An Imperfect Portrait

Review: 'Mrs Osmond' by John Banville

American novelist Henry James (1843 - 1916) / Getty Images

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John Banville is a very good writer. Henry James is an even better one. So what's not to like about Banville's latest effort—as he picks up where the Victorian novelist left off at the close of Portrait of a Lady, imagining the further adventures of James's heroine, Isabel Archer?

As it turns out, plenty. Or at least enough to leave Banville's Mrs Osmond a disappointment. Back in 2004, Henry James had appeared as the central character in two major novels, Colm Tóibín’s The Master and David Lodge's Author, Author. Neither, however, really devoted itself to re-creating the use of language that strikes many readers as the most memorable part of James's art: the long sentences, the sharp observations slipping by in periodic phrases, the sly hiding of wild plot elements and strong metaphors in delicate prose, and all the rest.

It's this that Banville does well in his Jamesian pastiche. "It was a fact that, for Isabel, Europe had been unavoidable; Europe had been her fate and so it was still," he writes. "Yet she should not have allowed her aunt to thrust her upon that fabled continent precipitately, as a free-trader's posse might snatch from a doorway of a dockside tavern some poor young hearty fuddled on rum and press him into a captive life upon the rolling ocean; indeed she should not have allowed it." And the terminal "indeed," the transitional "yet," the change in register with the shanghai'd metaphor—all of it has the sound of James.

And yet, Tóibín and Lodge curiously felt closer to Henry James, weaving the author himself into their fiction. With The Portrait of a Lady in 1881, James made what he considered a major advance in his writing—opening up the second phase of his career with The Princess Casamassima and The Bostonians, both from 1886. And then, in the third phase, reaching such peaks as The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904). It's one thing to try to re-create James himself; every good novelist is fascinated by the man's mind and the eye he turned on the world.

But the first trouble with re-creating the novels, instead of the novelist, is that the action is often too melodramatic for modern taste, while the descriptions of the action are too hidden and discreet. The greatest moment of The Portrait of a Lady comes in Chapter 42—which is nothing but Isabel sitting alone in a dark room, thinking about her failing marriage. And the most dramatic moment comes at the end, when Caspar Goodwood kisses her so orgasmically that James's prose surges into a storm of oblique, delicate, and understated descriptions.

At the end of James's original, Isabel flees from Goodwood's kiss in England and returns to her husband, Gilbert Osmond, in Italy. And that's where Banville picks up the story in Mrs Osmond.

In the final paragraphs of The Portrait of a Lady, we learn that it's a curious "two days afterwards" that Goodwood stops by "the house in Wimpole Street in which Henrietta Stackpole occupied furnished lodgings" and discovers that his love interest has traveled on. But Banville has an explanation for what Isabel has been doing: She stopped at her London bank and withdraw a large sum of the inherited money for which Gilbert Osmond had married her, packing the currency in the satchel that is lost and found in a recurring subplot of Mrs Osmond.

Isabel has a somewhat befuddled evening with Henrietta Stackpole (from James's original) and an odd lunch with Florence Janeway (a Banville creation) before traveling on to France with her maid Staines (another Banville addition). At a party in Paris she encounters her husband's old lover Serena Merle, mother of the girl named Pansy whom Isabelle had taken under her wing in The Portrait of a Lady. And Isabel decides—inexplicably and un-Jamesianly—to invite Serena to travel with her to Italy.

Eventually, Isabel reaches Florence, where she learns from her Aunt Lydia that her husband is nearby. She visits him, and they begin to quarrel, her absence in England apparently having done nothing to soothe the angers that had injured their relationship. Isabel offers her husband a financial settlement if he will allow her to separate from him—and take his now-grown daughter Pansy with her into freedom. Along the way, she meets a young, handsome, and stammeringly shy Englishman named Devenish, and Banville hints that he will eventually provide the heroine with the kisses she has found she needs.

Much more happens in the final pages of Mrs Osmond as Banville finds that all his plottings and subplottings have been generating a number of loose ends that require tying off before he can finish his tale. The book is oddly paced—dilatory and meandering in its descriptions and slow scene setting, then suddenly furious in driving toward a conclusion. The feel of Mrs Osmond isn't so much a late-nineteenth-century novel at the peak of the unified symphonic form of Victorian art. In structure, at least, the book seems more something like the early-nineteenth-century slapdash picaresques that would find their apotheosis in The Pickwick Papers: one thing after another, along the way of a journey, until everything is tidied up in the last chapter.

John Banville has won innumerable prizes and awards for his fiction—and often deserved them. His fourteenth novel, The Sea, which won the 2005 Booker Prize, was a volume of such intense beauty, in dense, thick prose, that reviewers fell over themselves in a rush to proclaim a candidate for the Nobel Prize. And he’s found a way to use his impulse to quicker, more popular writing with the mystery novels he writes under the pseudonym Benjamin Black.

For all that, Mrs Osmond seems a little self-indulgent—the novelist playing a private game as he spools out his imitations of James's language. That Henry James fascinates Banville is no surprise. He ought to fascinate every novelist, especially those akin to Banville, driven by the need to make their prose precise. But James is more than his prose style, and The Portrait of a Lady is more than its melodrama. How can anyone re-create today the power for Victorian readers of those interior contemplations as Isabel Archer sat alone at night and mourned her life?

The answer is they can't. Not even John Banville.

Joseph Bottum

Joseph Bottum   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Joseph Bottum is a professor of cyber-ethics and director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

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