Mrs Osmond by John Banville, book review: A fine act of literary ventriloquism and imagination

The Man Booker Prize-winning novelist John Banville’s new novel 'Mrs Osmond' picks up where Henry James’s 1881 novel 'The Portrait of a Lady' left off

Lucy Scholes
Thursday 05 October 2017 13:00
Comments

At the end of Henry James’s 1881 novel The Portrait of a Lady, we’re left unsure as to what awaits his heroine Isabel Osmond (née Archer).

Having recently learnt of her husband Gilbert’s indiscretions, and the betrayal committed by her one-time confidant Madame Merle (who, it’s shockingly revealed, is the mother of Gilbert’s daughter Pansy, the girl he’s always passed off as the legitimate offspring of his first marriage), Isabel defied Gilbert’s attempts to keep her at home in Rome, and fled instead to England and the deathbed of her beloved cousin Ralph Touchett.

On the last page of James’s book, we’re told that her indecision is suddenly behind here: “She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path.” We know this path leads back to Rome, but whether it’s one of reconciliation and reunification, a reckoning, or that of revenge, we’re left in the dark.

Until now, that is, for the Man Booker Prize-winning Irish novelist John Banville’s new novel Mrs Osmond picks up where James left off, with Isabel “lashed by unbreakable bonds to Europe’s mast”. He plunges his readers back into a fin-de-siècle society of American heiresses, European nobility and – as befits a story about Isabel’s search for emancipation: “What was freedom,” Isabel thinks, “other than the right to exercise one’s choices?” – the suffragists.

Opening in London, where Isabel breaks her journey from the Touchett’s country estate, before travelling on, via Paris and Geneva, to Italy, the narrative might best be described as a series of encounters between her and various characters from the original: her plainspoken American friend and journalist Henrietta Stackpole; the Machiavellian Madame Merle; Mr Edward Rosier, the young man who pursued Pansy’s hand in marriage but was ingloriously sent packing by Gilbert; Isabel’s sister-in-law, Countess Gemini, who spilled the beans about her brother’s indecorous behaviour; Mrs Touchett’s, Isabel’s aunt and Ralph’s mother; and, of course, the arch villain himself, Gilbert Osmond.

Cleverly, Banville has each of these meetings both propel his narrative forward and, looking backwards, add layers of intricacy to James’s work; each of Banville’s characters satisfyingly convincing in their new guises. As such, I suspect it’s those readers already familiar with The Portrait of a Lady who will enjoy Mrs Osmond the most.

It’s also worth mentioning that Banville does an impressive job of mimicking the complex syntax that characterises James’s intricate prose; which here in turn takes a little getting used to before one begins to see it elegantly unfurl on the page. It’s not that those who haven’t read the original will find themselves confused – Banville conscientiously provides all the details first-time readers need to know to understand the story – rather they’d simply be inadequately prepared to appreciate a certain clearly integral element of the work Banville’s constructed: a sequel-cum-homage to that written by the American master. Although unlikely to have the broader appeal of Banville’s previous works, it’s a fine act of literary ventriloquism and imagination.

Mrs Osmond by John Banville is published by Viking (£14.99)

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in