John Banville, Mrs Osmond

I like Banville's writing, generally speaking; I think I'm just the wrong type of audience for this particular book. I don't like rehashed, updated classics, or the so-called "sequels." I didn't like Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea for that very reason, although objectively speaking, it's a very good book. Because no one can write like the original author (whoever he/she happens to be), no matter how much the present-day writer attempts to imitate the author's style, the end result often seems cheap, and just plain wrong.

My particular problem with Mrs Osmond, though the writing is undoubtedly beautiful and polished, is that the cast of characters from James's magnificent The Portrait of a Lady (one of my favorite novels of all time) ceases to be his anymore, and becomes entirely Banville's. Isabel thinks and does things she would never have done in a Henry James book, and not just because of time-constraints (James couldn't openly talk about certain things back then, for instance lesbianism, it all had to be hinted at, read between the lines, imagined). Banville lays it all out.

He's also at pains to paint Isabel as a likable character--too likable, in fact. On course to divorce her husband, the odious Gilbert Osmond, she turns to charity to fill the void. She takes up suffragism as a cause. She donates large sums of money to certain organizations. While all of this is indeed quite awesome, it is NOT something Henry James would write about, at least not in The Portrait of a Lady as we have it (he did touch on some of these things in his other books).

Gilbert Osmond is depicted quite well, I think, but Madame Merle is a joke. Part of her appeal in the original book was her inscrutable, mysterious and selfish nature. Banville spells it all, or nearly all, out.


Pansy undergoes a transformation from a meek, gentle young woman into a selfish, calculating, world-hating lesbian.

New characters are introduced, only to remain relatively undeveloped or (at best) underdeveloped.

Part of the pleasure of reading Henry James lies in figuring out what the characters say and do behind the scenes, as it were: offpage. Banville parades their inner worlds in front of us, sometimes successfully but mostly not.

Final rating:

Beautiful writing from a master craftsman, but if you happen to be a genuine fan of Henry James and his magnificent books, this one's a miss. But who knows, perhaps you'll read it and love it. As always, judge for yourself,