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When last we heard from Isabel Archer, she was on her way from London back to Rome, where her husband, the cruel, cosmopolitan aesthete Gilbert Osmond, was waiting. That’s how Henry James wrote it, anyway. Recall, if you will, the outline of The Portrait of a Lady: a spirited young woman from Albany, New York, arrives in England, inherits sixty thousand pounds, rejects two suitors, and, catastrophically, marries a third. In short order, Isabel, who had possessed “a certain nobleness of imagination” and whose ideal had been “the free exploration of life,” is ground down in “the house of suffocation.” The big reveal comes when she discovers that her stepdaughter is the love child of her husband and the blond Brooklynite Serena Merle, who together concocted the scheme to trick the wealthy naïf into matrimony. In the final pages of the book, a shattered Isabel defies her husband’s command and journeys to England to attend the funeral of her beloved cousin. On the eve of her return to Italy, she is clear-eyed about the suffering that lies in store. “It won’t be the scene of a moment,” she explains, “it will be a scene of the rest of my life.”

Cleopatra’s Needle and Charing Cross Bridge, by Claude Monet © Private Collection/Photo © Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images

“The obvious criticism of course will be that it is not finished,” James wrote in his notebook in 1881, “that I have not seen the heroine to the end of her situation — that I have left her en l’air.” In fact, some reviewers of the first edition wrongly concluded that Isabel had left Osmond for the passionate industrialist Caspar Goodwood, and accused James of immorality and worse. “A lamer conclusion to a brilliantly written story could ill be concocted,” was The Dial’s verdict. James added a paragraph to the 1908 New York Edition that ought to have cleared up any lingering doubts, but for those who can’t stop wondering what if or keep themselves from screaming, like some deranged moviegoer, “Don’t go back inside the house!” John Banville has written MRS. OSMOND (Knopf, $27.95), a sequel that picks up the day James’s novel closes. Ours is a televisual age, after all, when every good story gets renewed for a second season.

After more than a dozen novels — he won the Man Booker in 2005, for The Sea — perhaps Banville is tired of coming up with new characters. A few years ago, in the crime-fiction guise of Benjamin Black, he published a Philip Marlowe mystery (with the blessing of the Chandler estate). Now he is doing his best impression of James. Banville is an expert stylist, and his talent for ventriloquism comes as no surprise, least of all to him. Mrs. Osmond is not “as intricate as James,” he admitted in an interview, “but if you were to look at it superficially, you could mistake it for James.” This is true as far as it goes. Mrs. Osmond is stuffed with high-octane vocabulary, winding sentences, extended metaphors, and calm, assured free-indirect passages. “Her aunt was looking at Isabel now with an expression of large surmise, in the fashion of one suddenly seeing craft and cunning where before there had seemed dullness only”: the use of “large” is very Jamesian. There is even a visit from the master himself, who shows up in a pince-nez and a blue-and-yellow waistcoat. (“Did he know her, had they met at some time, somewhere?”) But Mrs. Osmond does not expand our sense of the original. It is highbrow fan fiction, and does at once too much and too little with the source material.

We learn, for example, that Osmond did not just happen to benefit from the first Mrs. Osmond’s convenient expiration; he put her in death’s way by taking her, when she was already ill, to a plague-ridden city. Such surplus villainy is cartoonish — Osmond was bad enough without being a wife murderer — but helps justify Isabel’s decision to leave him. Banville also has Isabel grapple with the responsibility of her wealth, though in a hammy way, by agonizing over not having given money to a beggar at Paddington station. I think he is trying to show that she has learned to be more human, but as a moral awakening it’s more Dickensian than Jamesian.

The overriding reason Mrs. Osmond fails is that Banville sidesteps the questions that worry the readers of Portrait. The problem of James’s ending is not that we don’t know what Isabel does — it’s that we must answer why. Why is it that she, as James has it, “can’t escape unhappiness”? For what end, or for whom, is she living? What meaning can she wring from her disillusionment? Banville waves a wand and these questions vanish. His is a rescue mission, not a literary one. (You might as well show up in Jude the Obscure and start passing out contraceptives.) He has the sense not to marry Isabel off to someone else, but doesn’t know what to do with her. James gave Isabel’s life an arc and a destiny, however tragic. Banville restores her to the condition in which we first met her: a single, uncommitted heiress who wants to be free. But freedom, as Portrait shows, is hardly an end in itself.

 

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