Portrait of a Lady, one of Henry James’s best and most accessible novels, leaves you very much wondering at the end what would happen to its heroine, Mrs Gilbert Osmond who was formerly Miss Isabel Archer. Perhaps for a writer with the talent of John Banville, a talent of a similar stamp to that of James, it was irresistible to explore what would happen to Mrs Osmond and see if he could match “the Master.”
To my mind he has done extraordinarily well. He has brought both the dead, Henry James, and the suspended, Mrs Osmond, back to life. I could have been reading James, and he even, I believe, appeared in the novel, just as Hitchcock always appeared somewhere fleetingly in his films: “ she spied at a table in a corner diametrically across from hers a gentleman of somewhat stout appearance, bearded and balding, who was reading a newspaper with the aid of a pair of prince-nez….” (I think of James as bald and clean shaven, but when he was younger, perhaps at the time he wrote Portrait of a Lady, he did have a beard as well as advanced balding.)
Banville also tells us, I believe, what both books are about: “You seem to me, Miss Archer,” said the lady, “a person possessed of a large potential; do be careful not to underspend your resource.” (These are words she remembers from the past, so perhaps. I thought, they are in James’s novel; I didn’t search) Either way, in James’s novel she does underspend, but in Banville’s novel she spends cleverly and well, although again is left surprised and lost at the end. I’ll say no more about the plot, but Banville has left the way open for another sequel, and I wonder if he won’t find the prospect irresistible.
I took many quotes from the book:
By talk was meant a laying out of facts and feelings so that they might be considered with the benefit of an additional pair of eyes, another instrument of measuring and placing and judging.
That foundered Behemoth on the far side of the Atlantic
The whole strange busy transaction of being alive.
Happiness…being in a coach-and-four of a pitch-dark night rattling over unseen roads.
Marriage…seemed to her nothing but a throwback to a prehistoric time, a codification of far more casual, rough rituals of seizure and subjugation.
Real money…a vast dark unseen rushing force sweeping along with its rattling shoals of stones and the torn-off roots of plants and trees and endlessly replenishing from below the secret springs of power
The clever little cold steel-pen of her intellect
She had loved Gilbert Osmond, with as much as her youth and want of experience allowed.
“You must not pity me, you know, dear Henrietta. That would be the unkindest thing. I do not pity myself–I blame, yes, I accuse, I excoriate, but I do not pity. I shall never sink that low.”
Each life is given once, with no possibility of repetition, and the individual actor on whom the vivifying gift is bestowed must play his hour on the stage with unflagging conviction and in the full realisation that there will be only one ‘opening night’ with no ‘run’ to follow,
Philosophy is a harmless diversion from the true brisk of business of being human, which is nothing more and nothing less than to live a harmonious, fulfilled, and use life.
I do think, you know, that we do not sufficiently acknowledge the force of boredom in human affairs. Or, rather, I should say, the terror human beings have of being bored.
[her] inflexible sense of duty, that spiritual affliction inherited from her Puritan forebears.
Time not only heals it also exonerates, by a process of enervation if nothing else.
For him words, the language itself, were mere modes of play, when they were not being pit to serious employ as weapons of war.
The English have a special gift for mocking one mercilessly from behind a perfectly maintained straight face.
Advice is another term for mischief-making, anyone who asks for it deserves the consequences.