A Note on “Psychological” Novels
Henry James and Colm Tóibín

The etiology of consciousness is Henry James’s subject. He is called “psychological,” probably because the epithet was invoked long before a wide public familiarity with Freud, and the now widespread idea that the brain is host to competing objectives and peculiar susceptibilities. Taking that familiarity for granted, I have always wondered what is so particularly “psychological” about James’s novels. Certainly there are no battles between ids and  superegos! No, the motivation of James’s characters is almost banal. They seek the satisfactions of love (which James takes to be entirely self-evident, contra Freud) and the easiness of a good conscience. There is nothing abnormal or even unusual about the “psychologies” of James’s great heroines, quite the contrary. Catherine Sloper is incapable of being interesting in any ordinary way, while Isabel Archer and Maggie Verver are both “sportswomen” in the sense of Sargent’s great painting of the Phelps Stokes: they see straight ahead and, by nature, are not troubled by what they don’t see. They are so “good” that they can’t imagine what’s up against them, until, in one case, it’s thrown in her face (Mme Merle) and, in the other, the product of extreme concern for her father’s well-being. How these three women become aware of the nastiness around them, notably without the help of verbal exchanges, is the subject of the novels. In that sense, they are, of course, “psychological.”

Although Colm Tóibín’s fourth novel, The Blackwater Lightship, met with considerable success (and was even adapted for a film starring Angela Lansbury and Dianne Wiest), it was the fifth, The Master, that established the Irish author as a serious novelist. This “novelization” of episodes from the life of Henry James presented James as James had prevented the three heroines whom I’ve mentioned, moving silently from one intuition to the next. I missed the resemblance because Tóibín’s prose style was clear and straightforward to a degree that James himself might not have admired and that no well-read person would regard as “Jamesian.” Tóibín’s interest in and regard for James did not seem to me to be reflected in his own fiction — not, that is, until the appearance this spring of Long Island, a novel unlike the writer’s earlier ones in having multiple protagonists. In a series of six rounds, we are taken into the minds of Nancy Sheridan, Eilis Lacey, and Jim Farrell. Eilis and Jim, with their romantic history, are personally preoccupied by the problem of deciding whether to carry this dormant attachment into the present. With no doubt whatsoever about what she herself wants, Nancy Sheridan is free to wonder what the other two are up to. From the start, Nancy is aware that Eilis and Jim might rekindle their old affair, but the evidence of their actually planning to do anything takes time and patience for Nancy to discover. The others’ dithering creates a measure of suspense, but the question of what Nancy will do when she discovers what she is afraid to find out makes this by far the most dramatic story that Colm Tóibín has yet told. And it must be acknowledged that this drama owes the greater part of its tension to the quiet spectacle of Nancy’s accumulation of inferences. Nancy manages to resolve the problem of a romantic triangle in her own favor with all the dispatch of Maggie Verver. Long Island is, no less than The Golden Bowl, a “psychological” novel.