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?).