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The Case of Isabel Archer

John Banville
John Banville; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

It is twenty-seven years since John Bayley, writing in these pages about John Banville’s seventh novel, The Book of Evidence, noted that the author “does not quite coordinate pace with expectation in the reader’s itiind; his felicities are apt to hold him up, so that the reader wants to read faster than the author is doing the writing.” In the novels that have followed, Banville has done little to assist the reader who feels held up in the tight curves of his prose. There is a willfulness about his method, with its seeming disregard for the niceties of story line. As Bayley intimates, the reader is often anxious to push on, to cease drifting aimlessly in a rapture of thickly laid-on articulation; in other words, to get to the point. But Banville is a fiercely defiant author whose substantial body of work suggests that he expects his readers to submit to the more subtle drama of lush language being pressed and squeezed, as opposed to stooping to feed at the banal table of plot.

In Banville’s other writing life as the detective novelist “Benjamin Black”—there have been ten books since 2006—he is free to indulge in action and create fictions that trip along at a pace that John Banville would no doubt regard as vulgar. But once he casts Black to one side he is able to return to his contemplative meandering. The high literary performance of Beckett or Nabokov clearly represents a guiding light for Banville, but the same self-conscious elegance informs the work of another in his firmament of masters: Henry James. However, James’s grace seldom militates against his desire to keep the story moving forward. Banville’s decision to write Mrs. Osmond—a sequel to James’s The Portrait of a Lady—suggests a comfortable meeting of literary temperaments in a shared affinity for decorative language, but raises some questions as to their compatibility with regard to narrative architecture.

Isabel Archer, the heroine of The Portrait of a Lady, was born in Albany, New York, and largely raised by her widowed father. As a girl she frequently travels back and forth to Europe, but she is barely out of her teens when her father dies. She is free-spirited and has few female friends, and James lets us know that she is not yet the finished article:

It may be affirmed without delay that Isabel was probably very liable to the sin of self-esteem; she often surveyed with complacency the field of her own nature; she was in the habit of taking for granted, on scanty evidence, that she was right; impulsively, she often admired herself.

After her father’s death Isabel is determined to live a life of independence and she journeys again to Europe, this time in the company of her Aunt Lydia, who is married and settled in England. Like many Jamesian heroines before and after, Isabel imagines that time spent traveling in an admittedly decaying Europe where, after the French Revolution, the mortar that binds the social contract appears to be falling from the brickwork will, nevertheless, be a pleasant alternative to the burgeoning bustle of the not yet fully formed United States.

Soon after her arrival in England, Isabel finds herself on the lawn of her uncle’s home, Gardencourt, in the company of three men who promptly fall in love with this beguiling American: her elderly uncle, his frail son, Ralph, and their neighbor and friend, the eligible but uninspiring Lord Warburton. Eventually the older man succumbs to illness and dies, but not before—at his son’s urging—bestowing a considerable fortune upon young Isabel to ensure her safe passage in the European world that she seems determined to explore. After all, both father and son are alarmed when they discover that a marriage proposal from Lord Warburton has been surprisingly rejected. Isabel feels that “few of the men she saw seemed worth an expenditure of imagination.” To marry Warburton would only make her feel like “some wild, caught creature in a vast cage.”

The newly wealthy Isabel travels to France and Italy, but when she reaches Florence she is introduced to Gilbert Osmond, a man of no social standing, and suddenly she finds herself open to the idea of marriage. Her haughty suitor seems an unlikely match, but Isabel’s notion of freedom appears to involve her being free to do the unexpected. Her marriage begins to fail in the face of Osmond’s arrogance, and she soon discovers that she has been duped into this unhappy union by another American abroad, Serena Merle, who was formerly Osmond’s lover.

Clearly Isabel has not fully comprehended the treachery of the European world of half-glances, nods, and winks, and this ingénue has allowed Madame Merle to make “a convenience” of her. At her most vulnerable after the death of her cousin Ralph and the reappearance of yet another suitor, the American mill owner Caspar Goodwood, who has followed her from the United States, Isabel resigns herself to accepting the mistake of her marriage. As James’s novel concludes, she resolves to continue to reside in Europe with an unsatisfactory husband, but even as we try to understand her we worry for Mrs. Osmond.

If we do understand her it is because of the narrative technique employed in James’s novel. The Portrait of a Lady can rightfully claim to be the novel that began to edge fiction out of a Victorian concern with spectacle and plot and to introduce us to what became, in the early twentieth century, in the hands of Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, and others, fiction that is concerned with the ebb and flow of individual consciousness as it ranges across the mundane events of daily life. James frequently pauses the action and allows us to eavesdrop on Isabel Archer’s most intimate thoughts, feelings, and fears, in a manner that readers in 1881 would have found both startling and thrilling:

She saw herself, in the distant years, still in the attitude of a woman who had her life to live, and these intimations contradicted the spirit of the present hour. It might be desirable to die; but this privilege was evidently to be denied her. Deep in her soul—deeper than any appetite for renunciation—was the sense that life would be her business for a long time to come. And at moments there was something inspiring, almost exhilarating, in the conviction. It was a proof of strength—it was a proof that she should some day be happy again. It couldn’t be that she was to live only to suffer; she was still young, after all, and a great many things might happen to her yet.

The result of this Jamesian submersion into intimacy is that our heroine grows into something more than a naive American girl caught up in the shady goings-on of a cynical Europe. We come to know her as a corruptible innocent, a woman who breathes in life, perhaps too deeply; an emigrant of substance who has the courage to face up to the consequences of her actions.

John Banville’s seventeenth novel, Mrs. Osmond, seizes the narrative baton from Henry James and quickly moves Isabel Osmond away from a mournful Gardencourt where, following the death of her cousin Ralph, she has allowed herself to be kissed by the suggestively virile Caspar Goodwood. Despite the flash of “lightning” that she feels when seized by this admirer, James’s Isabel knows that she is duty-bound to return to her husband. Banville doesn’t dissent, and he transports her to London in the company of a new character, her loyal maid Staines. Once there, Isabel arranges to have lunch with another new character, Miss Florence Janeway. She thereafter spends a socially awkward evening with an American journalist friend, Henrietta Stackpole, who is familiar to us from the James novel.

Isabel confesses that the events surrounding the failure of her marriage have sapped her confidence. Not wishing to chance another encounter with Goodwood, she leaves for France and at a party in Paris encounters Serena Merle. She then does the unthinkable and invites Merle to join her in Rome, where she promises to support her nemesis. The narrative point of view now switches briefly to Gilbert Osmond, who is temporarily residing in Florence. He conjures up a “tawdry scheme” whereby his sister, Amy, will take his (and Merle’s) daughter, Pansy, to England and therefore keep the young girl out of the hands of Isabel, who, at the conclusion of the James novel, had vowed to support her.

Isabel arrives in Florence, and during lunch with her Aunt Lydia she discovers that her husband is also in the city. Steeling herself, Isabel goes to visit him, and they squabble. Eventually, Isabel lets Gilbert know that she is prepared to offer him a settlement, for she wants “freedom” for herself and Pansy. On returning to the house of Aunt Lydia, Isabel encounters Mr. Devenish, an idealistic young English journalist whose pleasantness of voice is “curiously enhanced by a slight stammer.” Mr. Devenish has been instructed by his aunt, Miss Florence Janeway, to seek out Mrs. Osmond should his European travels take him into her orbit. As we now stand close to the conclusion of Banville’s novel it is impossible not to hear the rusty hinges of a door closing on Isabel’s lamentable marriage to Mr. Osmond and another creaky door opening onto the prospect of future happiness for her with this seemingly eligible bachelor.

But Banville, like James, is too fine a novelist to merely imitate the often predictable romantic machinations of the late Victorian novel. There are at least three, perhaps four, major revelations that crowd the remaining few dozen pages of Mrs. Osmond, none of which can be reasonably foreseen. However, the incident-packed denouement of Mrs. Osmond cannot compensate for the stasis of much of the novel’s length, and the many passages in which Banville’s luxuriant prose feels a trifle excessive, as when Isabel thinks of Ralph living vicariously through her,

watching in smiling wonderment from his seat at the ringside her breath-taking flights, her spangled swoopings, to and fro in the powdery light high up, oh, so high up, under the big, the tremendous, top.

In addition, Banville occasionally irritates with his literary witticisms, casually referencing Ibsen, for example:

And so she had been allowed to live along, happily, in the house of herself, which, as she acknowledged now, was no more substantial in dimensions than a doll’s house.

Henry James has given Banville the gift of a cast of characters to transport into his own fiction, but what actually happens in Mrs. Osmond? Isabel leaves England for Italy (by way of Paris), confronts Gilbert Osmond in Florence, and then returns to England. As Banville’s story chugs across the Channel and back it pauses at length to detail uncomfortable journeys undertaken by train or carriage, and awkward and hurried check-ins at various hotels, and the temporary settling in to the houses of friends or relatives, and a good number of socially uneasy luncheons or dinners.

These events “on the road” aside, the novel is dominated by Mrs. Osmond’s interior thoughts, or else Mrs. Osmond in conversation with one of the original cast of The Portrait of the Lady on the topic of what went wrong in the six years between her departure from Albany and Ralph’s death at Gardencourt. As she muses and converses, Banville’s Isabel grows as a character, for she asks herself difficult and frequently astute questions, the answers to which, one suspects, she would have been ignorant of in James’s novel: “Isabel wondered if she had become one of those mysteriously marked persons, the carriers of an obscure hurt, whose company others found awkward to sustain?”

Unfortunately, it is difficult to detect a similar growth in the other members of the reassembled cast. In many ways, Banville’s Gilbert Osmond becomes less explicable. Isabel describes him as delighting in what is “nasty,” and there is something of the pantomime villain about both his behavior and manner of expression, for instance, when he speaks to his sister of his scheme to send her to England with Pansy:

“What, Amy?” her brother said now, breaking in upon her reverie. “Is there to be no word of gratitude for the splendid prospect I have opened before you? Think of the opportunities England will offer—think of the adventures you shall have! You like an adventure, I know; you’re famous for it. I grant I may have been somewhat abrupt in putting my plan to you, but I assure you, I have been thinking upon it for some time, first in Rome, then here, on good old Bellosguardo—”

With the exception of Isabel, Banville moves his characters only a short distance beyond Henry James and they never truly enter into clear Banvillian waters. More worryingly, as one reads further into the novel one does so with a growing concern that in order to glean full satisfaction from Banville’s forensic reexamination of the events of the previous six years, the reader should have some knowledge of James’s The Portrait of the Lady.

One assumes, however, that Banville cares little for such trifling anxieties. He has frequently expressed his disdain for critical feedback of any kind, and his pronouncements regarding his desire to keep the bar of his fiction as high as possible are well known. (On receiving the Man Booker Prize in 2005 he famously expressed relief that “a work of art,” his own novel The Sea, had triumphed.)

So what does John Banville care about? The answer that emerges from this novel is Henry James, to whom he pays homage by this immersion into the very sinews of the master’s work. But more than this, Banville clearly cares about language, perhaps like few other writers working in English. Yet as has already been noted, his showmanship does sometimes feel extravagant:

Isabel dipped into the dark behind her lids as if into the mossy coolness of a forest pool. Yet she could not linger long, for in that darkness she was sure to meet the padding, yellow-eyed, implacable creature that was her conscience.

Or later:

But if that were the case, the thing she was afraid of was not her husband or what he might say or do but, much more horribly, a kind of inchoate and unmanageable mass, like a congealed ball of mud, stuck with snapped twigs and bristling thorns and bits of broken leaf, that had rolled down a hill and come to rest, repellent and unavoidable, at her feet. She had thought to dodge the worst of the world’s filth, but here it was, waiting for her only to pick it up in her hands and bear it with her, to wherever she was bound.

On other occasions one senses that an image has appealed to him, but he has perhaps failed to take a second look to make sure that the conceit fully holds: “Just then their host appeared, in all the glory of his jocose rotundity, flashing menus at them as a samurai would his sword.”

But when Banville reins in his rampant vocabulary and purposefully marries prose to poetry, he has few equals. He describes a recalcitrant Pansy: “She stood now before her father and her aunt in her accustomed attitude of placid and slightly vacant acquiescence, absently turning one black slipper back and forth on the edge of its heel in a half-circle in the gravel beneath her.” And when a “flushed and trembling” Isabel succumbs to a fever and is confined to bed, it is hard to imagine any improvement upon the succinct precision of this sentence: “It was on this vast pallet that Isabel would lie for many days, drifting in and out of hot and fitful sleep, like a log borne on the back of a tropical river through steaming jungle depths.”

Mary Evans/Polygram/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection
Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer in Jane Campion’s film adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady, 1996

For many years now, Banville has relied upon the dexterous manner in which he manipulates words to compensate for his palpable lack of interest in the intrigue of story line. In Mrs. Osmond, Banville picks over the bones of The Portrait of a Lady, offering us beautifully phrased set-pieces and often exquisite minor portraiture rather than narrative energy. For instance, as Isabel and her friend Henrietta Stackpole take a walk in London’s Cavendish Square Gardens, a nurse passes them by, pushing “a perambulator as shiny and glidingly buoyant as a truncated gondola, from the white satin depths of which a somewhat mottled tiny pink face peered out.”

Naturally, the image of the child haunts Isabel and makes her think of her own lost child. But even here, although the eloquent descriptive brushwork delights, we linger too long as the author elaborates, so that the final effect is one of surfeit: “Catching Isabel’s glance, the creature lifted higher still its invisible brows and drew in its extensible neck in what seemed a deepened access of alarm.”

Not all of Banville’s impressive ornamental work takes us away from the novel’s central concern, however, which is Isabel’s state of mind. For instance, near the beginning, when the still-mourning and confused Isabel travels from Gardencourt and arrives with her maid at Paddington Station, she sees and hears a man weeping. The descriptive verve of the passage strikes a chord with the reader, despite the uneasy feeling that Banville might simply be indulging himself:

Before she discerned the man himself her ear was caught by the sound of his weeping. It was a strange, unhuman sound, and at first she looked about for some wounded creature nearby, a fledgling gull, perhaps, fallen from the edge of some high parapet and mewling for its mother. But, no, it was a man. He was burly and broad but not at all strong-looking, with a big box-shaped head and hair of a fiery ginger shade and curly ginger whiskers. He had positioned himself at the corner of the wide thoroughfare that led the way out of the station precincts. She did not think she had ever seen or heard a grown man crying like this, copiously, helplessly, unstaunchably. His washed-blue eyes were red-rimmed, and his swollen and glistening nether lip trembled like a baby’s. He wore a collarless shirt, an ancient pair of moleskin trousers shiny with grime, and a jacket of rusty serge that was much too small for him and pinched him under the arms and left his frail white wrists defencelessly exposed. He stood in one spot but kept turning his body first in one direction and then the other, caught it seemed in a trance of convulsive indecision. Beside him on the pavement was a shapeless bundle of something tied up in a knotted rag. It had seemed at first he was wearing shoes, but now that Isabel looked more closely she saw that his feet were bare but thoroughly caked with black, tar-like dirt. The coppery brightness of his whiskers, through which dark glinting rivulets of tears were coursing, and the pulpy paleness of his lightly freckled sin, somehow added to and intensified, for her, the sorrow and abjection of the spectacle he made; it was as if he had been flayed of a protective integument, and his flaming hair were blushing for him to be so nakedly and shamefully on show.

Yet it becomes clear in the final few pages of the novel that the weeping man carries great significance for Isabel and that the amount of energy expended on this carefully drawn portrait is in fact necessary. The man has an important part in helping us to understand how Isabel Osmond evolves on her journey out of the world of Henry James and into the world of John Banville.

The manner in which this passage is laid down and then neatly picked up again suggests that beneath the novel’s habitual default to grinding Jamesian backstory, there is an architectural coherence informing Mrs. Osmond that goes beyond what the reader might have previously encountered in Banville’s often underplotted fiction. Clearly he works hard in this novel to measure up to James, and to shed new light on the admirable yet enigmatic Isabel Osmond, who, in Banville’s version, grows from a girl to a woman who “felt within her all the shrinkings of a sinner, only she could not identify the sin.” In the end, his imaginative engagement with Isabel Osmond ushers the heroine further along a path to maturity, yet she remains ambiguous—a word, like so many other words, that one suspects John Banville holds dear.