I’m still trying to get my head around John Banville as a writer. The first novel of his that I read was The Sea, which I remember being lyrical and dreamy; then I turned to Dr Copernicus, which I found frustratingly dense. This new historical novel shares elements of both those other books, blending a poignant sense of loss with high style; but it also has other strong influences. Banville isn’t really writing as himself here. As I read more, I came to realise that Mrs Osmond is actually an ambitious tribute, elevated fan-fiction if you like, in which Banville imagines how Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady might have continued. The titular Mrs Osmond is Isabel, née Archer, and we first meet her as she returns to London in what might fairly be called the darkest period of her life.
I’m going to hold up my hands right now and confess it: I’ve never read any of Henry James’s novels. I tried of course, when I was much younger, but Henry and I just never had a spark. Now I should probably have another go, especially because I’m agog to learn more about Isabel. We meet her on a station platform, amid steam and smuts and coal-smoke, freshly returned from her cousin’s deathbed at Gardencourt and thinking rather grimly about her imminent return to Rome. For Rome is where Isabel now lives; Rome is where her husband is; and yet Rome has become a place of such heartbreak and misery that Isabel shudders to contemplate it. She spends her few days in London cautiously, quietly, trying to gather herself after her too-intense bombardment of grief, so that she can decide how best to proceed.
This is very much a contemplative book. Isabel doesn’t do much: the joy of the story is in seeing the way her memories shift and shape themselves, and how she begins to find a new sense of her own strength and boundaries. She visits an acquaintance, Miss Janeway, and her old friend Henrietta Stackpole, both of them firm, fierce women who believe in the vital importance of female agency. Yet these encounters leave Isabel with awkward questions about who she has become. What has her marriage left her? Some shreds of remembered happiness, true. But it has also shrunk her: this dazzling, vivacious, brilliant young woman has frittered herself away on an undistinguished man, and she now knows how deeply her friends have regretted her sacrifice. Still thinking, Isabel leaves for Paris, where she finds herself faced with other phantoms from her past. And then, at last, she must decide what to do. How will she respond to the crushing news she received just before her departure – that her husband is the former lover of Madame Merle, the very woman who befriended Isabel and facilitated the marriage? Will she sink back down into despondency and silence? Or is Isabel Osmond now strong enough to take her fate into her own hands and attempt to forge a better future for herself?
When I wrote about Dr Copernicus, I openly admired Banville’s skill as a stylist and that remains true here. The book revels in old-fashioned formulations and extremely obscure words that delighted me like a child faced with unfamiliar sweets: ‘vastation‘; ‘crepitant‘; ‘matutinal‘; ‘hebetudinous‘. Somehow these words take a broader concept and render it down into a compact, appealing form; yet Banville also expands the most mundane of moments into poetic flight. A hand offered in greeting is ‘cool outside with an impression of brittleness within, like a bundle of twigs bound up in a vine leaf‘. And he is at his most voluble in those moments, central to the novel’s theme of self-discovery, in which Isabel ponders what has happened to her and how she can best confront it:
Letting her eyes close, Isabel dipped into the dark behind her lids as if into the mossy coolness of a forest pool. Yet she could not linger long, for in that darkness she was sure to meet the padding, yellow-eyed implacable creature that was her conscience. Strange: she it was 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. Or was her failure to live up to her cousin Ralph’s hopes and expectations – reasonable hopes, legitimate expectations – was that the thing the trace of which the beast from the forest was following? She did not know, she could not think…
That gives you a sense of the book’s casual, meandering style. Some sentences are positively Proust-like. The actual plot could be compressed into a short story and yet there’s something rather lovely about wandering through the paths of Isabel’s mind, watching her growing stronger as a person and reflecting on what (I presume) had happened in A Portrait of a Lady. I gelled with this book much more easily than I did with Dr Copernicus and Banville has actually made me want to seek out Henry James now – partly to find out Isabel’s backstory and partly to see how closely he managed to approximate James’s style. And yet, I stress, don’t be put off if you haven’t read A Portrait of a Lady: as I said, I haven’t. This isn’t (just) some literary in-joke: it stands on its own two sturdy feet as a tale of a woman quietly facing up to her past and softly, defiantly, thoroughly planning to put things right.
I don’t want to say too much in case this comes across as a spoiler, but I was pleased that Banville continued to give Isabel agency and independence right up to the very end, where other authors might have taken the strongly-signposted way out. In doing that, I felt that he respected her as a character, not just as a (rather tragic) heroine. Bravo Banville. And kudos for embarking on such an extravagant, rather mad idea. I’d love to know what others think, if you happen to read it.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review