Mrs Osmond by John Banville

‘It had been a day of agitations and alarms, of smoke and steam and grit.’

An exceptionally long time ago, I read ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ by Henry James.  I loved the writing, was frustrated by Isabel’s choice, and wondered ‘what if…’.

In this novel, John Banville gives Isabel an alternate path.  A path that I find much more satisfying.

 In this story (as in ‘The Portrait of a Lady’) Isabel disobeys her husband Gilbert by travelling from Italy to London to be with her cousin Ralph Touchett on his deathbed.  This will become the first step in her quest for freedom.  She meets with old friends and tells (some of them) of her husband’s betrayal.  She also withdraws a large sum of money from the bank and thinks about the future.

‘The world, our world, takes from people what it wishes to have of them—company, amusement, diversion—and blithely ignores the rest.’

After a couple of months away, Isabel returns to Italy via Paris.  Will she return to Gilbert, to their farcical marriage or not?  And if not, what will she do?  A woman in her situation is not meant to make choices: polite society will be outraged.  But John Banville’s Isabel has a confidence that Henry James’s Isabel did not:

‘Isabel rose to her feet.  ‘You married me for my money,’ she said, making of it no more than a matter of fact.  ‘Now our marriage is at an end, and I am taking the money back.’

Brava, Isabel!  But there is more to it than this.  Isabel’s newly practiced confidence enables her to make other decisions.  Still, as her sister-in-law reminds her:

‘None of us can escape what we inherit, not even you.’

And so, I finished the novel satisfied, but wondering what Isabel might do next with her newly found freedom and confidence.

This is a beautifully written novel.  While I don’t think you need to have read ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ to enjoy and make sense of it, you might want to.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith