Mrs Osmond by John Banville review – superb Henry James pastiche

This cunning sequel to The Portrait of a Lady is a remarkable novel in its own right

John Banville is one of the best novelists in English, and an expert ventriloquist, among other things. In his case, ventriloquism is his way of embodying the past. In The Untouchable, for instance, he channelled the high-class Cambridge twaddle of Anthony Blunt. Mrs Osmond is his sequel to Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. At times it has the glacial pace of the original, endless psychological dithering punctuated by brilliant flashes of melodrama. Even stylistically it is a perfect fit: the actual descriptions of places are rather vague, but the metaphors are devoted to extremely vivid, even over-the-top, language. For instance, Isabel Archer wanders into the “unwonted solitude” of a hotel lobby – a general, rather abstract wording. Two lines later, she is savouring her freedom, which is rendered in a startling, original metaphor in which “the thing itself” is freedom: “She was being given a sample of the thing itself, as a seamstress might press upon her without charge a sample of fine silk.”

Isabel, who has married Gilbert Osmond, is of course an American, as is her very refined, Europeanised and devious husband. She reflects on how she was lured to Europe from Albany, New York, again in an unadorned statement backed up by a vivid metaphor: “Yet she should not have allowed her aunt to thrust her upon that fabled continent so precipitately, as a free-trader’s posse might snatch from the doorway of a dockside tavern some poor young hearty fuddled on rum and press him into a captive life upon the roiling ocean; indeed, she should not have allowed it.” The movement between the refinement of a civilised woman’s dwelling on the past and the kidnapping of a young male sailor precisely follows James’s way of injecting a coarse energy into descriptions of what he called his “super subtle fry”.

Banville has described James as his principal influence; here he even imitates James’s way of putting slightly slangy expressions in inverted commas (“taken a shine”; “things”, meaning belongings). James, we must never forget, wrote plays, even if they were unsuccessful, and some of his most powerful scenes (which Banville imitates perfectly) are toe-to-toe theatrical confrontations that startle us because they emerge out of grey reams of introspection and indirect discourse.

Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady (1996).
Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady (1996). Photograph: Allstar/PROPAGANDA FILMS

I suppose some people will compare this book to Colm Tóibín’s The Master, his novel based on moments from James’s life, but Mrs Osmond is a sequel to his most famous novel, not a fictional look at the author himself. Moreover, Banville’s book is faithful to James’s manner, while Tóibín’s avoids the long sentences, the placid descriptions and the hectic metaphors, the ordinary words in inverted commas. Tóibín is mapping out what he imagines are James’s thoughts in modern language.

Although many of the twists and turns of the plot could have been predicted from The Portrait of a Lady, there are also quite a few surprises, a tribute to Banville’s ingenuity, though all in James’s spirit. Isabel, who realises in Portrait that Osmond married her for her money and that his real partner is Madame Merle, here uses her wealth and the power of inheritance to effect a neat revenge.

Mrs Osmond is both a remarkable novel in its own right and a superb pastiche. But I found irritating the very mannerisms that try my patience in James; I remember once reading in The Golden Bowl, “Her thick hair was what could vulgarly be called brown,” and throwing the book against the wall (why should the colour brown be “vulgar”?). When his enigmas are all lined up, no one is more gripping than James. Still, I prefer Banville’s own nuanced, exciting voice, as in Ancient Light or The Sea.

• Edmund White’s latest novel is Our Young Man (Bloomsbury).

Mrs Osmond is published by Viking. To order a copy for £12.74 (RRP £14.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Edmund White

The GuardianTramp

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