When I read Washington Square by Henry James earlier this year, I was really excited and hopeful that I had found an author whose work I would treasure as much as Jane Austen’s.
The Lesson of the Master is good too. Better than good actually, the writing is beautiful, the pacing is perfect and the story is subtle and comes very close to being exactly right, but I didn’t feel that emotional connection with the main character of with the story that I have with Jane Austen’s characters. This may have been because, as a female, I relate better to Austen’s heroines.
The Lesson of the Master starts with Paul Overt, a young writer who has had early writing success, visiting a country house where he hopes to meet his idol, Henry St George. St George is a celebrated novelist who Paul rates very highly, while acknowledging that St George’s most recent novels are not of the same high quality as his earlier works.
Paul meets St George and his wife who is an invalid. Mrs St George shocks Paul by telling him she has burned books written by her husband which she didn’t think saleable. Paul is idealistic, and despite falling in love with the beautiful Marian Fancourt, he gave her up after St George suggested to Paul he would be a better writer if he doesn’t marry and have children. The implication is that St George has sacrificed his own art to support his family.
Paul goes abroad and writes a masterpiece, but when he returns to England he learns that Mrs St George has died and that Marian Fancourt is now engaged to marry St George.
I finished the book feeling as if young Paul had been scammed by the master, (St George), but I didn’t really care much. Maybe Paul was scammed and maybe he wasn’t, but would he have written his later great work had he become engaged or married to Marian himself? We will never know, because this is a novel and Henry James was the person who determined that particular point. According to the introduction to the story by Cohn Toibin, this story was based on the author’s own experiences and was in part, a justification of his own choice to remain unmarried.
As I’ve written this review, I’ve realised that the plot is cleverer than I originally believed, but still think the characters needed filling out more emotionally. I liked that the characters names were descriptive, for example, Marian Fancourt couldn’t have been anything but a beautiful, literary groupie and Paul Overt is an undisguised, open young man. Even the name of Henry St George has connotations of the saint who died for his beliefs. Summersoft, the name of the country house where the story begins, sounds like an ideal place to sit on the grass with friends on a warm Sunday afternoon.
I won’t give up on Henry James just yet, even if the moral of The Lesson of the Master was ‘do as I say and not as I do.’