- - Thursday, December 7, 2017



By John Banville

Alfred A. Knopf, $27.95, 384 pages

If you have not read Henry James‘ “Portrait of a Lady,” you may have a hard time getting into John Banville’s “Mrs. Osmond.” It picks up the tale of Isabel Archer, now Mrs. Gilbert Osmond, pretty much where James had left her. She had defied her husband and gone to England to see her dying cousin Ralph.

Mrs. Osmond” opens with her returning from the funeral to stay with friends in London en route back to her home in Italy. What will she do when she returns to her aggrieved husband? What will he do? He is unscrupulous, self-absorbed and fearsomely controlling. She is scrupulous, generous and earnestly committed to the ideals of personal freedom.

Years earlier, when she was a poor relation fresh from America, Ralph had engineered an inheritance to give her the chance to bloom. This fortune had exposed her to Osmond’s schemes. Belatedly, just before her departure to Ralph’s bedside, she realized Osmond had married her for her money. She also realized that her supposed friend Madame Merle is actually his long-term mistress, and had promoted the marriage so they could access her fortune to live an aristocratic European lifestyle.

John Banville gradually reveals these and many more infinitely fine details of Henry James‘ portrait of Isabel, so readers coming new to her tale in “Mrs. Osmond” will eventually discover the back-story. But without James‘ limning of the charming young Isabel’s first arrival in England and his agonizing descriptions of her misreadings of life in Italy, they may struggle to understand why her friends find her so appealing.

In “Mrs. Osmond” she is withdrawn and uncommunicative. We met her tiredly arriving by train in London, and retiring to her small hotel room. Next day she goes to her bank and against the advice of its managers withdraws a hefty sum of money. She visits an old suffragist friend and eats a bite or two of a vile vegetarian lunch then cuts her visit short.

Later, still tired, she reconnects with Henrietta Stackpole, her forthright American journalist friend, and though she confides some further horrible details of her life with Osmond, she volunteers little about what she will do about her marriage.

The mystery is the more compelling because in John Banville’s hands Gilbert Osmond is an even more hateful and formidable opponent than he is in Henry James‘. His sadism and self-regard is most spectacularly evident late in the novel when the narrative swings its intense focus from Isabel to show Osmond prowling his apartment, thinking hatefully about her and her return.

This sketch is sharp and concentrated — a brilliantly lit moment in a novel that has moved slowly, presenting Isabel’s thoughts and actions in ruminative Jamesian sentences, replete with James‘ vocabulary and tics such as singling out quite ordinary phrases for special emphasis by putting them in apostrophes.

This style makes for writing that is often tortuous in both authors. In James‘ case, the finical choice of words, the backtracking over assertions, the surgical dissection of emotions and ideas, arrives at clarity by peeling back layers of conjecture and error.

In “Portrait of a Lady” this style perfectly shows Isabel thinking about her experiences, often failing to understand and then rethinking as she grows from an optimistic young woman in a sadder, disillusioned wife. James‘ sentences, with their second thoughts and revisions, render her story perfectly.

But in “Mrs. Osmond,” Isabel is no longer an innocent young thing. Experience has burned off the mists of illusion. She does not have everything to discover about Europe and what she will do there. She has made choices.

So the task of the novel is not to take its scalpel to her misconceptions, but to pick out a way to deal with her marriage. In London she discusses this a little with Henrietta Stackpole. When she moves on to Paris an unexpected encounter enables her to make a startling move toward the solution. In Florence we see her gird her loins for her final confrontation with Osmond.

What engages us is how she will emerge from her battle with her Machiavellian husband. In other words, the narrative structure resembles a mystery or quest novel, unlike “Portrait of a Lady,” which has elements of both the coming-of-age novel and modernist psychological fiction. While James‘ sentence strategies perfectly reveal the feelings and changes of the latter, their ponderousness is less well adapted to the elaboration of plot and motive that underpins mysteries or quests.

But if Jamesian style is not always fit for purpose in this novel, John Banville’s deployment of it is clever, even at times delightful. Readers who enjoy James‘ work will find much to ponder in “Mrs. Osmond.” Some will enjoy this continuation of Isabel’s story; and if others do not, it will certainly prompt ideas.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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