This book came up rather suddenly in a group which reads good stuff and recently published books are fine. I’m a fan of John Bancroft (although not Benjamin Black so much) and Henry James as well. What Bancroft has done is to continue the story of Isabel Archer, James’ heroine of A Portrait of a Lady in a sequel.
I read the James book several years ago and I chose not to reread it prior to reading Mrs Osmond. I wanted Banville’s Isabel to stand on her own – I didn’t want to compare the two. Also I didn’t want to compare the styles although I couldn’t imagine Banville would capture the same Victorian era James wrote of or writing like “the Master” did. Banville is quite good, but he’s not Henry James.
by John Bancroft
2017 / 384 pages
read by Amy Finegan – 11h 42m
(read and listened)
Isabel Archer, in A Portrait of a Lady, is a young woman who was suddenly orphaned and not long afterwards taken to Europe by her aunt. There she met several people and eventually inherited a large mount of money from a relative which made her prey to the old penniless European schemers James loved to write about. Although there were more suitable men courting her, she married a jerk and settled with him in Italy. Isabel found the marriage to be a kind of trap – she was trapped in a truly loveless marriage with many ugly secrets and for which her money had been the only draw. There is a lot of scheming and further complications in the James book – it ends rather ambiguously and to me quite sadly, but it’s a good book.
Banville takes it from there – after a few years Mrs Osmond has to go to Paris for the funeral of the relative. She knows her husband’s secrets and these are revealed as Mrs Osborn progresses – with Banville adding a couple of twists. But Isabel is no longer the innocent woman of only a few years prior, and is now seriously disenchanted with the lies. She sees old friends and makes a new one – she changes her plans.
The results – first, if I hadn’t remembered the relevant details important to Isabel Archer as James wrote the book, they were in Banville’s sequel and that nudged me into remembering quite a lot. I did so enjoy A Portrait of a Lady – I may have read it twice. However, I’m not sure one could follow the intricacies of the backstory without having read A Portrait of a Lady at all. –
Second – yes, Banville was apparently up to the task of creating the era of Isabel Archer and writing with a fair approximation of the fine hand of James, although it’s never quite up to his fine standards. (It seemed to me that Banville had more interior views than Banville.) And Banville gives us a good enough picture of the 1870s in Europe for historical fiction. Unfortunately, I know that Banville is not on the scene first hand as James was – for some reason that made a huge difference to me.
Overall, I really enjoyed the book – although it’s not on my best of year list. Banville did a really good job with a fascinating idea which must have been very difficult to execute.