Fiction - Portrait of an artist. Miranda Seymour admires a graceful fictional account of Henry James's life that is in awe of its own subject

The Master

Colm Toibin <em>Picador, 359pp, £15.99</em>

ISBN 0743250400

This seems to be Henry James's year. David Lodge's new novel, due in the coming summer, promises a rich reworking of the novelist's life in Rye. A Ring of Conspirators, my own non-fictional account of James's last 20 years - he died in 1916 - is due to be reissued in September. Running ahead of the pack is Colm ToibIn's ambitious and gracefully plotted novel. He focuses on the middle years, eight of them to be precise, spanning the period between the 1895 premiere of James's ill-fated play Guy Domville, and 1902, the year in which his brother William delivered the last of his Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh.

ToibIn has chosen the most interesting stage of Henry James's uneventful but complex career. By opening with what was arguably the unhappiest night of James's life when, unsuspecting, he was led out on-stage to face not applause but catcalls, he sets the scene for an acute portrayal of a sensitive and undervalued man who had yet to come to terms with his own sexual ambivalence.

Constance Fenimore Woolson, the writer with whom he had shared a home at a Florentine villa, but not a bed, had already cast herself into a watery grave in Venice after waiting in vain for James to join her there. His immediate response was one of chilling prudence. Hurrying to Venice, he took possession of the apartment and destroyed all the evidence he could find of his connection with Miss Woolson. He then replicated her suicide by drowning her clothes in the lagoon. ToibIn is not the first to describe the horror of the stiff bombazine skirts rising to the surface, surrounding and enclosing the appalled novelist like ghosts of the rejected woman.

Full-blooded Jamesians may feel a sneaking dissatisfaction with ToibIn's novel. Ingenious and thoughtful though it is, the technique of transforming James's correspondence into articulated thoughts produces a certain stiffness in the dialogue. It is not at all certain that either Henry James or his brother spoke as they wrote; by forcing them to do so, ToibIn makes them sound laborious and stilted. However, when the characters are permitted to speak in newly minted phrases, the language is both unrealistic and insipid. The James family was celebrated for its use of badinage, for cruel directness, for lively and spontaneous conversation. No hint of this is apparent in their exchanges here.

I wish ToibIn had not been so much in awe of his subject. But the book is full of insights, sharp cameos and tender perceptions of the anguished reticence of a man of feeling who did not dare to commit himself to physical love. ToibIn is superb when he steps outside the chaining circle of recorded material and allows his powers of invention to enrich our understanding for his subject. A house party in Ireland shows James at the mercy of a wolfish hostess and an obstreperous young politician determined to shine at the expense of his fellow guests. Webster, the politician, tries to broadcast his suspicions of James's homosexuality, telling him to follow Oscar Wilde and find himself a wife as a disguise for his dangerous preference. The confrontation scene, in which James manages to preserve his dignity and hold the young man at bay, is painfully poignant; James himself could not have written it with more grace and subtlety. The introduction of a servant, Hammond, as the one figure in this threatening social group with whom James can identify is a shrewd touch. Their complicity as detached observers is clear but understated.

Back in the world of documented events, ToibIn is at his best illuminating the tender but circumscribed relationship between Henry James and Hendrik Andersen, the young sculptor he met in Rome and who, in one of the most touching scenes in the novel, visits him at his home in Rye. Comedy and pathos are held in perfect balance here as ToibIn shows Andersen's restless sense of disappointment - he had hoped for important introductions, a furthering of his career - and James's helplessness, his growing sense of the impossibility of the relationship.

Less happily, ToibIn raises the ancient spectre of James's famous "obscure hurt", the accident which rendered him a partial invalid and which freed him from participating in the American civil war. Here, ToibIn is eager to rewrite the accepted version of events and to show that James's mother, desperate to keep a beloved son out of danger, urged invalidism on him. At this point I became uneasy about the novelist's right to impose his own view on history. James's back injury, the cause of lasting discomfort, was not purely psychosomatic; nor was it a mother's loving device to keep him from greater harm.

ToibIn's knowledge of his subject is great and admirable; so is his sympathy for the man. Yet more truth about Henry James can be found in his own tales and novels than in this rich but insufficiently bold fictionalisation of his life.

Miranda Seymour's most recent book is The Bugatti Queen: in search of a motor-racing legend (Simon & Schuster)