Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 15, 2020

Mrs Osmond, by John Banville

He had paused on a pathway, under a trellis of vines, and was patting his pockets and frowning—he must have forgotten something at his neighbour’s apartment, his cigar case, most probably, since it was a thing he frequently mislaid and left behind.  He wore a pale loose linen suit and a cambric shirt with a soft collar; his waistcoat was unbuttoned and his straw hat was pushed far back at an uncharacteristically casual and what for anyone else would have been a comical angle, although it nevertheless gave to him, with his narrow face and tapering beard, the look of one of El Greco’s haloed, white-clad saints. Although they were separated only by some yards, he would not yet have seen her, so bright was the sunlight surrounding him and so dimly shadowed the doorway within which she stood.  She made no sound or movement, only stayed still and watched him.  He was usually so sharply self-aware a man that, caught there in the glare of noonday and not knowing he was observed, he appeared to Isabel unwontedly a figure of the ordinary sort, distracted, agitated, vexed both at his own forgetfulness and the stubborn way that supposedly inanimate, taken-for-granted things have of making themselves furiously elusive.  (p.275)

Ah… Henry James.  You either love the style of this great American novelist—designed to catch, with immense, with fiendish, subtlety, and in sentences of labyrinthine intricacy, the very texture of conscious lifeor you hate it.  There are 208 words in that excerpt, and we agree, I am sure, that nothing has happened, and this paragraph goes on for a page and half, and still nothing happens.  What is truly remarkable about John Banville’s ‘sequel’ to James’ The Portrait of a Lady (1881) is that his style in Mrs Osmond so faithfully replicates James’s style and yet remains so readable.

It’s playful too.  Isabel Archer is one of the great disappointments in 19th century fiction: her assertive independence fizzles out in Europe when she learns of her husband Gilbert Osmond’s perfidy and it’s not clear whether she goes back to him or not.  Oh please! we thought, when we read Portrait of a Lady in our younger years, bring on the feminist literature project and let us have female protagonists with some intelligence and gumption.  Banville plays with us all through Mrs Osmond... what is this rich (enormously rich) young woman going to do to salvage her life?  Yes, even on page 275, two-thirds of the way through the book, that excerpt above is followed by this:

A moment ago she had been thinking of him and recalling his spiteful cruelties with a bitterness of her own, but now, seeing him so prosaically there, a man she had once convinced herself she adored, she felt a sort of softening towards him, a weary resignation in the face of his misusing of her.  (p.275)

Oh no!  She’s not going to forgive him, is she??

(The other thing that will keep readers reading is the vast amount of money that Isobel so rashly takes out of the bank.  What happens to it?  Does she leave it behind somewhere, does it get stolen, does she give it away, does she deposit it again?)

Well, of course, I have nothing to say about that here!

A good number of my friends at Goodreads have marked this as ‘to-read’ but not yet read it… I hope they do, I’d love to know what other readers think of this.  I like the way Isobel’s perspective shifts on issues and relationships.  In the search to understand herself and to unravel her own reasons for her unwise marriage, she comes to understand other people much better than she did.  This belated coming-of-age is gratifying to read because James’ Isabel has been niggling away in my literary memory for a long time, and now I have more respect for her.

I wonder what Banville will write next? ( know he has a new crime novel out this year, but that’s not what I mean).

See also Tony’s review at Tony’s Book World.

PS The description of James’ style in the second paragraph is Banville’s own… it comes from this article at The Irish Times.

Author: John Banville
Title: Mrs Osmond
Cover art: no info supplied
Publisher: Viking (Penguin Random House), 2017
ISBN: 9780241260180, pbk., 376 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Radings

 


Responses

  1. I’ve requested a copy from the library…. I’m so easily lead :-)

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  2. I haven’t read Henry James so I won’t read Banville. But I’m surprised that James who is credited with starting/naming the New Woman movement has an insipid heroine.
    Don’t tell me off, I’ll get Portrait of a Lady as an audiobook.

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    • Lordy, I wonder how that will work with his very long discursive sentences…

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      • Proj Gutenberg had The Turn of the Screw audiobook so I downloaded that. Will listen when I finish my current space opera. I’m sure I can get Portrait from Audible (if I like his sentences).

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        • I didn’t like The Turn of the Screw, gothic nonsense IMO… but The Aspern Papers which was in the same edition was wonderful, literary skulduggery is right up my alley. I read them when I was overseas in 2005 so there’s no review here and not in my reading journal either, which is a pity.

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  3. I have to ‘fess up I have never read any Henry James – but those sentences are so long I lost concentration and had to read them again!

    I’m busy reading Time Without Clocks and it’s a sheer delight! Think I’ll stick to that…

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    • They are indeed long sentences, you are right, but don’t give up on HJ because of my quotation here. Try The Aspbern Papers which is not very long… it’s about a literary rascal in Venice, trying to get the letters and other private documents of the deceased Romantic poet Jeffrey Aspern, so he inveigles his way into Aspern’s former mistress’s palazzo. Aand like Isabel, he interrogates his own motives…

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      • I’ll put it on my TBR list thanks Lisa!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I had almost forgotten about Portrait of a Lady, Mrs. Osmond, and John Banville. I too wonder what John Banville/Benjamin Black will be up to next. I see Benjamin Black has a new novel this year, ‘The Secret Gardens’, which I’m sure is a crime novel.

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    • Yes, I was certainly late to reading this one…

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  5. I did attempt Portrait of A Lady some time ago but gave up. John Banville was a favourite for a time though have not read him in years. This looks interesting so may be tempted.

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    • I don’t think you need to have read Portrait of a Lady first… you can always get a summary of it from somewhere, but it’s not necessary, Banville explains enough of the back story for it not to matter.

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  6. I read this without having first read Portrait of a Lady and was annoyed that the blurb for Mrs O did not refer to Henry James’ book, as I would have preferred to read it first. I felt as if I missed references that I would otherwise have got.

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    • LOL Rose, I feel like that all the time, with lots of books!

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      • I sometimes read other people’s reviews of books I’ve read and realise I’ve missed all sorts of things. 😂

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        • Oh yes, me too, but I think that’s the sign of a good book, that it means different things to different readers and there are enough interesting things about it to make reviewers notice different things.

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  7. Oooh, interesting. But I would have to read the James first I guess….

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    • No, I don’t think you need to. It’s years and years since I read it, and honestly, I’d as good as forgotten everything except my irritation with Isabel. I think it reads just fine on its own terms.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. What is it with Banville and Toibin (both from Co Wexford, BTW) and their twin obsessions with Henry James?

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    • LOL Maybe they had a boozy night at the pub and had a bet to see who could do it better?

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I didn’t care much for “Portrait” when I first read it but second time around it grabbed me.So frustrating of James to leave us in the dark about Isabel’s decision. I had a sinking feeling she decided to go back to that horrid husband…..
    I don’t much care for ‘sequels’ but for Banville I will make an exception…

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    • Yes, that’s how I felt. I understand that divorce, or even separation was a harder step to take in those days, but still…
      One of the things I like about Banville’s Isobel is the way she interrogates herself about her feelings of guilt and shame. It is so common for women to feel this way, about something done not by them but by the errant partner.

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  10. Hi Lisa, I have reserved both books at the library. The Portrait of Lady will jolt my memory and be a quick read. It will be good then to follow on with Mrs Ormond.

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  11. That will be a feast of reading! And isn’t great that our libraries are open again!

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  12. All praise to libraries. What a treasure trove for everyone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I got a lump in the throat when I went down to my local to pick up a reserve. I couldn’t go in because they’re still redoing the layout and they have a table across the entrance where you stop while they get your book, so it doesn’t quite have the feel of being in a place where everyone loves books yet, but I stopped and just breathed it in and felt that everything was going to be all right again.

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  13. I’m a fan of Banville and HJ, so will come back to this post when I’ve read the novel – whenever that may be.

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    • LOL I thought I was the only one who didn’t read it when it first came out!

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  14. Thanks Lisa, a great read. I did enjoy the playfulness of the story and the characters. I like John Banville books, and he did a great deliverance of Mrs Osmond.

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