosse and Wilde wondered about their own lives. Perhaps the sexuality at which Toibin hints and is widely historically known about James was well-hidden for reason. While his one-night spent in bed with purely-friend Oliver Wendell Holmes torments Toibin's James, it is also the source of what seems to be the most influential, powerfully confused love understandable by any reader. Toibin's careful treatment of Wilde's situations provides the quiet acquiescence with which James gives into his sheltered lifestyle; his decision to not be openly homosexual may have been a matter of proven street smarts.
Toibin weaves history through the middle-age of James, now on the very doorstep of his success. Tracing through his youth, his time at Harvard, and the historicity of the family that raised him to be the recluse into which he grew comfortably with his own character, Toibin attempts to make observed sense of all the things that created such a tormented writer and, perhaps, kept him from early success. Unlike his brothers Wilky and Bob, he does not sacrifice himself to the cause of the war. He does not share the raved free-thoughts of his father, whose ultimate suicide seems almost inevitable in Toibin's painting of the man. He is not as clever as his sister, Alice, who was the social opposite of closed-off James. Even in his family, he was on the outside.
When Wilky was a baby, she said when Wilky had finally fallen asleep, 'and in his crib, he always seemed to be smiling," Toibin writes. (179) The contrast between brothers could not be greater. "I tried to find out if he was smiling all the time, orif he heard me coming and began to smile only then." (179) To the opposite effect, James does not smile, instead, he is captured miserably in his own quiet solitude from which Toibin gives him little escape. Toibin portrays a life for James in which this solitude was chosen rather explicitly though, if not with great purpose. While his popular cousin Minny begs to join young Henry in Rome, Henry flatly refuses, and she dies.
Minny is clearly important to him though, captured not just in his memory, but in his eventual successes in The Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of the Dove. His unrequited romance with women of great love and brilliance was not limited only to his cousin, for whose death Holmes clearly faults James, but also the wonderful Contance Fenimore Woolson, the other expatriate American to whom he felt a great affection and paralleled similarity, but when she waited for her great love, James himself, in Venice in vain, she finally admitted defeat and gave up. Her death was a monumental moment in the life of James.
Now he thought about her dead body, and the rooms she had filled with the passion of her aura, her books, her mementos, her clothes, her papers. She preferred these rooms to most people; rooms were her sacred spaces." (242) When he was too late to save her, he found himself in time to save the public from the knowledge of their relationship. The rugged path of his relationship wither was only on par with the difficulties with which he struggled to find successful and engaged emotion in the rest of his life. But when he is finally joined by his brother, a complicated visit at the very least because of their untenable friendship, some sense of collected possibility returns to James' life.
Toibin finishes the novel with the proclivity for observation with which he started his study of the great observer himself, Henry James. He gained control of his family life, his home life, and his emotions. While he remained consciously secluded from the larger world, the great love of his life already achieved, the literary greatness for which he had been both brooding and toiling came to him, and the history with which he left the literary world is woven through the Classics still today. But most importantly, Toibin gives closure to the person Henry James,…