Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Bowen’

Elizabeth Bowen’s eighth novel A World of Love – the last one I had left to read – is a novel of great subtlety, focussing on the lives of a group of people in a large house in Ireland. The decaying mansion of Montefort is the setting for this novel – a house steeped in the past, Bowen’s opening is glorious, her prose perfectly capturing the atmosphere that persists throughout the novel.

“The sun rose on a landscape still pale with the heat of the day before. There was no haze, but a sort of coppery burnish out of the air lit on flowing fields, rocks, the face of the one house and the cliff of limestone overhanging the river. The river gorge cut deep through the uplands. The light at this hour, so unfamiliar, brought into being a new world – painted, expectant, empty, intense. The month was June, of a summer almost unknown; for this was a country accustomed to late wakenings, to daybreaks humid and overcast. At all times open and great with distance, the land this morning seemed to enlarge again, throwing the mountains back almost out of view in the south of Ireland’s amazement at being cloudless.”

The house of Montefort is owned by Antonia and presided over mainly by Lilia. The house was originally owned by Guy, Antonia’s cousin who when he was killed in the First World War had been engaged to Lilia. Antonia who inherited the house, had taken the bereaved girl under her wing, later marrying her to Fred, a local farm worker who manages the estate for Antonia. The house is infused with the spirit of Guy, still haunting the place he lived and the two women in his life. Lilia and Fred have two daughters; Jane and Maud – twenty year old Jane is the eldest a young woman keen to enter into a world of love and romance. The younger daughter Maud is just thirteen, she roams the house and grounds in the company of her familiar Gay-David.  As the novel opens Jane is floating around the grounds of Montefort in an Edwardian gown that she found in the attics. It wasn’t the only thing that she found, in the same trunk she found old letters written by Guy years earlier. There’s a dreaminess about Jane, a ripeness for romance that sometimes makes her seem younger than her years, she has a great and romantic imagination.

We never get to read any of the letters, yet their presence begins to affect everyone in the house. It is quickly apparent that while it’s clear that Guy was the author of the letters, it is much less clear who the letters were to. Jane takes the letters and hides them away where she can spend time with them in private.

“The letters, all in the same hand, were headed by day-names only – Tuesday, Saturday, and so on. They had been removed from their envelopes; nothing showed where they had been written or when posted. The writing-paper varied in kind, and, though not yet so aged as to be discoloured, was soiled at the edges, rubbed at the folds. The rubber band round the packet survived the fall from the trunk only to snap, unresilient, at the first pull from Jane – how many years does it take for rubber to rot? The ink, sharp in the candle-light, had not faded. She could not fail, however, when first she handled them, to connect these letters with that long-settled dust: her sense of their remoteness from her entitled her to feel they belonged to history. Honour therefore allowed her to make free of them.”

However, she lets everyone know that she has found these old forgotten letters, and immediately the household is thrown into a strange emotional turmoil, the past rising up around everyone. This group of oddly connected people are held together by fragile bonds, brought together in a sense by a man killed years earlier.

The emotional tension between these characters as they explore the past is exquisitely examined by Bowen. Antonia is a strange character, having brought Lilia and Fred together rather against their will, her life since seems to have had little purpose. There seems to be an unspoken jealousy that still exists between Antonia and Lilia. Lilia runs the house, but it belongs to Antonia who flits in and out of the lives of the family at Montefort and retains the best room for her own use. Lilia and Fred’s marriage has not been easy – the age gap between their daughters telling only part of the story of their uneasy alliance. Past and present relationships are re-examined, even Guy, the man who both Lilia and Antonia have put on a pedestal since his death has to be looked at in a new light.

Nearby in another grand house lives Englishwoman Lady Latterly, an outsider from a different world, she is wealthy, surrounded by interesting and exciting people. Jane is invited to an evening at her house – an event that further ignites her imagination. By the end of the novel Jane is poised to enter fully into her own world of love.

A World of Love is a beautifully written novel, it’s very much a character driven piece and not a great deal happens, but it is delicately evocative and the interplay between characters is brilliant.

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eva trout

The 1968 club starts today, hosted again by Simon and Karen. I have done my homework well everybody, and have already read both books I had selected from the tottering piles I already own (note I did not buy anything specially).

Eva Trout was Elizabeth Bowen’s final novel, written when she was around seventy – it was nominated for the Booker prize – then in its second year, and which was finally won by Bernice Rubens for The Elected Member. I liked it very much, the eponymous character is particularly well drawn, reminding me of a slightly older Portia (Death of the Heart). While, Eva Trout is not my favourite Bowen novel, it is a very good, though occasionally challenging read. It is a novel of many themes, parenting, communication, innocence and betrayal among them.

“The way downhill, into the bottomless incredulity which is despair, was incandescent with flowering chestnut trees.”

Eva Trout herself is an enigmatic character, chaotic, often rather child- like, though she is in her twenties when we first meet her. A conspicuously large, awkward girl, unloved and alone. Eva was raised by a succession of nannies and governesses paid for by her wealthy father, following the death of her mother in a plane crash. Now, her father dead too, she awaits full control of her huge inheritance when she is twenty-five. Driving around the countryside in her Jaguar – Eva is a strange mix of vulnerable innocence and trouble.

Eva has difficulty interacting with the world around her, relationships are conducted with a certain amount of drama and misunderstanding. Her legal guardian is Constantine, a former lover of her father’s – who lives in London and dispenses with his duties concerning Eva from there. Eva craves acceptance, and freedom, and as the novel progresses we see Eva moving from place to place in her bid to find them.

Constantine was delighted to approve Eva’s present living arrangements; a paying guest at Larkins, the home of Iseult and Eric Arble, Iseult a former teacher of Eva’s at the second of only two schools she attended. When she was sixteen. Eva had insisted her father pay for her to go to school. The first school she attended was in a castle owned by her father, here her roommate Elsinore attempts suicide, and the school soon closes. Despite having been very fond of Iseult when she was at school, now Eva is less happy living with the Arbles than she had imagined she would be. Seeking refuge from the Arbles, she makes friends the Danceys who live nearby – a clergyman’s family, with whom she spends a lot of time. Their son Henry – several years younger than Eva is her most particular friend, who she involves in her bid for freedom. Unable to wait for her twenty-fifth birthday – just three months away – Eva decides to rent a house in Kent and live entirely by herself. Despite not even knowing how to boil a kettle. On the day she is to take over Cathay – the house she has selected – she is met by Mr Denge the agent, to whom Eva can’t help but display her absolute ignorance of all household matters.

“‘Must we go far? asked his client, as they drove off.
‘No distance!’ sang out the professional optimist. ‘You are not familiar with our part of the world, Miss Trout?’
‘No. That is why.’
‘I see,’ he said, accustomed to doing so. ‘you will find we are rich in associations, not to speak of celebrities past and present. Charles Dickens –’
‘- Yes. Where do I buy a bicycle?
‘Now, immediately?’
Mr Denge altered course. ‘And, Miss Trout, groceries? This is your opportunity. I take it you have brought with you your plate and linen? As we pointed out in ours of the 23rd, those you provide. We trust you understood?’
‘No. What are they?’
‘Ha-ha – sheets, and so on. Spoons and, ha-ha, forks.’
‘How should I possess those?’ asked Eva moodily. ‘Must I buy them? Are they very expensive?’”

Once she is installed at Cathay, Eva receives a letter from Henry – and is visited by Eric – whose visit is interrupted by Constantine. Meanwhile Iseult sits at home in the house vacated by Eva, worrying about Eric’s absence. When Eva and Iseult meet again, Eva helps her former teacher to a terrible misunderstanding, which will adversely affect her already fragile marriage.

From here events move forward eight years, years that Eva has spent in America where she bought/adopted a child, (we assume illegally) a boy – Jeremy who is transpires is a deaf mute. Jeremy is now eight years old, able only to understand Eva. Eva has decided to bring her adopted son back to England.

“The boredom, for Eva, of being a passenger was mitigated by showing Jeremy England. Lambs, elms, cottages, colleges (they passed through Oxford). He missed nothing. From time to time, dread of the impending day overcame her; the aware child, at such moments, went supine against her, shoulder to shoulder. They stopped for lunch at Evesham, roast beef, apple tart, afterwards walking some way along the river looking at boats. ‘You’d like a boat of your own?’ He certainly would. ‘A seagoing boat, with an outboard engine?’ Still better! … Just after three o’clock, the Daimler drew up outside Larkins.”

Living a transient hotel existence Eva begins finally to address Jeremy’s needs – and look around for someone to help him.

The ending is extraordinary – and I won’t say too much about it – except to say it is unforgettable and for me totally unexpected – and took the whole novel up a notch.

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friends and relations

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.

ireland-month-17The 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.

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the little girls 2]

Taking a break from Mary Hocking week to tell you about The Little Girls; my third read for Cathy’s Read Ireland month (I am now reviewing things a little out of the order in which I read them).

Elizabeth Bowen was born in Dublin – making this book eligible I am told – although the novel itself isn’t set in Ireland. I had been nervous of reading this after seeing reviews of it on Goodreads calling it unreadable – lots of one and two star reviews were a little off putting – but I decided to ignore them, so glad that I did (there were more positive reviews too).

The Little Girls is not an easy book – it requires close attention and a little patience. Bowen’s sentences are gloriously complex, there were times when I had to stop and re-read sentences. I love Elizabeth Bowen and so I knew I would be rewarded – and I was. I would say though that for a Bowen novice The Little Girls is not the place to start – but one to save for a later day.

The Little Girls is a novel about the past, ageing and friendship, it is about those things that we bury and how we carry them with us. There is a wonderful atmosphere to this novel – the writing is exquisite, but it is also – at times – funny, not something I associate with Elizabeth Bowen. Moving between childhood before World War One to the mid nineteen sixties, there is a wonderful feeling of the past and present being inextricably linked. There are some deliciously tongue-in-cheek moments and wonderfully sharp dialogue. The narrative meanders at times which is why maybe some people find it hard.

The novel takes place on the South Coast of England; Dinah a widow of around sixty is collecting objects from her friends, for her project to bury in a large time capsule, objects that have meant something to their previous owners. Organising the objects on tables in a cave on the beach below her property, Dinah becomes increasingly interested in the past. Frank, Dinah’s friend and near neighbour has been drafted in to help. On her way back up to the house – where her houseboy Francis will have spent her absence rifling through her waste paper basket – Dinah is reminded suddenly of her childhood.

“Frank, do you know,’ she suddenly cried out – drawing her bare feet up under her, rearing up in her chair at him – ‘I’ve been having the most extraordinary sensation! Yes, and I still am, it’s still going on! Because, to remember something all in a flash, so completely that it’s not “then” but “now”, surely is a sensation, isn’t it? I do know it’s far, far more than a mere memory! One’s right back into it again, right in the middle. It’s happening round one. Not only that but it’s never not been happening. It’s – it’s absorbing.”

In 1914, eleven year old Dinah and her two friends Sheila and Clare had buried a coffer containing one object from each of them. The items the girls interred remained forever secret to each of the others. War interrupted their friendship – and Dinah (Dicey) Sheila (Sheikie) and Clare (Mumbo) lost touch. Now fifty years later – Dinah is determined to track down her old friends and dis-inter the coffer they buried – and discover its secrets. Dinah advertises widely in the press – (much to the embarrassment of her old school friends) – which results in Sheila and Clare meeting first over afternoon tea – before contacting Dinah. Sheila is reserved, very correct and prosperously married, living very close to where the three girls had lived and gone to school in 1914. Clare, single, having struggled with adult relationships, is a successful businesswoman, running a chain of gift shops.

“A big woman wearing a tight black turban, and on the lapel of her dark suit a striking brooch, sat down, with all but no hesitation, opposite a woman already there at the table. The already-seated woman seemed in two minds as to whether to rise or not. She advanced a hand uncertainly, took it back again, slightly opened her mouth but did not speak. Given her almost excessively mondaine air, her look of being slightly too smart for London, her inadequacy was in itself dramatic. Her hat was composed of pink roses.”

The middle section of the novel – takes us back to 1914 – and the time when the coffer was obtained and buried. The three girls are day pupils at St Agatha’s, it’s June 1914 – unknown to the three little girls’ war is just round the corner. During this section the reader is thrown into the middle of a childhood friendship that is beautifully evocative. Running in and out of each other’s homes, where they encounter the indulgences and irritations of the older generation, Dicey, Mumbo and Sheikie plan to leave a collection of special objects for future generations to find. The plan is that none of them shall ever know what the other two have buried, and the box shall remain buried till long after they are dead.

“It was Saturday. Mrs Piggott sat playing Debussy in the drawing room; other parts of the house were disturbed by being made ready for Cousin Roland. Two of the three girls sat, not patiently, on the lower stairs, waiting for Dicey to come down to them. When she did, it was with an armful of squirming kittens. That the kittens were orphans, much to be felt for, did not make them less of a complication; hastily they’d been garnered up by her from the spare-room bed, on which, in ignorance or defiance of peacock counterpane over snowiest blankets and freshest linen, ready for Cousin Roland, they had been sleeping, some of them making messes. Clambering over her friends in a worried way, she went on downwards to the door of the dining-room, which in spite of kittens she managed to fling open. She then pelted the kittens one by one, at the old cook and very odd other maid, who were in there polishing brass and silver. (why in there, why at this hour?).”

The bonds and secrets of childhood are powerful – and when the three women come together again, initial awkwardness’ dispensed with; fifty years seem to melt away. They call one another by their old childhood names, talk about the past, before setting off to dig up the box. The lives of these three women can’t be complete until they have unearthed their pasts and confronted what they mean. Each of them anticipates finding the box with some anxiety. The sequence when the three women in their sixties go groping around in the dark, digging up a coffer they interned fifty years earlier – is hilariously brilliant.

I think this novel would make a wonderful film, three strong female characters, two wonderful time periods, and the beauty of the English South Coast – why has it never been made? (it hasn’t has it?).

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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.

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First published in 1927 The Hotel was Elizabeth Bowen’s first novel, published following two collections of short stories. For a first novel it is very assured, remarkably so, written with great insight and subtlety.

In a hotel on the Italian Riviera, a certain kind of genteel English tourist spends the summer during the 1920’s. Here we meet spinsters Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald, unassuming and a little stuck in their ways, as the novel opens there has been an upsetting quarrel. Mrs and Miss Pinkerton are used to having things just their way, the exclusive use of the bathroom opposite their rooms’ just one of the comforts they have come to rely on. Sydney Warren, an attractive, scornful young woman, at the hotel with (and at the expense of) her cousin Tessa Bellamy, who’s vague ailments keep her largely to her room.

“Miss Pym never went near the tennis courts, but a prospect of walking down there and appearing with Mrs Kerr was delightful (poor Emily, scrambling alone in the hills!) She abandoned a plan she had, still embryonic, of going down to the shops, and wondered whether their two names – her own and Mrs Kerr’s – might not, henceforward, begin to be coupled. She had a quiet little thrill and held open the swing-door with gratitude, almost with reverence. Mrs Kerr with a vague inclination of the head passed out before her. They crossed the gravel together under the hundred windows of The Hotel.”

Popular middle-aged Mrs Kerr is glamorous and quietly manipulative, and Sydney falls under her spell. Mrs Kerr is subject to a great deal of speculation from the other guests, sought out and admired, Sydney can bask a little in the glow of her aura although her fledgling friendship with Mrs Kerr becomes the subject of a little mild spite.

Middle-aged clergyman James Milton is a late arrival at the hotel, and not aware of the unwritten bathroom law – he relaxes from his arduous journey with a soak in the Pinkerton’s bathroom. His transgression is hardly a good start, and at first he is viewed by his fellow guests as a fairly unexciting prospect. The pretty Lawrence sisters are also popular with several of the guests, they are cynical and witty, and quite conventional, Veronica Lawrence is wearily certain about her eventual future being that of an inevitable marriage. Unwittingly Veronica’s attitude to love and marriage has quite an influence on Sydney, leading her to make a surprising decision. The Lawrence girls; trying to throw off their conventionality, with their air of world weary cynicism, but their very conventionality is infectious. Sydney is as influenced by them as she is by Mrs Kerr, and between both of these outside influences she becomes less and less certain of what she wants. James Milton is very much in the market for a wife, and it is probably not so surprising that he should look towards Sydney.

It is when Mrs Kerr’s twenty year old son arrives at the hotel that we begin to see her cool manipulation in action. Ronald and Sydney don’t entirely hit it off at first, but as Sydney seems to be drawing closer to James, it hardly seems to matter.

“ He pushed his way back into the drawing room, now quite vacant and in yellow shade from the awning. He sat down on a sofa, leaning back, crossing his legs, and waited for his mother to appear in the window, as she almost immediately did, and after a moment’s blank stare into the dusk to perceive him and come over royally. She did concede, and generously he could approve the concession, a few words back over her shoulder, perhaps to Miss Warren out there. Then she sat beside him, most beautiful in the half light, her attitude settling into complete repose as silk settles into folds.”

Bowen is a master at observation, and here she has recreated the claustrophobia of a genteel hotel, and the chilly relationships that exist behind its rarefied exterior, brilliantly.
The world of the hotel one of tennis and bridge, cliff side-walks, picnics and dining room conversation, is not an entirely comfortable one. This is a closed, privileged world, set among the olive groves and sunshine of the Riviera, everyone knows just how to behave, yet there is little sense of real enjoyment. Before the summer ends Sydney falls further and more resolutely under the spell of Mrs Kerr, neither she, Roland or James will be left untouched by the intensity that has risen up between them all.

Elizabeth Bowen’s writing is absolutely sublime, I find she needs to be read slowly, there is perhaps little in the way of plot, but really who needs plot? There is in fact a lot going on in the polite conversations, the side long glances, unspoken passions and future hopes. My favourite Bowen novels (I have yet to read them all) so far remain Death of the Heart and The House in Paris, but this is an excellent novel, and would actually make for a great place to start for anyone new to Bowen.

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20141010_175425There’s a small but growing group over on Facebook that I am very glad to be a member of – Undervalued Mid-20th Century British Women Writers – it does what it says on the tin really. Another place where I can celebrate the writers I love and find out about ones I have yet to read. Recently – Nick – who started the group suggested that we hold a group read in November. After some discussion we hit upon Elizabeth Bowen’s The Hotel – Bowen is an author many of us want to read more of, and The Hotel being her first novel it seemed a good place to start. Our read of The Hotel will begin on November 10th – and naturally anyone is welcome to join us. Elizabeth Bowen is probably not really undervalued – however she is exactly the kind of author members of the group love.



From the back cover:

These were the balmy days of the 1920s. The English, liberated from one long war and not yet faced with the next had – at least when well-off- a confident kind of vitality. The Hotel was a comfortable hotel on the Italian Riviera, run for prosperous English visitors. It was a closed world of wealth and a setting for the inexhaustible comedy of casual personal relationships among a variety of ‘nice’ people, all English, all wittily reflected with characteristic vivacity. Elizabeth Bowen’s wit, and her exact eye for social detail has often been compared to that of Jane Austen, and the similarity is perfectly captured in this, Elizabeth Bowen’s first novel.

I am looking forward to discussing the novel with the other group members, and of course I will review the novel here too.


That brings me onto my next reading challenge.









This year I undertook two main reading challenges: The Great War theme read – with members of the Librarything Virago group ( I have run out of steam a bit, but intend to pick it up again next month) and the 12 novel sequence of Dance to the Music of Time. So having just finished book ten of that twelve I already have my sights set on a new challenge for next year. Karen (from Kaggsy’s bookish ramblings) and I have decided to read the entire nine novels that make up The Forsyte Saga Chronicles.

The Forsyte Saga complete nine novels are available in three volumes:

Volume 1

The Man of Property
In Chancery
To Let

Volume 2

The White Monkey
The Silver Spoon
Swan Song

Volume 3

Maid in Waiting
Flowering Wilderness
Over the River

I recklessly ordered the three volumes from ebay – and I am all set For January. I know January sounds like a long way off but time flies – and it will soon be here. If anyone would like to keep Karen and I company we would love you join us.
Oh and while I have your attention – don’t forget Willa Cather reading week December 7th – 14th – phew!

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I had seen mixed reviews of this novel, but was looking forward to reading more by this author, who prose has so far always proved a delight. Overall I really enjoyed it – the writing alone makes it worth savouring.

In 1920 as the Irish troubles sweep the County Cork countryside, at Danielstown, the home of Anglo-Irish aristocrat Sir Richard Naylor and his wife, the round of dances, tennis-parties and visitors continues unabated. Also at Danielstown is Lois, Lady Myra Naylor’s orphaned niece, eighteen years old, self-conscious, having just left school she waits for life to start. Laurence, Sir Richard’s nephew – a not entirely likeable young man is the final member of the household, before the visitors start to arrive. As this early Bowen novel opens the household are brought out to the front steps by the arrival of the Montmorencys.

“In those days, girls wore crisp white skirts and transparent blouses clotted with white flowers; ribbons, threaded through with a view to appearance, appeared over their shoulders. So that Lois stood at the top of the steps looking cool and fresh; she knew how fresh she must look, like other young girls, and clasping her elbows tightly behind her back, tried hard to conceal her embarrassment. The dogs came pattering out from the hall and stood behind her; above, the vast façade of the house stared coldly over its mounting lawns. She wished she could freeze the moment and keep it always. But as the car approached, as it stopped, she stooped down and patted one of the dogs.
As the car drew up the Montmorencys unwound themselves from their rugs. They stood shaking hands and laughing in the yellow theatrical sunshine. They had motored over from Carlow. Two toppling waves of excitement crashed and mingled; for moments everybody was inaudible, Mrs Montmorency looked up at the steps. ‘And this is the niece!’ she exclaimed with delight’ “

Francie and Hugo Montmorency come to Danielstown on an extended visit. Francie had heard of Danielstown all her life, is rather thrilled to be there, Hugo, younger than his wife, was once in love with Lois’s mother Laura. Lois thinks she remembers watching Hugo sleep in an armchair years before. The life of the Montmorencys seems to be one of constant visitation as they go from place to place, their furniture always in storage.

Nearby at the local garrison the English army has been brought over to quell the rising tide of rebellion, among them are Gerald Lesworth and David Alexander. The two young subalterns are popular guests at the dances and tennis-parties, where the burnings, ambushes and local skirmishes are mainly ignored by everyone else. While Livvy; Lois’s friend enters into a secret engagement with David Alexander, Lois is at first a little unsure of her feelings for Gerald. Lois briefly considers her old infatuation for Hugo Montmorency, but dismisses that in favour of Gerald. Gerald is a steady unexciting young man, and one certainly not approved for my Aunt Myra, who is happy enough for Gerald to dance and play tennis with Lois, but she is determined on nothing further, and in trying to keep the young people apart, she reveals herself to be really rather manipulative. Gerald falls in love with Lois, who happily responds, allowing herself to be swept along with the romance of the situation before she really knows what she wants.

“She thought she need not worry about her youth; it wasted itself spontaneously, like sunshine elsewhere or firelight in an empty room.

During the Montmorencys visit – another visitor arrives from England. Marda Norton is ten years older than Lois, a talked about, slightly glamorous woman; her previous broken engagement means that her apparently impending marriage to a wealthy Englishman is spoken off with something of a question mark. Nevertheless Hugo falls in love with Marda, which becomes a slightly ludicrous situation with Marda having to gently repel him. Lois is very taken with the impressive Marda, who has more life about her than the rest of the household.
As the autumn goes on, the Anglo-Irish community have finally to face the realities of the times in which they live, when a particularly violent event takes place nearby, which impacts upon the residents of Danielstown. The very end of the book is a metaphor for the troubled times and the death knell which had already sounded for houses like Danielstown, which is very much based upon Elizabeth Bowen’s family home –Bowen’s Court – which she inherited later in her life.

The Last September was Elizabeth Bowen’s second novel, and in it she explores themes to which she would return; including displacement and the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. Bowen’s writing is glorious, her sense of place one of the things I love most about her writing. I didn’t love this novel quite as much as Death of the Heart or A House in Paris, which are both utterly sublime, it is a very quiet novel and it requires slow thoughtful reading. Bowen’s writing is not always easy – but it is worth the effort.

Elizabeth bowen

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I was lucky enough to win a copy of this through the literary blog hop giveaway in June. I think I may have read it before – but I am not sure – I happened to read a couple of reviews of it on other book blogs and both times the description of the book resonated strongly. The title was also very familiar and I knew I had read The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen before I re-read it in July – so it’s possible I also read this one around the same time – probably twenty years ago now. I was so looking forward to reading The House in Paris – I decided to start reading it just days after it arrived from the USA.
This is the third Elizabeth Bowen novel that I have read so far in 2012, and I think I love her. I loved this novel as much as The Death of the Heart – which I adored.
The House in Paris is almost mesmerizingly beautiful, at once haunting and quietly powerful. Elizabeth Bowen’s sentences are works of art, creating a mood and atmosphere that is actually tangible. This is the kind of book that is written to be read slowly and never at a gallop, it is a master class in understatement.
The first and third section of the book takes place over one strange day in Paris, where two children meet in a house in Paris. The house is that belonging to Mme Fisher, where once young ladies from England and America came to be “finished”, and where she now lives alone with her daughter Naomi. The Children are Henrietta and Leopold, Henrietta, travelling to her grandmother is eleven, and must wait out the day between trains at the home of her grandmother’s friend. Leopold a precocious nine year old is at the house to meet his mother, whom he has never met. Henrietta, travelling with her soft toy monkey Charles, is delighted to be in Paris, longs to see the Trocadero, but only gets to view the city from a taxi.

“They crossed the river while Miss Fisher was speaking. In a sort of slow flash, Henrietta had her first open view of Paris –watery sky, wet light, light water, frigid, dark inky buildings, spans of bridges, trees. This open light gash across Paris faded at each end. It was not exactly raining. Then passing long grinding trams, their taxi darted uphill: the boulevard was wide, in summer there would be shade here.”

In the house while Mme Fisher the ageing matriarch is dying upstairs, the children begin to get to know one another, watched over by an anxious Miss Fisher when she isn’t rushing away to her mother. Within the narrative which takes place in the present, not an awful lot happens, but the atmosphere of the house and its inhabitants is built up beautifully, and remains present throughout. Over the course of that one day, much is due to be revealed, the relationships between Henrietta, Leopold, Mme and Miss Fisher, Leopold’s dead father and absent mother are explored and slowly fully revealed through the larger middle section of the book which takes place ten years earlier.
The story of Leopold’s mother, Karen Michaelis a great friend of Naomi Fisher’s is a familiar one in some ways, and yet as told by Elizabeth Bowen it is entirely new. I don’t want to reveal this story here – as there may be people wanting to read it themselves. Leopold’s parents are seen at a distance of ten years, with the image of a waiting child in an unfriendly house always in the back of the readers mind. Some of Bowen’s most beautiful writing is in the story of the lovers and their brief affair, which results in Leopold’s existence.

“At nine they went out and stood on the canal bridge; the band pavilion was empty, the chairs stacked up. Hearing the sea creep on the far beach, they walked that way, along the Ladies’ Walk. Along this tunnel of trees lights hung quenched under arching branches, rain glittering past, no June moths. On a bench back from the walk another couple of lovers blotted out, faceless, sheltered by the unfrequented night. On the embanked sea-front a house with a tower stood up; next door, in the lodging-house, someone played a piano, but then stopped.”

There is timelessness to this desperately touching story that captures perfectly the loneliness of childhood. Leopold and Henrietta yearn to be loved, they are innocent but with a burgeoning awareness of what is happening around them, nothing is yet fully understood. This is a novel that will live on in my mind for a long time, and also one I can imagine re-reading with as much pleasure as I read it this time.

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This is a novel I know I read a very long time ago. No doubt though, it was when I was too young to appreciate Elizabeth Bowen’s writing. She is something of an acquired taste I suppose; I know some people consider her to be difficult.
Elizabeth Bowen is absolutely brilliant at completely capturing the world that she is writing about. Emotionally cold upper class people in a large, virtually empty London house. Laced with secrets and adolescent awkwardness, the bitterness of teenage betrayal, The Death of the Heart is an exquisitely written novel. When I look back over this novel, I think of fur coats and London fog, tea by the fire, the sudden ringing of telephones and the desolate sound of heels on an empty hall floor.

“On a footbridge between an island and the mainland a man and woman stood talking, leaning on the rail. In the intense cold which made everyone hurry, they had chosen to make this long summerlike pause.  Their oblivious stillness made them look like lovers – actually, their elbows were some inches apart; they were rivited not to each other but to what she said. Their thick coats made their figures sexless and stiff as chessmen; they were well-to-do, inside bulwarks of fur and cloth their bodies generated a steady warmth; they could only see the cold – or, if they felt it they only felt it at their extremities.”

Having recently lost her mother, Portia is just sixteen when she comes to stay with her much older half-brother Thomas and his wife the distant cold Anna. Anna takes a dislike to her; Thomas though is embarrassed by Portia, who was the result of an affair between his father and Portia’s mother. Neither Thomas or Anna have any idea how to deal with Portia, she is in a sense left to her own devices, and develops a much better relationship with the maid than with either of them. Eddie, a younger friend of Anna’s is selfish, shallow and often cruel. He enjoys toying with the innocent Portia, caring nothing for the consequences he allows Portia to fall in love with him, she hangs on his every word, believes in everything he says absolutely. Portia has not learnt the art of reticence – and wears her heart on her sleeve, she is ripe for heartbreak at the hands of the cool and emotionally stunted people that surround her.

“Darling, I don’t want you; I’ve got no place for you; I only want what you give. I don’t want the whole of anyone…. What you want is the whole of me-isn’t it, isn’t it?-and the whole of me isn’t there for anybody. In that full sense you want me I don’t exist.”

Shortly after her arrival, Portia’s brother and sister in law – go abroad – there is no suggestion that Portia will go with them. Instead she is sent to the seaside, to stay with Mrs Heccomb Anna’s former governess. Mrs Heccomb’s step children Daphne and Dickie draw Portia into their social set – and Portia invites Eddie to stay. The weekend that Eddie spends with Portia and the Heccomb’s is an uncomfortable one, and Bowen shows the vulnerable awkwardness of Portia as she struggles to make sense of Eddie’s actions and motivations, brilliantly. Upon her return to London, Portia begins to sense the betrayals of those she loves.
Elizabeth Bowen’s writing is just sublime, her characters that drive the novel are marvellous creations, and their voices ring out in cold clear upper class accents. Each sentence is constructed just perfectly.

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