In Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer, a newly affluent young woman, determined to remain independent and experience life, stumbles badly on a tour of Europe when she is manipulated into marrying Gilbert Osmond, an ex-American, European sophisticate.
She’s tricked into the marriage with the connivance of an older woman whom she considers her friend, Serena Merle. Madame Merle is Osmond’s former lover; they have had a child, Pansy, out of wedlock. Gilbert Osmond has passed off Pansy as a child of his deceased first wife. This is something that fashionable circles in European society and their servants already know as old gossip, but that Isabel, as a naïve outsider, does not know.
At the end of Portrait of a Lady, Isabel is led to a realization of the truth: her husband has betrayed both his wives, herself and his deceased wife, and her “friend” Madame Merle has conspired to marry Isabel off to her ex-lover so Osmond can be subsidized by Isabel’s money.
We never discover what Isabel Osmond intends to do: will she acquiesce to her fraudulent marriage, or will she find a way to fight back? As Isabel is trapped, James brilliantly ends the novel.
Banville begins his sequel, Mrs. Osmond, at this point. As I started the galley, my greatest fear was that I might not be able to accept Banville’s “Isabel” as the same character that James had created. Writers don’t usually “hand their characters down” to other writers. If I thought of Banville’s Mrs. Osmond as the “imitation Isabel”, his sequel would be a failure.
This is a novel that I’d hate to have to read in any language other than English. Pity the translators for the international editions. The language in Mrs. Osmond is like the colors of autumn in New England. It’s brilliant even in its decay. The language of the text seems like Banville’s invention, as if you could take James’ legendary 19th century Victorian/American diction-skip the 20th century-and proceed straight on to the 21st with a New Revised English. It’s glorious, as if Banville decided to continue-on the gospel of great 19th century fiction, the fiction of James and George Eliot, leaping over the harshness of the 20th century as if it were an intervening pond.
Civilization requires a privileged class that is protected from the brutality of social dysfunction…so you look the other way. James assumes this, with regret I think, in his mature work. As a younger writer, he had more of a social conscience. Banville seems to accept the same. At a stretch, perhaps we should call this attitude “gentrification”. James and Banville are gentrified writers.
Still, the rough edges show. In a talismanic incident early in the novel, Isabel encounters a man crying alone in the street outside a railway station. There he is on a busy London street, people passing him by on all sides, bawling his heart out. Isabel stalls, she looks, and then she joins the crowd and walks away.
Isabel goes back later, as if to look for him, but of course he is gone. Isabel, in another key incident, half-distractedly, leaves a satchel of cash at the home of an elderly friend who is a leading suffragette. The money ends up being used for The Cause.
Does Isabel want revenge against her husband and his enabler, Madame Merle? Do we make this grossly beautiful novel a page-turner by wondering if she will get it? Is it better to help just one person or forget that and focus on improving social conditions generally?
Banville’s novel picks up James’ characters as if they were discarded marionettes and makes the show that they were in live again for yet another performance.
Yes, you should read Portrait of a Lady first. If you haven’t then Mrs. Osmond is a good excuse for doing so. John Banville is a magician, and a literary comedian as well. As he satisfies the curious reader by filling-in unknowns that Henry James left open in his novel, Banville opens other gaps and unknowns.
As if a clown, in trying to seal the lids of his many boxes, ends up reopening as many as he is closing. To keep a character, a life, or a book alive, keep their options open.