Mrs Osmond, John Banville’s newly-published sequel to Henry James’ 1881 masterpiece, The Portrait of a Lady takes the story up directly from the conclusion of the previous tale. "I wanted also to write it so it could be read by people who hadn’t read Portrait of a Lady," its author tells Paddy Kehoe.
It’s impossible to deal with Mrs Osmond, John Banville’s captivating sequel to Henry James’s classic novel without recapping the latter work which flows seamlessly into what John Banville has now dreamed up in the space of 375 pages.
So first things first, and I ask John to recall Isabel Archer, the heroine of both novels. "She is a young woman from Albany in New York State, has read a lot, but she is not very experienced, she is only about 20. Her rich aunt Lydia takes her arm and says `I’m going to bring you to Europe, I’m going to show you the world.’ She does, and she arrives at the home of her uncle and her aunt, the Touchetts, at Gardencourt, outside London.
Almost immediately, she is proposed to by Lord Warburton, a landowner, a great man. She already has a guy in America, Casper Goodwood, who has hopes of her. Her cousin, Ralph Touchett, who is dying of consumption - we assume - he falls in love with her too. So in rapid succession she makes all these conquests. She doesn’t accept Lord Warburton, she has already rejected Casper Goodwood, she wants her freedoms, she wants to see the world, wants to know what it is to live."
"The book does stand alone and I spent a lot of time and energy trying to make it prise apart, not be just a rehash of what was in The Portrait of a Lady."
"Then she meets this woman Madame Merle – and we have to remember that this book is about a young American coming to Europe, being betrayed by old Europe. But in fact all the characters in the story are Americans, Gilbert Osmond is American, Madame Merle, who makes the match for her with Gilbert, she’s American as well.
"Isabel marries - against everybody else’s wishes, except Madame Merle’s - Gilbert Osmond who is a dry stick, hasn’t done anything with his life, and as the book goes on, we discover that he has married her for her money, that Madame Merle engineered the whole thing. The marriage goes very badly wrong, she has a child which she loses, and her life becomes very barren."
Meanwhile, Isabel who is from a wealthy background already, acquires even more wealth, although she does not learn who the benefactor is this until much later. "Ralph secretly persuades his father who is very wealthy to halve Ralph’s inheritance and give the other half to Isabel - £70,000, which in those days is a fortune, not a vast fortune, but it is a fortune."
"Maybe I’m good at being a parrot, I don’t know, I hope not."
As Banville views it, in The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel has been wronged and realises how foolish she has been, ``how short-sighted, how blind she was to things she should have seen. Now, in my book, she’s not going to be revenged but she is going to have a reckoning, which she does. She takes her fate in her own hands and she has told people who wronged her that they too will have to suffer."
Mrs Osmond is a seamless garment, as it were, and its author intends that the reader does not see the join with the book which spawned it. "I wanted also to write it so it could be read by people who hadn’t read The Portrait of a Lady," he says. "The book does stand alone and I spent a lot of time and energy trying to make it prise apart, not be just a rehash of what was in The Portrait of a Lady. So there are new characters and new events and new things in her life." Archer befriends a feminist or more precisely, suffragan, and the nineteenth century struggle for women’s rights becomes a side-bar theme.
Banville, who will be 72 in December, read The Portrait for the first time in his twenties and clearly it had a lasting effect. He wrote Mrs Osmond last year during a sojourn at the University of Chicago, where aside from giving a number of seminars on James, he hadn’t much else to do. "My wife suggested the sequel years ago," he remarks. "I didn’t think much of it then, but I came back to her suggestion."
The result is a book which could well become a Book Club favourite, and Banville hopes too that it makes people read The Portrait of a Lady. He seems to have found his way with apparent ease into that mid-period Jamesean voice, that slightly fussy or fastidious timbre that evolved into the highly sophisticated tone of late James novels such as The Wings of a Dove and The Golden Bowl.
"Yes, I found that I could do that, maybe I’m good at being a parrot, I don’t know, I hope not. I didn’t want to parrot Henry James’s style, I wanted to capture the spirit of it, I think it looks like Henry James. But if you put a page of Henry James beside a page of mine and read them both, you’ll see that they’re not really alike, it just seems that way. But, yes, I have tried to catch the tone and the spirit of the original book."
Watch: John Banville, Writer In Profile (1992), via RTÉ Archives:
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The author believes that James is in fact the greatest novelist of all and the The Portrait of a Lady is one of his greatest achievements. "It’s unfortunate that now people seem to have given up the struggle with language, the struggle with style. James’s style is immensely rich, immensely subtle, he catches the stench of what it is to be a conscious being in the world, and that is what art is for, that’s its only job, to give you a heightened sense of what it is to be alive. If that’s going out of fashion, it’s a great loss."
"We have sunk into a sort of state of hypnotised helplessness these days. We’re not helpless, we are active beings in the world."
He believes that the fruits of mid-period James, the period in which Portrait was written, is "easy to read, but you have to concentrate a bit. "The world is full of escapist stuff on screen, on television, in books so especially the world we live oin now, the last thing we should be trying to do is escape, we have to be engaged with the world and art helps one to engage with the world, to know what it is, to feel what it is, to be alive and to be a conscious being with will and with power to influence things. We have sunk into a sort of state of hypnotised helplessness these days. We’re not helpless, we are active beings in the world and that’s what I have done with Isabel. She has been lied to, she’s been betrayed, she’s been kept in the dark by these manipulative people, and now she’s taking action."
He has no fear of the critics, for what they might say about his tilting at giants as it were, aspiring to write something that might be the match of one of the most celebrated nineteenth century novels. If the critics don’t like it, that’s their problem, not his. Is he nervous as it launches? "What would be the good of being nervous? Some people will like it, some people won’t, that’s the same with every book that one writes."
Mrs Osmond is published by Penguin Books