Book review: Mrs Osmond by John Banville

John Banville
John Banville
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The Portrait Of A Lady by Henry James ends on one of the most daringly ambiguous suspended chords in literature. Will Isabel Osmond, née Archer, return from her cousin’s deathbed to her husband Gilbert, whom she has learned has had an illegitimate child with the rather flash Madame Merle, or will she strike out for the territories as a free woman? To even contemplate the thereafters of the story is a kind of awful affront to James’s perfect lack of closure. Yet this is precisely what the Man Booker Prize-winner John Banville has done. The continuation of the story is almost pre-programmed to disappoint.

We take up with Isabel again, with her maid Staines, in a London which seems beautifully designed by Whistler for the exteriors and Sickart for the interiors. She withdraws a large portion of her fortune from the bank, visits the suffragist Miss Janeway for a ghastly vegetarian meal, pays a visit to her friend Miss Stackpole and avoids her former suitor Caspar Goodwood, then heads off to Paris – where inevitably she meets Mr Rosier, her stepdaughter Pansy’s former beau and Madame Merle herself and then heads to Italy for the final confrontation with Gilbert. In terms of plot this owes more to Banville’s crime-writing alter-ego Benjamin Black than to James himself. An awfulness is uncovered, a trap is sprung, there are revelations where James would have left merely hints. It is arch, more than Isabel Archer. Various political agendas are trumpeted – feminism, socialism, antidisestablishmentarianism – in a manner that the Master would assuredly have thought gauche. (He himself makes a surreptitious appearance in the second chapter.) One revelation – done sotto voce admittedly – that one character is a lesbian is particularly hamfisted. It is as if there was a determination to make things relevant and modern.

Part of the problem is an attempt to imitate the style of James. There are various pieces of abstruse and arcane vocabulary – hebetudinous, vastation, pullulating, inspissatedly – and a plethora of words are in French or Italian during the requisite settings. What would then have been modern phrases are frequently placed in inverted commas – “taken in”, “let out”, “beastly”, “at the top of her voice” – as if they were held in tweezers and were vaguely contagious. Then there is the repetition. There is a huge amount of repetition, repeating repeatedly. Taking but the opening of one chapter, we have “Isabel seemed to herself an unnatural point of stillness… the stillness that she seemed to embody was not the stillness of one at rest”, then “that she was in the hearse – no that she was the hearse”, “to die, yes, to die would solve so much, so very much”, “the soft mauve night of Paris… that seems not night at all”, “lamp-lit and aired, to the extent that any space may be said to be aired in June, in Paris”: these come from only two pages.

Now, the style of James is rather mandarin and aloof, and I have for many years tested myself about whether or not I am a grown-up by re-reading James and seeing if I enjoy it or merely admire it, but this is a faintly queasy pastiche. It seems affected in a way that James never is. There are also reams of alliterations, to no discernible effect except an odd manneredness – “on a day’s outing to a preposterously picturesque schloss – pinnacles, pennants, pines – [they] were travelling through the outskirts at evening on the way back to their pension, when a carriage, smaller than theirs and painted a peculiarly unsettling deep lacquered shade of black, came scuttling, as it seemed – with its taut domed black hood resembling nothing so much as an overgrown beetle – out of a side road and veered into their path”.

Where James is askance, Banville is blatant; where he is surreptitious and comic, Banville is po-faced and finger-wagging. It seems no surprise that there are so many metaphors from the theatre in this – James being notoriously a failed playwright – since there is something stagey and melodramatic about it all. Characters think of themselves as characters; the constant echolalia of repetition seems like an attempt to convey the same phrases said in different ways. Indeed, the penultimate chapter ends “she saw, she saw”. Often the same words are done again in italics in case you missed the point.

There are very few successful sequels, even fewer where an attempt at ventriloquism is made. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea may be one; I rather admired The Thirty-One Kings by Robert J Harris, a kind of effusive homage to John Buchan. But Banville’s inhabitation of James neither succeeds in its own right, nor does it enliven the original. I doubt it will make anyone read The Portrait Of A Lady who has not read it; and it will infuriate those who have.

The need to spell things out – and to use expressions like “comely calf” – fundamentally undermine the novel. James did not need to make explicit that his work was about the New World and the Old; the status of women; wealth versus happiness. Mrs Osmond is as much a lecture on James as it is an ill-conceived attempt to become him.

*Mrs Osmond by John Banville, Penguin Viking, £14.99