I begin this review with a confession: I’ve never read Henry James’s perceived masterpeice A Portrait of a Lady and until five minutes ago I didn’t know what it was about. Following a quick read of its Wiki synopsis, I really wish I had read it before Mrs Osmond. In this follow-up to Portrait, John Banville begins where James left off, with the eponymous Isabel in London following her illicit trip to visit her dying cousin, now hatching a rather complicated plan to regain her independence, money, and right a few wrongs along the way. If Portrait was about a wedding set-up, Mrs Osmond is about a divorce set-up, as Isabel herself states: “What I seek is not revenge, but a reckoning.”
At first I am not too engaged with the premise; Austen-esque Victorian gentle ladies meeting for tea and a gossip, but suddenly there are suffragettes and schadenfreude within a few pages of each other and I’m right on board. (Incidentally, this fleeting reference to the Suffragette cause may be brief, but it is pivotal.) And after the teas have been consumed the plot gets going. Upon discovering the true parentage of her step-daughter Pansy, Isabel devises, during her return trip to Rome, via Paris and Florence, a plan to blackmail Mr Osmond’s mistress with all the confidence of one who is naïve, and we know from this already that things are not going to go to plan. Isabel is a flawed hero in her ignorance, but one can’t help liking her. This is very much her story of her freedom; Isabel and her husband do not share a scene until within the final hundred pages of the book, just before Isabel becomes ill with fever, as so oft happens in period tales, and time passes with the invalid semi-conscious in bed. But she comes back stronger, and brings us to a justified conclusion.
Each of Banville’s scenes (with few exceptions) is a two-hander, cleverly and dramatically written, with conversations and exchanges with high tension levels driving the plot. One such scene is that shared by Isabel and Mrs Touchett, which marks the turning plot in the plot. I think. There are a lot of turning points in this twisty-turny story, but it would have been much shorter without them.
Unfortunately Mrs Osmond suffers from Dreadful Cover Syndrome, never encouraging me to pick the book up, even when I knew I was engaged with the enjoyable plot. Although this is a publishing fault and should not detract from Banville’s fine work. His writing is stylish, fitting with the theme and time, yet still feels fresh. The dialogue is pretty, though characters have a habit of speaking in over-the-top metaphors (the bank with a cathedral hush and priestly staff who work with devotion; the escape from the web of Merle’s spider). There is humour, however, perhaps Banville giving a nod to his own writing style: “Isabel sat very still, like a fox, she thought, who has heard the blare of the huntsman’s horn sound frighteningly close to the covert. But for how long, she asked herself ruefully, and aware of mixing her sporting metaphors, had she imagined the bush could reasonably be beaten about?” And the reader has fun too during this opulent take of a simple story. Mrs Osmond may not be in the masterpiece league of its predecessor, but that does not mean it should be ignored.
Mrs Osmond was published in October 2017 by Viking.