The task of writing about Elizabeth Bowen’s remarkable 1932 novel is one I find really very daunting. Bowen’s exquisite prose, delicate subtlety, extraordinary sense of place and complex interplay between characters requires slow and thoughtful reading, but it is effort which is then richly rewarded.
I had good company in my reading of To the North – a few members of an Elizabeth Bowen Facebook group have been or are reading To the North as well. I love how social media – so often criticised for its misuse can bring people together in this way.
“Towards the end of April a breath from the north blew cold down Milan platforms to meet the returning traveller. Uncertain thoughts of home filled the station restaurant where the English sat lunching uneasily, facing the clock.”
Set mainly in London during the 1920’s To the North explores the lives of two young women, related by marriage. Recently widowed Cecilia Summers and her sister in law Emmeline share a house; they each rely on the presence of the other in the house though they live quite independently of each other. As the novel opens Cecilia is travelling across Europe by train, headed home to London and the house she shares with her husband’s sister. On the train Cecilia meets Mark Linkwater, a lawyer, who is presented as being almost, but not quite a gentleman, this meeting brings Linkwater into the lives of Cecilia and Emmeline, upsetting the balance of Emmeline’s quiet independent life. Markie (as he is called by everyone) is predatory, unreliable, worrying to everyone around Emmeline, and Emmeline more vulnerable to the limits he sets upon their relationship than she at first realises. Emmeline is drawn into a relationship with Markie, while Cecilia and Julian seem to dance around one another rather as Cecilia reconciles her past life with the one ahead of her.
Although this is mainly a novel about a certain class of English person at home, it is also paradoxically a novel of travel. Emmeline, a wonderfully modern seeming young woman, is one half of a partnership in a Bloomsbury Travel agency. Many of the characters make or ruminate on journeys or travel arrangements of one kind or another, cars, trains, planes and buses all feature, and although there is only one significant trip made abroad – to Paris, there is the usual movement that we often see in novels of this period between houses in town and grand countryside dwellings. Even the title To the North suggests travel – someone going somewhere – this sense of movement is present throughout the novel, strange though that so few real journeys are made, but Bowen cleverly crates a sense of people in transit.
Cecilia, meanwhile is contemplating a second marriage, Julian Tower an eligible, sensible choice, is undemonstrative, unexciting but safe. Here, then we have another obvious theme, marriage, the marriage that has been of all too short a duration – that Cecilia is still quietly mourning, the new one she may yet make, and the marriages of others around her. In conveying Cecilia’s still raw grief for her husband – which is unmentioned by others despite being relatively recent – Bowen uses startlingly, beautiful images of burned out houses replaced by new lived in villas to convey Cecilia’s contemplation of a new life and attachment to what has gone.
“When a great house has been destroyed by fire – left with walls bleached and ghastly and windows gaping with the cold sky – the master has not, perhaps, the heart or the money to rebuild. Trees that were its companions are cut down and the estate sold up to the speculator. Villas spring up in red rows, each a home for someone, enticing brave little shops, radiant picture palaces: perhaps a park is left round the lake, where couples go boating”
Lady Waters, a relative by marriage of both Cecilia and Emmeline, is quite willing to interfere dreadfully in the fledgling romances of others. It is at her country home Farraways that we meet Tim Farquharson, who upon the advice of Lady Waters has just ended his engagement. Here too we encounter the Blighs, a youngish married couple, who bicker and quarrel and seem set for a truly unhappy marriage. Of Gilda Bligh we are told:
“Having read a good many novels about marriage, she now knew not only why she was unhappy but exactly how unhappy she could still be”
There is definitely a little satirical sharpness there, which I can’t help but enjoy – and there are plenty more examples of Bowen’s wit throughout this novel. Cecilia’s lunch party are described as being “not English for nothing” as they all begin to chatter to cover up a telephone conversation they are suddenly aware of overhearing.
The only child in the novel (teenager would probably be more accurate) is Pauline, Julian’s niece who he helps support. Pauline, paying visits to her uncle is an isolated child of an absent parent, embarrassed a little by Cecilia’s obvious glamour and non-maternal appearance when the latter accompanies Julian on a visit to Pauline at school. However, Pauline warms to Cecilia – a woman whose own mother is absent in America. Each of these families are fractured in some way; Markie living in a flat above his sister to whom he doesn’t speak, Emmeline’s brother is dead, and Lady Waters a matriarchal figure is irritatingly interfering and childless.
To the North is just the kind of novel that is actually very hard to describe to someone else – there isn’t an enormous amount of plot, yet there is so much packed into it, that it seems one can only ever skim the surface. There is a myriad of detail that is so wonderfully telling in this novel, nothing is wasted; everything appears to have some meaning – and weaves together in an effortless piece of artistry. The final line of To the North is utter perfection – resonating as it does in the mind of the reader long after the book is closed.