“Mrs Osmond” by John Banville – over-egged pastiche when would have preferred author’s own voice

This is my review of “Mrs Osmond” by John Banville

John Banville’s sequel to “The Portrait of a Lady” by Henry James develops the plot further to explore Isabel Osmond’s response to the bitter realisation that her husband has married her solely for her money and has been concealing from her a sordid and humiliating secret. I felt at a disadvantage at first in not having read “The Portrait of a Lady”, since this would have enabled me to gauge the degree of Banville’s success in attempting to mirror James’s style. Yet, knowing the details of the original would have spoiled my enjoyment of the way John Banville gradually reveals the details of what has led to Mrs Osmond’s distress.

Although it seems acceptable for a writer to produce a prequel or sequel to a deceased author’s work, I am less sure about artistic method of trying to imitate his style – a painter who tried to produce pictures in the style of Monet would after all be condemned as “derivative”. I agree with reviewers who feel that Banville has “over-egged” his efforts to emulate James – his convoluted flights of fancy often weighted down with unrelenting alliteration and jarring metaphors, to the point of seeming ludicrous and digestible only in small quantities, unrelieved by James’s subtlety and excuse in having been born in an earlier age when what we now regard as flowery speech and excessive refinement were the norm for the privileged classes: “Her thoughts moved in large, loose loops, but at least once every round they revisited, like a planet at its perihelion, the question of what precisely Miss Janeway’s portentious remark might have been meant to mean”.

Or to take a more irritating overworked passage: “Europe had been her fate, and so it was still. 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 on the roiling ocean; indeed, she should not have allowed it. Her aunt was not to blame that she was lashed by unbreakable bonds to Europe’s mast”. And so on.

I would have preferred this novel written more in Banville’s is own dry, pithy style which kept sprouting through the verbiage to hint at what might have been. There are some strong dialogues, as in the scene where Isabel confronts her reptilian husband, with detailed descriptions which almost read like stage directions. The portrayal of Isabel’s mental confusion, her veering between weakness and decision, her desire for revenge but shrinking from descending to the level of Gilbert Osmond and his mistress are often well expressed. There is some humour, as in the portrayal of Isabel’s maid Staines, or the daunting lunch served by the vegetarian suffragist Miss Janeway: “boiled broccoli, boiled beans and boiled spinach” eaten “in silence save for irrepressible herbivoral crunchings”. On the other hand, too many characters, like the unscrupulous Madame Merle seem like caricatures or appear two-dimensional.

I wanted to know what would happen, uncertain whether the outcome would be tragic, or not amount to much at all, but found it hard to cope with more than a few chapters at a time. In fact, the ending was as abrupt as James’s and even less conclusive, to the extent of seeming “a bit of a cop out” on Banville’s part.

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