- Portraits and Palimpsests
Madame Merle is a blonde. Given the number of times I have read James’s The Portrait of a Lady (roughly biennially since my mid-teens), this should be no revelation, but on every one of those half-dozen readings, I am arrested by the mention of her “thick, fair hair” (PL 196). Jane Campion has, I suspect, more than a little to do with this: in her 1996 film adaptation, “the cleverest woman in the world” is played by Barbara Hershey, a brunette (PL 588). That a few late-night viewings of the film should overlay fifteen years of careful study is curious, particularly given that I invariably drift off somewhere around Pansy’s first ball, to wake with a start when Ned Rosier bellows that he has “sold [his] bibelots.” But when it comes to Portrait’s legacy, Campion’s film has rather a lot to answer for. John Malkovich’s physicalizing of Osmond’s psychological abuse informs Kirsten Tranter’s The Legacy, in which Isabel, or “Ingrid,” is a battered wife, as well as this most recent reimagining, whose prose is permeated by Malkovich’s actions. Osmond is witnessed “leaning his face close to [Isabel’s] and waggling his head . . . at once menacing and horribly comical” (Banville 290), while the experience of hearing Merle call Osmond by his first name is “like a sharp slap upon the cheek with a silk glove” (334)—both actions that viewers of the film will recall. This is by way of saying that Isabel’s latest incarnation, John Banville’s Mrs Osmond, carries a heavy burden of responsibility in its turn, for “palimpsests make for permanent change” (Hutcheon 29).
When Isabel Osmond closed the door of Henrietta Stackpole’s Wimpole Street lodgings, causing first-time readers of either version to howl in anguish, she ushered in more than a century of speculation about what awaited her in Rome. Incarceration [End Page E-1] at the Palazzo Roccanera, a flight with her stepdaughter, an adulterous reunion with Goodwood (yes, really: see R. H. Hutton), or a final escape from the “hard manhood” that had pursued her across two continents (PL 627)? When we join Banville’s Isabel in the railway carriage that will bear her away from Gardencourt and into her future, these manifold possibilities close down. The text is an affront to James’s refusal to spell out Isabel’s destiny. But what follows is, by my highly subjective reckoning, very good indeed and testament to Banville’s skill, for in general terms the prognosis for sequels is poor. Martin Middeke’s discussion of Austen continuations serves as a barometer for the critical debate: they are “aesthetically dubious,” symptomatic of “nostalgia and a retrogressive desire . . . on the part of the reader” (4). Colm Tóibín, who recommended this novel, was surprised to find a “serious artist doing a sequel,” and even more so that the sequel appeared to be “a genuine thing” (Tóibín). Even Sonny Mehta, the editor-in-chief at Banville’s publishing house, calls the impulse “outrageous,” though more in a tone of titillation than censure (Banville n.pag.). In excluding prequels and sequels from her study of adaptations, Linda Hutcheon helps explain this prevailing hostility: such texts are impelled, she believes, by the desire for continuation rather than change (9). Yet if the majority of sequels are born out of “never wanting the story to end” (Hutcheon 9), Banville instead takes issue with the story’s ending and its implied renunciation by whichever form. By inhabiting James’s novel, offering revised viewpoints, inferring characters’ motivations, and giving voice to the marginalized (Sanders 18), he provides the critical commentary that defines appropriation, rather than simply offering us more of the same.
Banville’s revised viewpoint enables an intriguing new perspective on Isabel as a mother, a facet of her identity that is elided in James’s text. Six months after the death of her son, James’s Isabel “had already laid aside the tokens of mourning” (PL 422), and this is the last we hear of the child...