Monday, January 7, 2008

Elizabeth Bowen

It's been a long time since I've read any Elizabeth Bowen, but it may be time to revisit the old favorites. I've just read, and partly reread, her Friends and Relations, published in 1931 by the Dial Press. Apparently it's not in print, but I have a $2.75 Avon paperback (1980), a used bookstore find. It was a good break from McEwan and is an absorbing and subtle story of two sisters in England, and their marriages and lives in upper middle class England between the wars. Bowen is great at creating a setting that's very alive and real, with emotional overtones. Although the book is not at all a tragedy -- the sisters manage very well in their respective marriages, despite the fact that the real lovers do not marry each other -- the opening scene is ominously portentous of ruin.
We start on the morning of a wedding, with rain, which is to clear off in time: "The morning of the Tilney-Studdart wedding rain fell steadily from before daylight, veiling trees and garden and darkening the canvas of the marquee that should have caught the earliest sun in happy augury." But despite the gloomy weather, the bride is unconcerned, and the reader is assured as she proceeds through her morning. But -- by the third paragraph the rain has stopped, and all should be well, except that the author seems to hint at darker tones than should prevail. "The rain stopped before lunch. Later, during the ceremony, the sun came out, parting the clouds widely; so that Laurel's married way down the aisle was gold from successive windows." So far, so good. But then the next sentence hits: "When she uncertainly smiled in the porch, against strong blasts from the organ rolling out from behind, the umbrellas were finally down; the graves glittered." What is this mention of glittering graves doing in an evocation of a wedding? What are we to expect?
The novel is in three parts: the first treats of the two weddings and introduces us to the families involved. The second comes ten or so years later, when both sisters have children. and the last centers on one day some time later. Secrets are revealed and lived with, one child has made an interesting partnership with another girl, and deep waves of feeling simmer under the surface. But middle class propriety and domesticity hold all together, and the novel ends on a note of peacefulness, but not without its undertones.


Susanne Dunlap said...

I LOVE Elizabeth Bowen! I discovered her when I lived in London, England, years ago. I think I learned a lot about psychological novels from her, and the delicate drama she creates. Wonderful, wonderful. The House in Paris, for instance. She's not that well known in the U.S. Thank you for this.

JLH said...

I hope, Suzanne, that you also read the wonderful novels of Penelope Lively and Jane Gardam. Interesting, I discovered both of those writers through a children's literature seminar in which our readings were from the Carnegie medal list Lively's "The House in Norham Gardens," Gardam's :The Hollow Land," and also Nina Bawden's "Carrie's War" were highlights of the semester's reading. I especially recommend a novel I mentioned earlier -- Gardam's "Queen of the Tambourine." Well, it's nice to find a comment on this defunct blog, and to write as reply, though it likely won't be read by anyone but me!