Author, Author by David Lodge
I read Colm Toibin’s book before this one only because it was chosen by a book group. I liked it but liked this one better. Explaining why will be hard since I think most readers have preferred Toibin.
Lodge frames his tale really well, opening as James lies dying in Carlyle Mansions, Cheyne Walk, in December 1915. His sister-in-law, widow of William James comes to “take charge”; a female servant is in love with his man servant who was already wounded in the war and James has used his influence to get him a medical discharge which hasn’t come through yet; James (to the chagrin of his sister-in-law) has taken British citizenship; and it’s just been announced that he’s on the New Year’s Honors List and getting congratulations from his many friends. James himself is a little out of it, but not totally. When he’s told he got congratulations from Du Maurier, he remarks that his friend is dead, as indeed is his friend George Du Maurier. It’s Gerald, his son, the actor, who’s sent the note. The novel ends with the death of James in February 1916, with the same cast of characters in attendance, framing the novel nicely, introducing and tying up its main themes.
The bulk of the novel focuses on the period in James’ life when he begins to think that no one reads fiction seriously—his books in particular—and he tries to turn his talents to the theatre. It also focuses on his friendship with George Du Maurier, an artist turned cartoonist when he lost the sight of one eye in his youth. Du Maurier is not James’ intellectual equal and unlike James he lives in a sprawling Hampstead house with a beloved wife and a houseful of children. James liked to walk out there of a Sunday and walk on the Heath with Du Maurier while the children played. On one occasion, Du Maurier says he has a story James might like to develop. It’s about a young girl who’s an artist model….
"She becomes a famous chanteuse on the Continent under the tutelage of a little foreign Jew, a musician. She was sought out by a young impoverished artist who had known her as the good looking but stupid daughter of his landlady and was intrigued by her success. He heard the girl perform and was overwhelmed by the beauty of her singing. “In fact he begins to fall in love with her,” said Du Maurier. 'But then he discovers that the Jew is a mesmerist and the girl can only perform when she’s under his influence. When the Jew suddenly dies, in the middle of a performance, she becomes totally ordinary again—sings like a crow. I’m not sure how the story should end.'"
James didn’t take it very seriously and he told DuMaurier he didn’t think he knew enough about music to write it.
As James begins to write for the theatre, starting with a dramatization of The American, Du Maurier starts to write fiction. His first novel is published and finds more readers than The Tragic Muse, which encourages James even more to get involved with the theatre. By the time Du Maurier writes Trilby, using the plot James had rejected, and it becomes a runaway “bestseller” (a new American term James hates) as well as a successful play on both sides of the Atlantic, James realizes he is jealous of his friend.
I won’t give away any more of the plot. If you love James you’ll love this book. Lodge has tracked down the germs of many of James stories and novels, following history pretty carefully but adding shape and selecting detail to make a pretty satisfying novel. The focus is on the period when James expected to be able to make his fortune in the theatre until he reorganized his priorities and gave up the theatre to write (eventually) his three last and most famous novels.
The novel does really cover the same period as does Toibin’s novel, including the relationship with Constance Fennimore Woolson.
Daphne Du Maurier, by the way, was the granddaughter of James's friend.