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Review: John Banville’s ‘Mrs. Osmond’ a splendid salute to Henry James

Very few authors could write a novel that’s an homage to the great Raymond Chandler, a founding father of crime fiction, and do it in a pitch-perfect version of Chandler’s distinctive voice.

If an author did do that, what are the odds that a few years later he could write another homage, this one a sequel to the best-known novel by one of the towering greats of American literature — and pull it off just as perfectly?

The one to bet on is John Banville. The Irish writer has long been a man of many voices. He has written 17 novels under his own name (winning the Booker and Kafka prizes) and another 10 under the nom de plume Benjamin Black, including seven about Dublin pathologist Quirke and that splendid Chandler book, The Black-eyed Blonde.

His Banville books are modernist, inventive and densely literary, their cool prose subtly lovely; he’s often compared to Proust, Joyce and Nabokov. His Black books are gritty, atmospheric, world-weary hardboiled mysteries, influenced by Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and stylistically very different from the Banville novels.

In his new novel, Mrs. Osmond, Banville takes on yet another voice, one that would daunt almost any writer: Henry James.

James, widely seen as one of the greatest novelists of the English language, was a transitional figure between 19th century realism and the literary modernism of the 20th century. A prolific fiction writer, critic and playwright, James is known for such works as The Turn of the Screw, Daisy Miller, The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove.

He’s also another of Banville’s influences, and Mrs. Osmond is a sequel to James’ 1881 novel The Portrait of a Lady, the masterpiece of the early period of James’ writing and one of the most read of his books (also the source for a 1996 movie starring Nicole Kidman).

James wrote often about the complex relationship between American and European cultures, and specifically about a common phenomenon in the 19th century among the upper classes of both continents: European aristocrats had titles (and sometimes castles) but no money, while newly rich Americans lacked upper-crust credentials. A number of James’ works recount the complex courtship that ensued.

The Portrait of a Lady is the story of Isabel Archer, a young American woman who travels to Europe, inherits a fortune, turns down a couple of promising suitors and ends up married to another American expatriate. Gilbert Osmond, it soon becomes clear, schemed with his mistress, Madame Merle, to gain control of Isabel’s fortune.

The Portrait of a Lady ends with Isabel’s decision, against her husband’s wishes, to travel to England to comfort her young cousin, Ralph Touchett, on his deathbed — leaving open the question of whether she’ll return to her unhappy home in Rome.

Banville picks the story up where James left off: with Isabel on a train to London days after her cousin’s death. She’s grieving for him, and her grief brings her one of those Jamesian moments in which characters confront the consequences of inaction: "... the intensest living Ralph had done he had done through her," Isabel thinks, "by way of a passionate vicariousness, watching in smiling wonderment from his seat at the ringside her breathtaking flights. ... To have lived through someone else, even someone he professed to adore, that had been the height of Ralph’s triumph, and the depth of his failure."

She is struggling, too, with the fracturing of her marriage. Before leaving Rome she discovered not only the truth about Osmond and Madame Merle, but that his daughter, Pansy, is not the child of Osmond’s long-dead first wife but was born to Merle. (Osmond has also sent Pansy off to a convent as punishment for rejecting a rich suitor.)

Banville writes of Isabel, "Strange: It was she who had been wronged, grievously wronged, by her husband, and by a woman whom she had considered, if not her ally, then not her enemy either, yet it was she herself who felt the shame of the thing."

Isabel, who is attractive and charming and used to being loved, is especially stung by her plight because "to put it at its plainest and most vulgar, I was married for my money."

In London, she casts about for advice from friends, first Henrietta Stackpole, a brash American journalist who asks her, with affectionate exasperation, "My dear, my dear, have you not grasped even yet how deplorably, how dismayingly, how endearingly wrong you have been about so many things?"

Next she visits Miss Janeway, "a person of pamphlets and polemics, of parades and protests: in a word, a member of that species, still rare at the time, known as the New Woman." Miss Janeway has little sympathy for Mr. Osmond.

The Portrait of a Lady was a psychological novel, focused on its characters’ inner lives, and the same is true of Mrs. Osmond. Long conversations and introspection make up most of the plot, although Isabel occasionally does something decisive, like taking a huge amount of cash out of a bank account and carrying it around London in a sack, which leaves her giddy (and nervous) with a sense of freedom.

Banville subtly lets us know, though, the social strictures under which Isabel lives. She longs one evening for "a rare steak and a glass of claret" — until she reminds herself it’s not possible for a woman alone to dine in a restaurant. In that world, resolving a bad marriage, even a fraudulent one, is more than challenging.

For a couple of chapters, Banville takes the reader into a very different psychology: Gilbert Osmond’s. We know that he is a self-involved snob; as Isabel says, "There are not many people that Mr. Osmond does admire, among my circle, such as it is, or in the world at large, for that matter."

But seen up close, his narcissism is even more disturbing:

"He had always fancied himself a person misplaced in time; his was a sensibility more attuned, he was convinced, to a grander, more garlanded age, an age in which his talents would have shone with a more vivid flame than ever they could be fanned to by the vapid breezes of the prosaic present day." And his attitude toward his wife is colder than she knows.

Banville does an impeccable job of re-creating James’ prose style and moving his characters forward in believable ways. As Mrs. Osmond progresses, his wicked sense of humor emerges more, and he adds twists to the plot James would have cloaked in reticence.

Isabel finally comes up with a solution to her problem that’s a wonderfully sly reminder that you should be very careful what you wish for, because you might get it. Nevertheless, I’m wishing for the next book from Banville.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.
Follow @colettemb.

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