Rather than taking the time to revisit Henry James’s 19th century masterpiece The Portrait of a Lady, readers should instead treat themselves to the gorgeous 1996 movie starring Nicole Kidman, which does a great job of encapsulating the necessary back story of Mrs. Osmond. A very different experience from James’s
Portrait, Banville’s book stands independently as a fully-fledged classic work that breathes fresh life into Isabel Archer. Like his predecessor, Banville writes exquisite sentences. I almost wished I could read the novel with my eyes closed so that I could let his vision overtake me.
picks up where James’s novel left off. Headstrong Isabel is on a train to London having just left Gardencourt, the ancestral home of Ralph Touchett. Ralph’s recent death from an identified wasting illness has precipitated Isabel’s catastrophic plunge from “the airy heights” when she married “the perfectly wrong” Gilbert Osmond. Ensconced in the privacy of an exclusive hotel with only Staines, her loyal maid, for company, Isabel is finally ready to meet the “paddling yellow-eyed implacable creature” of her conscience. She has been grievously wronged by her husband
and by Serena Merle, whom Isabel had naively considered her ally, if not her friend.
In London, Isabel sees herself through the eyes others: Gilbert, Ralph, Ralph’s mother, Mrs. Touchett,
and dear Henrietta Stackpole. At Henrietta’s lodgings on Welbeck Street, Isabel makes a passionate pledge to remake her life. She confesses to Henrietta all of her foolishness, arrogance, and “willful blindness.” Isabel thinks of her suitors: Caspar Goodwood,
whose kiss opened before her a possibility she knew could never be fulfilled; and Lord Warburton, whose marriage proposal “beat down upon her.” After discovering that her money had clandestinely come from Ralph, Isabel sees her marriage to Gilbert as nothing more than an arrangement, “as much as her youth and want of experience had allowed.”
James’s novel is the story of how Isabel became a prisoner of her own heart and mind after Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond successfully sought to emotionally and spiritually enslave her. Banville’s approach, however, sets James’s heroine firmly within the strictures of an infant feminist/suffragette movement. Make no mistake: Isabel aches to be free of her husband. For the first time, Isabel seems happy when she visits Miss Florence Janeway. At Florence’s home in Fulham, Isabel decides to hatch a new and vital arrangement that makes her question the reality of her marriage, “that she had known all along without letting herself know she knew it.”
Tired and anguished, with a blinding headache, Isabel readies her plan. Fighting the “depthless dark,” she telegraphs Gilbert back at Bellosguardo, conscious that he doesn’t yet know about her bank appointment and the big, fat bag of notes stuffed into the corner of the settee in Florence’s drawing room. The money reminds Isabel how much Ralph loved her and how the burden of her wealth has only increased the intricate web of connections around his death. As proudly as Isabel proclaims her independence, she also
experiences a strange and frightening clarity, like a “floundering animal crushed under the iron of a vehicle’s wheel.” She now faces a tough choice: to return to Rome
and or to a place where she no longer knows her husband at all.
Before all else--before the revelations in Rome and her flight from that city, before the treachery of Serene Merle and the unmasking of her husband--Isabel admits that she too was being quickly borne forward, “almost inexorably towards a destination she did not wish to reach.” In Paris, Isabel reconnects with Ned Rosier, once a suitor to Pansy, Gilbert’s loyal little doormat of a daughter who proclaims her obedience as proudly as Isabel proclaims her independence. Isabel thinks about what awaits her back in Bellosguardo and why Gilbert has delayed exacting retribution on her. Moving his heroine back to a tense reckoning with Osmond and Serena Merle, Banville focuses on the secret divulged that day at the Palazzo Roccanera, when an impatient Countess Gemini drew her sister-in-law aside and revealed to her the conspiracy that Osmond and Madame Merle had mounted against her and sustained over the pace of years.
Mirroring James’s own verbose prose style, Banville delves deep into Isabel’s beaten psyche, a woman torn asunder by the Victorian era’s stifling conformity. The irony is that Isabel secretly thought Ralph’s money would be the ticket to her freedom. Only one part of this notion was the case: her fortune had sealed her fate, but it made her the opposite of free. Through her passion and heartbreak, Banville beautifully charts Isabel’s quest to right this wrong, gorgeously echoing James’s classic tale of romance, tragedy and hope.