Mrs. Osmond: A novel
John Banville’s tour de force tribute to Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady will gladden the hearts of readers with a penchant for languorous descriptions of nature and introspective characters with enough time and money to indulge in lengthy self-reflection and little or no action until the final pages of this 300-plus-page novel. Exactly as Henry James would have had it. Or, perhaps not, since Banville offers up a contemporary confrontational ending that transforms James’s passive heroine from Albany, New York, into an angry feminist and pits her against her villainous American expat husband.
The book opens with the eponymous Mrs. Osmond, a naïve yet “wily” American heiress, transported by her fortune to Europe, and thrust between the “harsh” . . . “bad plumbing” of Rome and the “smoothed . . . and soothed . . . strangely tender accommodations of . . . London.”
As an outsider in England, her status made acceptable to the fading aristocracy by her newly acquired wealth (think of Downton Abbey and the cash-poor, land rich Earl of Grantham and his American heiress wife Lady Grantham) Isabel is driven by her puritanical sense that it is she, burdened by her unearned fortune, and not her philandering husband, who has “sinned.”
In true Jamesian fashion, the novel turns on money, the contradictory impulses of puritanical American guilt for amassing it, and the genteel contempt of the European aristocracy desperate to acquire it.
In a series of jaunts across England, France, and Italy, Isabel snatches at “freedom” from the grip of the dilettante fortune hunter who not only marries her for her money, but cynically pawns off on her his mistress, the seductive Serena Merle, and their daughter Pansy in the guise of a dear family friend who has helped him raise the child of his late first wife.
Withdrawing a large sum of money from her London account, Isabel half-knowingly sets her course toward liberation and revenge against her husband and Madame Merle. In this she is helped by her acquaintance with the dying suffragette Florence Janeway, whose radical social activism Isabel conflates with her own quest for “emancipation.”
Determined to follow in Florence’s footsteps, Isabel vows to use her fortune to buy her freedom. And in a gesture that can only be interpreted as Freudian, she unintentionally leaves the bag containing the sizable sum of money she’s withdrawn from the bank at Florence’s house.
In line with Isabel’s efforts to further inject American egalitarianism into the British class divide, Banville creates a character who doesn’t appear in James’s novel: Staines, her ladies’ maid. Staines’s resistance to Isabel’s attempts to democratize their relationship is both frustrating and poignantly funny.
Like any good British ladies’ maid, Staines is a snob who cannot hide her annoyance at Isabel’s insistence that they dine together or that she borrow her employer’s clothes and accompany her on social occasions. Ultimately, it is through Staines that Isabel lets “her radical ideals lapse . . . which, was well for her, since had she attempted to uphold them, her husband would have made it his business to strike them down.”
In this, as in everything else, Gilbert, who takes “a malignant satisfaction in turning up the world’s stone so as to expose to the light of day the foul things swarming and squirming underneath it,” has the knack for leaving his wife feeling “besmirched” by her “confounded ideas.”
The Osmonds embody the two conflicting Americas: Isabel, its lofty ideal of purity and goodness; and Gilbert, its base, materialist, criminality. The choice is clear: kill each other off in a civil war or part ways before that happens.
By leaving Italy to see her dying cousin Ralph in England despite Gilbert’s disapproval, Isobel initiates the first stage of her rebellion against her husband’s authority. Emboldened by her decision to announce that she is leaving him and taking his daughter Pansy with her, Isabel observes that her husband appears to have shrunk, been “reduced” by her freedom.
“What she saw was that it had not been Osmond she had fallen in love with, when she was young, but herself through him.” Identifying as the victim of her scheming American husband and his American mistress, both expats who have grown more sophisticated in their evil ways after living so long abroad, Isabel naively blames Europe for “[conniving] in her betrayal, as if the place had prepared her downfall in advance.”
To make this point, Banville indulges in some fairly extreme parallels, depicting Isabel as a Christian martyr in the Roman arena, set upon and torn to bits by two wild animals in the person of her husband and his mistress. Yet despite its occasional dramatic metaphors, the novel is less about action than an exploration of consciousness—the reflections and changes going on within Isabel’s mind.
While Banville’s version of events picks up where James leaves off, in imitating the master’s orotund style and unresolved ending, he, too, leaves his characters to the vagaries of fate and an uncertain future.