It was interesting to hear in the comments on my Sunday Salon post that people had mixed feelings about Elizabeth Bowen. Having finished the book, I believe I can kind of see why that might be. She is quite a challenging writer to read in some ways. Her prose style is pretty dense in places -- mostly wonderfully so, I think, and I revelled in some of the descriptive passages:
A shrubbery path was solid with darkness, she pressed down on it. Laurels breathed coldly and close: on her bare arms the tips of leaves were timid and dank, like the tongues of dead animals. Her fear of the shrubberies tugged at its chain, fear behind reason, fear before her birth...
But there were some points where I actually had to stop and read sentences several times before I saw what she was saying. Also, she is dealing with complex emotions and inter-relationships. So this is not the sort of easy read that just washes over you. It really repays reading with attention, though -- I found it immensely interesting and rewarding.
This novel is not autobiographical exactly, but it certainly owes a lot to EB's own youth in Ireland, and the great house in which it takes place is based on the one she grew up in, Bowen's Court. It came out in 1928, and was only her second published novel, though she had brought out two collections of short stories. But it is set in 1920, a crucial time politically, and one which partly gives the novel its title. Primarily it is the story of Lois, who is just twenty. An orphan, she lives with her aunt and uncle, the wealthy Anglo-Irish landowners Sir Richard and Lady Naylor, at their estate Danielstown, somewhere in the south of Ireland. This is the time of the 'Troubles', and the area, like the rest of Ireland, is full of British soldiers, billeted there to deal with the Irish rebels. The Naylors are typical of the Anglo-Irish in their ambivalent attitude to this situation. They rather despise, and certainly don't understand, the English, and have a good deal of sympathy for their poor Catholic neighbours -- but those same neighbours are increasingly antagonistic because from their point of view the Anglo-Irish are identified with the English.
For the young girls -- Lois and her friends -- the presence of the soldiers is obviously a huge bonus. Lois herself has a soldier admirer, Gerald, who has fallen in love with her. But she is rather confused about her own feelings. As the novel begins, she is struggling with the revival of a teenage crush on a family friend, Hugo Montmorency, who has just arrived for a visit with his delicate semi-invalid wife Francie. Hugo proves very uninterested in Lois, however, and soon falls heavily for another visitor, the stylish, cosmopolitan Marda, who Lois also comes to adore and to wish in some ways to emulate. So Gerald's adoration is sometimes rather upsetting -- when he kisses her at a party, she is very unsure how she feels:
So that was being kissed: just an impact, with inside blankness. She was lonely, and saw there was no future.
All this is so well done! It reminded me a bit of Ian McEwan, a very different kind of writer in many ways, but one who, like Bowen, seems to be able to home in, in the most extraordinarily perceptive way, on the fine shades of relationship between two people -- the endless capacity for misunderstanding, the almost impossibility of really knowing what the other person thinks, feels, or means to say. If you take all this, and you add wonderfully funny social commentary and sharp, often painful political events bubbling dangerously under the surface, you have such a rich and entertaining mixture. I have heard Bowen described as an important writer and I now understand why. Here, to finish with, is a bit of a scene at a party:
The evening 'went' with a rush, with a kind of high impetuousness out of everybody's control. Everyone looked and spoke and danced close up with a kind of exalted helplessness; intimacy tightened the very air. Sandwiches were ambrosia, brightening the eyes; rims of plates went electric where fingers touched. Mrs Rolfe laughed all the time, you would have said with despair. She climbed past couples very close up at the darkest part of the passage, she entered the kitchenette with a shriek and swept some cards from the table. The spare men danced with each other. She ran in and out of her bedroom, shaking a plate of chocolates at the couples sitting out on the chest o'drawers and on the washstand covered with Turkish cushions. If the hut had risen and soared up into the air, so that someone stepping out at the door had to step back dizzily, she would hardly have been surprised.