by David Lodge
You need not be a fan of Henry James's mannered novels of manners (The Portrait of a Lady) to be captivated by this fictionalized portrait of a gentleman. A posh Bostonian who spent much of his life in Victorian England, James kept secrets to the end (including whether he was gay), but Lodge supposes that he died a virgin and that his novelist friend Constance Fenimore Woolson committed suicide because he failed to return her love.
The book isn't all tragedy though; Lodge delivers warmth and comedy, even suspense, all of which are scarce in a rival novel about James, Colm Toíbín's The Master, which came out in June. Here, James is a painfully shy underdog who, despite familial riches and his literary prestige, fumbled for speech, struggled to connect with people and saw his career nearly sunk by the failure of his play Guy Domville in 1895. But Lodge sees James as a comeback kid—a decent, kind soul who used life's reverses both to make himself a better man and to write great books. This one does him justice.