Many a woman reading Henry James’ 1881 masterpiece “The Portrait of a Lady” has uneasily recognized some of her own circumstances in the story of Isabel Archer, a vibrant, idealistic young American who travels abroad to assert her independence and instead becomes ensnared in a bleak marriage. Isabel’s American expat husband, the cultivated, conniving Gilbert Osmond, acquires Isabel as one might an attractive painting, and only too late does she discover that he prizes her only for her inheritance and the ability it gives him to cloak an ugly secret.
Isabel’s story unwinds, or perhaps unravels, via James’ labyrinthine prose, over several hundred pages. “Portrait,” though perhaps the author’s most accessible work, is not easy to plow through, but once you do, you never forget it. (Among the movie adaptations of the story is Jane Campion’s 1996 version, starring Nicole Kidman and John Malkovich.)
John Banville, the Man Booker Prize-winning British author of “The Sea” and more than 15 other novels, picks up Isabel’s story where it left off in “Mrs. Osmond,” an ambitious sequel to “Portrait” that expertly channels James’ distinctive ornate voice, from its maddening page-long sentences of psychological analysis to its nuanced flashes of wit and irony. If you’ve read a lot of James (a sadly small collective these days), you’ll find yourself assuming after a while that you’re reading him again, so eerily excellent is Banville’s imitation.
While it’s possible to follow the story even without having read “Portrait,” it wouldn’t be easy, and befuddlement might outweigh the amazed appreciation one otherwise realizes for Banville’s flawless imitation of James’ voice. But as in James, the labor is worth the reward, for “Mrs. Osmond” is the timeless, almost archetypal tale of a woman learning from her misfortunes and putting that hard-won wisdom to the test to overcome, or at least endure, them.
Here’s how, early in the story, Banville puts Isabel’s aggrieved and lonely state: “She knew very well, of course, that it was herself she wished to converse with, only her voice had gone so weak and her hearing so faint that she would have to do so through the open channel of some other, if need be, even if that other were not very much more than a blank stranger.”
One of the story’s most delightful aspects is how it returns to the many vivid lesser characters from “Portrait” — Madame Merle, Gilbert’s wily mistress; Pansy, their clueless love child; Caspar Goodwood, a stalwart suitor Isabel once rejected; Henrietta Stackpole, her outspoken journalist friend, who says of Europeans, “People over here think they’re so civilised, but they’re savages compared to — why, to a hall full of New Jersey teamsters!,” and many others. Without breaking character, and with the same distinctive ways of speaking they had in the original novel, they come together to create another story entirely.
It’s all very clever — sometimes, a complete hoot — but it’s far more than mere sequel or appreciation. It’s a brilliant and beguiling novel on its own, and a reminder to us that not only does great literature endure, it engenders.
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.
By: John Banville.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 369 pages, $27.95.