Review: Mrs Osmond by John Banville

Having been a lifelong aficionado of Henry James and a great admirer of the award-wining Irish novelist John Banville, I was fascinated to learn that Banville had written a novel that takes up where The Portrait of a Lady ends, offering his version of its ambiguous conclusion.

First, I have to say, I’m usually against this kind of literary appropriation. It’s one thing to imagine different futures for our beloved literary characters, which is something authors might expect, but it’s quite another to commit those imaginings to the page. There are numerous continuations of Pride and Prejudice — because, of course, we are all desperate to know what happens next. In my opinion, though, none have been done well. Such ‘responses’ circumscribe our own daydreams and impose a finality that does a disservice to the original text.

The one exception that comes to mind is Jean Rhys’s brilliant feminist and anti-colonial Wide Sargasso Sea, which recounts the story of Mr Rochester’s first wife and offers an explanation as to how she came to be hidden away in his attic. I suspect it succeeds not only because Rhys is a very good writer but also because we don’t identify with the locked-up madwoman in Jane Eyre. We aren’t invested in Bertha Rochester/Antoinette Conway as a character, which means that any response might suffice.

Not so with Isabel Archer. There are few heroines who are referred to as often by women in the midst of an unhappy marriage. Isabel (which is how we fondly think of her), in taking charge of her life, finds herself exactly where she had determined never to be — trapped. She is someone many woman can identify with.

So, when I heard Banville had written a response to The Portrait of a Lady, I had two contradictory reactions. First, I groaned. Not Isabel Archer! It seemed somehow sacrilegious to mess with James’s most beloved heroine. Then I thought, if anyone can pull it off, it’s Banville. I love his beautiful writing, so much of which has stayed in my mind long after I’ve finished his books.

After reading an early review extolling the book as “a fine act of literary ventriloquism”, I rushed to Portland’s Powell’s Bookstore, delighted to find a signed first edition. (If you don’t already know, Powell’s is one of the world’s finest bookstores. Publishers know this and send several signed copies of new books by their authors. But you have to act fast to nab one.)

Banville indeed captured the style of James with his long, twisting, languorous, delicately modulated sentences. He makes use of Jamesian terms like “hang fire”, which happens more than once as characters appraise one another and their circumstances.

I grinned when, early on, Isabel finds herself dining alone in a restaurant and the only other diner is a stout, balding man on the brink of middle-age. The two observe one another, and Isabel finds him strangely familiar:

Yet she had the impression, caught there in the unblinking beam of those preternaturally wide-open, glossy-grey and somewhat protuberant organs, that she was being checked and assessed — no reassessed; she might have been a portrait that he, the portraitist, had come upon unexpectedly, hanging on the wall of a gallery he had chanced to wander into, and in front of which he had paused, looking to see how his composition had weathered with the years, and what time had done to the quality of the pigment. (18)

This overt reference to Henry James reminded me of Hitchcock’s cameo appearances in his films, and I grew excited by Banville’s post-modern playfulness. Unfortunately, however, the promise remains unfulfilled.

James drew on a tradition of literary heroines who have ‘chosen badly’. Isabel’s most obvious antecedent is Dorothea Brooke (George Eliot’s Middlemarch), not only because, just like Isabel, she eschews conventional and more desirable suitors, choosing instead the dusty, fusty, musty Mr Causaubon, who is merely a slightly older and crankier version of the fusty, musty aesthete Gilbert Osmond; but because both young women slowly become aware of their illusion, the failure of their marriages, and the hard egoism of their husbands.

Whereas Dorothea honestly confronts the implications of her circumstances, ultimately making clear-eyed choices, and James’s Isabel is poised to do so, Banville’s Isabel seems to lumber along numbly, without any clear plan. The things that do happen occur by accident: she forgets a parcel of banknotes, invites Madame Merle to return to Rome without thinking, impulsively stops off in Florence, where Osmond just so happens to be.

In depicting the encounters between husband and wife, Banville departs from James’s deeply psychological, nuanced characterizations. Osmond is simply mean. And he’s greedy, caring almost to the point of madness about the banknotes Isabel withdrew. While James’s Osmond might be just as cruel and just as greedy, we know absolutely that he is much too subtle to ever show it — especially to Isabel. That he does clangs and bangs around on the page: wrong, wrong, wrong.

Throughout her return to Italy, we encounter many of the characters from The Portrait of a Lady, none of whom has fared well in Mrs Osmond. Henrietta Stackpole has grown fat, and she’s brisker and more impatient than ever. Mr Rosier, her stepdaughter Pansy’s suitor, is smaller, more ineffectual, and quite unlikable. Caspar Goodwood, Isabel’s longtime American suitor and “the most interesting man she’s ever met”, provides a perfect opportunity either to complicate Isabel’s decision or to simplify it. And yet, Banville ignores him altogether and consigns him to always arriving just a moment too late. 

Pansy, for whom Isabel has had great affection and a close friendship, is now cold, hard, distant, and unforgiving. Her marriage prospects are hinted at in a shallow, gossipy way, designed to shock, because, well, we all know what goes on in convent schools, don’t we? The problem is, while Banville’s vision for Pansy might have shocked 19th Century readers, we can never quite shake the fact that we are 21st Century readers in the middle of a work by a 21st Century author. As good as Banville is in ventriloquizing James’s voice and in tugging at the threads of the original novel, the lens through which we watch this occur is never more evident than the last scene with Pansy.

But it’s his treatment of Isabel that disappoints the most. I was left with the sense that not only doesn’t Banville understand her, he simply doesn’t like her much. He skips over the real drama, which is about weighing obligation and responsibility with personal freedom and then somehow finding a way to go forward. It isn’t meant to be an easy decision. James intended it to be a desperate one. Banville glides over her desperation. Her lawyer appears conveniently when needed and also happens to be conveniently all-powerful. It seems not to have occurred to Banville that Osmond would have his own lawyer or that laws in the 19th Century favored the husband. Isabel is allowed to settle everything just as she wants without a battle.

Like James, Banville ends his novel ambiguously. However, his Isabel is mute, drained, without a plan, effectively silenced. It’s left for someone else to take up where Banville left off, to lead Isabel forward to the next episode, hopefully to undo the damage Banville’s done, to take up a hobby maybe or to travel to the Orient or to buy a house she can decorate herself. Anything but leaving her always to be dumbly defined, pursued, and misunderstood by the men she encounters.

Upon closing the book, the disappointment I felt was palpable. I had the sense of a ruined portrait — one on which Banville drew devil horns, a mustache, and goatee on the poor lady and then scrawled Banville was here across her breast.



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