A great idea isn’t always a good idea—a trap John Banville may have fallen into with MRS. OSMOND. Banville has written his newest novel as a sequel to The Portrait of a Lady.
Henry James’s 1880 classic ends ambiguously with his heroine, Isabel Archer Osmond, standing on the precipice of a life decision. It is Banville’s purpose, a century-and-a-third later, to give Isabel a shove in one direction or another.
By the end of this novel, Isabel makes her decision—and it involves that delicious dish best served cold: revenge. Yet it takes a great deal of ink, in the service of long, ponderous, and sometimes redundant inner monologues, to get the dish to the table.
This is not to dismiss Banville’s gorgeous prose, for which the Booker Prize winner is well known. The prose is gorgeous: rich, lyrical, sometimes soaring. But other times his writing is over the top. Banville’s project was to write in a Jamesian vein, mimicking the “Master” himself; that’s the “great idea” I referred to earlier. But for anyone who’s struggled through, say, James’s The Golden Bowl, you’ll know why it might not be such a “good idea.”
If you don’t know, then consider the word “integument,” which Banville uses (twice) in Mrs. Osmond. It reminded me of my own long-ago struggle through The Golden Bowl, a book filled with arcane language and difficult passages. Like James, Banville has peppered this text with a fair number of arcane words and windy paragraphs, and while it’s healthy to expand one’s horizon, too much of a good thing brings to mind a word of my own—plodding.
So here is the set-up. Portrait begins with the American heiress, Isabel Archer, a young innocent abroad, who is duped by a fiendishly clever couple. Against the advice of her wiser friends, she weds the penniless widower, Gilbert Osmond, only to learn that he and her supposed “friend,” Madame Merle, have long been lovers—and had their sights set on Isabel’s fortune.
All of this is recounted in the opening section of Mrs. Osmond. Isabel has left her husband in Italy to attend her cousin’s funeral in England, and now with the funeral over she must decide whether to return to Osmond or to … well, to what? The “what” becomes the focal point of the novel. Entwined with Isabel’s quandary is her quest for freedom and self-determination.
Yet, like James’s original, this novel, too, ends ambiguously. Isabel finds herself at the edge of yet another precipice of decision.
While reviewers say it’s not necessary to have read The Portrait of a Lady before reading Mrs. Osmond, I recommend doing so—first of all because it’s magnificent and, second, because unless you follow Isabel Archer from her youthful naivete through her painful journey to self-realization, Banville’s sequel might come up lacking. You might be hard pressed to sympathize, admire, or even like Isabel Archer Osmond—let alone grasp the shock and viciousness of her husband’s betrayal.
I recommend Mrs. Osmond more for curiosity’s sake than for the sake of a satisfying read—though it can certainly be that as well. But the novel will please mostly Henry James fans eager to learn of Isabel Archer’s fate. It will also please those fans who appreciate James’s—and now Banville’s—superb mastery of the English language.
A former college English instructor, Molly developed LitLovers after teaching an online literature course several years ago. It was so much fun—even the students loved it—that she decided to take it public. If Molly’s not working on LitLovers, she’s sleeping.