I only discovered Elizabeth Bowen about six months ago -- this is the third one of her novels that I've read, and I'm still amazed by the extraordinary skill of her writing. The first two were The Heat of the Day and To the North, and I think I liked both of them a little more than this one, but only a little. And that might just be because I found the subject matter quite upsetting.
Set in London in the late 1930s, this is the story of sixteen-year-old Portia Quayne. The product of a love affair between apparently respectable, middle-aged Mr Quayne and his unsuitable mistress Irene, Portia has been brought up on the continent in seedy flats and hotels, and now, after the deaths of both her parents, has been sent to live with her much older half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna. The visit has not been a success. Thomas is distant and embarassed by this constant reminder of his father's disgrace, and Anna -- cold, wealthy and bored -- actively dislikes the girl and has no idea what to do with her. The Quaynes live in a Regency house overlooking Regent's Park, where Anna idles her days away with superficial society friends, looked after by the loyal, taciturn housekeeper Matchett. Portia goes to lessons and wonders what to do with herself the rest of the time -- until, that is, she meets Eddie.
Eddie, still in his early twenties, is one of Anna's friends, though their relationship is quite equivocal. They are not lovers, and it's not even clear whether they actually like each other, but they are certainly close and given to sharing gossip and confidences. Eddie is in fact a deeply confused young man -- he has never made anything of his life, preferring to trade on his attractiveness and intelligence, though it's clear that these will not see him through for much longer. When he meets Portia he is genuinely attracted to her extreme youth and innocence, and needless to say she falls desperately in love with him. But Eddie is unreliable, to say the least, and when he visits Portia at the seaside, where she has been sent to stay with Anna's old governess and her two rather rackety step-children, things start to go badly wrong.
There is so much to admire -- even gasp over -- about this novel. As always in Bowen's writing there's a wonderful sense of place and time, whether it's Regent's Park slowly progressing from deep winter to spring or the rather run-down south coast of England in early summer. As for the characters, they are truly superb -- Bowen's observation of people's behaviour and their inner lives is astonishingly profound and true. Apart from Anna -- far from likeable, but just about understandable -- and Eddie, who must be one of the most complex and fascinating characters ever to hit the pages of a novel, the more minor characters are brilliantly done. There's poor Major Brutt, a friend of Anna's ex-lover Pidgeon, despised by Anna and Thomas who laugh at him behind his back, but one of the only people in this appallingly superficial world who genuinely likes Portia and sends her jigsaw puzzles to cheer her up. There's Mrs Heccomb, the ex-governess, pottering around her seaside boarding house and painting lampshades for pocket money, and her two loud, careless step-children David and Daphne, whose influence on Portia and her life is pretty disastrous. And then there's Matchett, the only person in the house who has a real relationship with Portia -- the two of them have tea together behind Anna's back and long conversations at bedtime, though Matchett gets cross and jealous when she discovers Portia's attachment to Eddie. And of course there's Portia herself, who surely will remind everyone of what they were like at sixteen. The extreme pain of her disillusionment with Eddie is really what made this novel so uncomfortable for me -- it must have hit a nerve somewhere.
I wish I could tell you that this novel has a happy ending, but you wouldn't really expect that from Elizabeth Bowen. In fact it doesn't have a tragic ending either, just a very open one. There's pain along the way but there's also wit -- some of the scenes at Mrs Heccombe's are really funny. And then there's Bowen's wonderful prose, and I can't resist leaving you with a sample of it, especially as it's so appropriate for the time of year:
Early in March the crocuses crept alight, then blazed yellow and purple in the park. In fact it is about five o'clock in the evening that the first hour of spring strikes - autumn arrives in the early morning, but spring at the close of a winter day. The air, about to darken, quickens and is run through with mysterious white light; the curtain of darkness is suspended, as though for some unprecedented event. There is perhaps no sunset, the trees are not yet budding - but the senses receive an intimation, an intimation so fine, yet striking in so directly, that this appears a movement in one's own spirit. This exalts whatever feeling is in the heart.
No moment in human experience approaches in its intensity this experience of the solitary earth's. The later phases of spring, when her foot is in at the door, are met with a conventional gaiety. But her first unavowed presence is disconcerting; silences fall in company - the wish to be either alone or with a lover is avowed by some look or spontaneous movement - the window being thrown open, the glance away up the street. In cities the traffic lightens and quickens; even buildings take such a feeling of depth that the streets might be rides cut through a wood. What is happening is only acknowledged between strangers, by looks, or between lovers. Unwritten poetry twists the hearts of people in their thirties.
There's more, of course -- but why not read it yourself?