My second read for #readIreland17, Friends and Relations was Elizabeth Bowen’s third novel. Elizabeth Bowen is a writer I have come to admire so much, becoming one of my favourites. She does take slow, considered reading however, but I find the effort is rewarded. Her writing is elegant, subtle and delicately evocative. She explores the relationships between her characters with astute understanding. She reproduces their conversations and awkward silences with perfection. Bowen’s storytelling only takes us so far – the reader has to do a little work too, to fully understand what is happening.
The novel concerns two sisters, two weddings – a few months apart, and the complicated web of friends and relations that unite the families. Ten years after these two weddings, tensions held politely at bay start to unravel over the course of one fraught week. Four families: the Studdarts, Tilneys, Meggatts and Thirdmans are connected by their relationships to the two couples who marry in the early part of the novel.
Laurel and Janet Studdart are the sisters, Laurel marries first, Edward Tilney – a fine upstanding young man. He is slightly anxious, worries about the scandal in his mother’s past, which blighted his childhood. Edward’s mother; Lady Elfrida had an adulterous relationship and left Edward’s father for a man who then didn’t marry her. Having gained her divorce, Lady Elfrida, glamourous, beautiful and dissolute – in not having remarried has retained the taint of scandal and impropriety which poor Edward remains ever conscious of.
When Janet announces her engagement to Rodney Meggatt it causes some surprise and no little comment, there is a sense that Janet is viewed as rather less conventional than Laurel, and yet here she is making a very conventional marriage. In typical Bowen fashion, both sisters are a little hard to get a handle on, but Janet seems rather different to her sister, hers is a darker, more sophisticated beauty, Laurel is a conventional young woman, the daughter of respectable people. There is a strange awkwardness between the sisters, times when they seem unsure how to deal with each other, so many things go unsaid. Rodney is a man of large fortune, his uncle’s heir and Janet is perfect for the role of his wife, mistress of the ancestral home Batts and organiser of ladies’ committees. We sense that Janet isn’t deeply in love with Rodney, and have to wonder whether there isn’t some feeling between her and Edward that there shouldn’t be. As Janet settles into a passionless but perfectly contended country marriage, her husband it seems genuinely adores her – Laurel and Edward living in London, are rather less comfortably off. Their marriage too is happy, there is more passion here perhaps. Edward (who I couldn’t quite like) has great need of Laurel, keeping his life on an even keel – here we have Edward musing on the nature of their marriage.
“But apart from this necessity of never being divided, Laurel remained delicious. She made of every failure in peace, every break in their confidence a small burlesque. She despised balance, but her very wildness of thought, behind the propriety of her manner, seemed to insure them against catastrophe. There was nothing she could not bring to harmless light by exaggeration. When her accounts did not balance she said ‘you must marry Janet.’ She reproached him for not going into business when he reproached her for wearing artificial pearls, wished that he had a mistress when love was not mutual, scrapped with Anna when she should have controlled her, exclaiming: ‘I cannot think who can have had this impossible child!’ She woke him at three in the morning to assure her her hair was not fading. Still, she would not condone his mother’s infidelity to his childhood; they went to sleep hand in hand, she made up arears of nonsense right back to his infancy and, though she frequently wept or was difficult, never turned an obdurate face away. If she was not serene she was gay and professed to find in Edward the spring of her comfort. Her solicitude reached him almost before he suffered, fostering sensibility.”
One of the greatest areas of conflict exists because of Considine Meggatt, Rodney’s uncle, he was the man who Lady Elfrida had a relationship with and ended her marriage for. Edward is outraged that his sister in law should be marrying the nephew of this renowned rake. Considine is merely an older version of his younger scandalous self – hardly changed – Edward insists his mother and the children he and Laurel have, should have nothing to do with him. In practise this means that Janet’s daughter Hermione, at Batts sees little of her cousins Anna and Simon, until the inevitable coming together again of Elfrida and Considine at Batts with Janet, Rodney and all three children in attendance.
One of the most memorable characters in this novel is that of Theodora Thirdman, an awkward teenager as the novel opens. She is the kind of socially unaware girl that Bowen writes so well – Theodora is keen to ally herself socially to Studdart sisters and their families. Theodora thrives on gossip and drama and having been discovered making prank phone calls after Laurel’s wedding she finds herself shipped off to boarding school in the summer term. Here she meets the young woman – sister of Edward’s best man – who ten years later she has set up home with. There is a wonderful section early in the novel – with Theodora newly arrived at her boarding school – keen to impress and make connections.
“Theodora put some interesting photographs on her dressing-table, but for some days no one looked at them. She put out silver brushes, but Marise said she must keep those in a bag. By day, Theodora was not overlooked. She broke her glasses at once and had to be moved to the front row, in algebra, to see the blackboard. She talked so much French in French class that Mademoiselle, unused for years to the language, was confused and became annoyed. In mid-morning break she played the Rachmaninoff prelude in C sharp minor loudly on the gymnasium piano till a mistress looked in to say it was break now she had better go out and run about.”
Theodora is a quite brilliant creation – in fact it is she and Lady Elfrida who are the most memorable characters in this novel – and certainly the most interesting. Ten years later, Theodora plays a small but important role in the upsetting of the apple cart, in a letter she writes to Laurel.
This is a beautiful novel by Elizabeth Bowen, exploring the passions and secrets that are concealed beneath the surface of this very proper English upper class society.