Any effort to out-James Henry James must inevitably come to smash. This would have been a useful caveat to John Banville, the Man Booker-winning author of Mrs. Osmond, a novel that makes a valiant imaginative leap but stumbles along the way.
Henry James was notoriously averse to happy endings, having a strong dislike of what critic (and James scholar) Michael Gorra summarized as “last-minute rescues.” In The Portrait of a Lady, probably the writer’s most beloved work, James knew readers would feel that he had not “seen the heroine to the end of the situation — that I have left her en l’air.” Early on, Isabel Archer marvels, “It’s just like a novel,” and her life itself is indeed a tale worth telling, though one with no neatly tied up plot.
Ever since the captivating, independent-minded Isabel first strode into our imaginations, the resolution of Portrait has frustrated readers. After a life-changing inheritance only results in a tortured, miserably unhappy marriage to the slithery Gilbert Osmond, the deceived heroine simply melts into thin air. On the novel’s last page her friend Henrietta Stackpole delivers the famously curtailed denoument: “… she started for Rome.”
If not coitus interruptus, then this is at least a nagging anti-climax. In a “New York Edition” published in 1908, James himself revised the 1881 original with ambiguous results. And in Mrs. Osmond, Banville attempts to tie up the loose ending. Will Isabel return to that antiquarian monster of a spouse? Spirit away her delicate stepdaughter Pansy? Take her awesome wealth and travel the world as a manumitted woman? Return to America to become the country’s first female president?
Banville chooses not to sketch her later life on such a grand scale; this sequel covers only a number of weeks, picking up after Isabel leaves the refuge of her aunt’s estate in the English countryside. In Banville’s telling she heads not for Rome, but for London. She visits friends, then travels on to Paris and Geneva. Only at the end of the novel does she go back to confront Osmond. In the meantime, Mrs. Osmond finds her most often pondering her hurts, silently and interminably.
Banville writes that she “closed her eyes and sat so still there at the window in the seemingly endless twilight’s glow, that an observer in the room would have sworn she had stopped breathing and had turned into an effigy of herself.” When she comes up with a plan for punishing Osmond and his henchwoman Serena Merle, she feels “a pervasive and almost narcotic sense of calm.” The dish is served cold and is satisfyingly twisted, but Isabel as a moping schemer little resembles the lively, lovely young lady of Portrait. We don’t want “an effigy,” we hunger for the real thing.
It is to Banville’s credit that he tries for a tone befitting his 19th century progenitor. The writing, in its effort to rise to a Jamesian level, can be elegant but at times overcooked: “Isabel had long ago forgotten what it was they had talked about that night, and the fog came up and rolled itself against the windows, like so many wads of steel shavings.” The novel should be sold packaged with a dictionary: “Perihelion” and “megrims” and “animadversions” and the like make appearances throughout the narrative, as often as not bringing the action to a screeching halt. And the clotted, purple, multiple-clause lines we find in Mrs. Osmond cannot match the syntactical flights of the master. In one place, Banville writes:
The old, whom the young regard as an entirely separate, prehistoric species, as the aurochs, say, or the California redwood, are, in terms of experience, considered blandly disconnected from the doings and dramas of the current day, while their lives when they were young, in an impossibly distant, immemorial age, were surely as slow, serene and uneventful as they seem now to be; having passed from primordial youth to frictionless old age without the slightest inner disturbance or alteration, they exist as superannuated innocents, harmless, affectless, anciently virginal.
Words, words, words, as Hamlet says. It is not in this verbal frou-frou but rather in the drama of Isabel’s revenge that Banville’s story shows its true strength.
I’m still waiting for that presidential run.
Jean Zimmerman’s latest novel, Savage Girl, is out now in paperback. She posts daily at Blog Cabin.