The other day I was off on a journey and, as usual, obsessively travelling light. I'd forgotten to sort out a book to take with me so I quickly browsed the bookshelf and spotted this one - actually in an orange penguin cover - and decided that, as well as being a slender volume, it was ripe for a re-read. I know Bowen is not to everyone's taste and certainly she's not the novelist to pick up if you want a quick and easy read, but my goodness does she repay a bit of time and focus. I've read a few of her novels, though not all (must read some more), but I do believe this one may be her masterpiece. I reviewed it back in 2011 and this is an edited version of what I said then
To the North, first published in 1932, is the story of two young women, Cecilia and Emmeline, who share a house in St John's Wood, a pleasant and well-heeled London suburb. They are related by marriage, Emmeline being the sister of Cecilia's husband Henry, who died suddenly after only a year of marriage. Though fond of each other, they live largely separate lives and differ greatly in their personalities. Emmeline is young, gentle, innocent and rather cool, while Cecilia, often critical and discontented, is warmer and more open, though she's essentially rather shallow.
As the novel begins, Cecilia is on her way back from Italy by train. Bored and rather depressed, she falls into conversation with Markie Linkwater, a moody, sensual young barrister who Cecilia sees is attractive, though not to her. But, 'each determined to please though closing the heart against pleasure', they agree to meet in London. Waiting for Cecilia in London is agreeable, sympathetic Julian Towers, who thinks he may be in love with her:
Aware of her pretty figure in black on the sofa beside him, her head turned his way, her expressive hands -- that, unlike other hands, seemed to exist to touch, to communicate their vitality -- he relaxed under the enchantment of her delectable strangeness, this foreigness to himself that passed for her mystery. To be with her, to nearly love her was to lend oneself wholly to an illusion, to hang in a drop of light in the lustres along her mantlepiece, to be reflected for less than a moment, like a bird's shadow flashing across a mirror, in her dazzling ignorance of oneself.
Cecilia is worried about introducing Markie to Emmeline as she is certain she will dislike him. But in fact they have already met and almost immediately Emmeline has become deeply attracted, which leaves her at once pleased and confused:
The impact of Markie upon her was disproportionate with her life. No one had troubled her, something in her had forbidden anything but indirectness and delicacy. A splinter of ice in the heart is bombed out rather than thawed out.
Soon, though, they are involved in a passionate relationship and spend a weekend in Paris during which Emmeline gives herself willingly to Markie -- a fact which, given his preference for women who are coy and resistent, he finds rather troublesome. None of this, however, is known to Cecilia, who is wrestling with her own feelings -- her inability to commit to loving Julian which, though she is hardly aware of it, is the result of the sudden loss of her husband after only a year of happy marriage -- as 'when a great house is 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'.
I could go on, endlessly quoting Bowen's wonderful, poetic writing, but I'll spare you and hope you'll read this for yourself. I will tell you that things end badly for Emmeline though, hopefully, more happily for Cecilia. But however much I were to tell you about the plot, this would not begin to give you any idea of what is so stunning about Bowen's writing -- which is, I would say, her ability to see so deeply into the human psyche. Many writers we enjoy can write convincingly about love and its pains and pleasures, but there are levels and levels of fine feeling which only the most brilliant and perceptive of writers can plumb for us, and Bowen is definitely one of them.
As for the title -- you won't know what it refers to until nearly the end of the novel. But in a sense the whole thing is permeated by travel, beginning with Cecilia's uncomfortable train journey, on which 'the heart hangs dull in the shaken body, nerves ache, sense quicken, the brain like a horrified cat leaps clawing from object to object, the earth whisked by at such speed looks ephemeral, trashy', through Emmeline and Markie's flight to Paris and their final car journey, and punctuated by trips to the Cotswolds and to Kent.
So - though I was sure I'd enjoy this re-read, I was unprepared for it to have such a powerful effect on me. Although I knew what was going to happen, I was still completely swept away by the beauty of the writing and the subtlety of the perception, and was terribly moved by the final part of the novel - the last chapter is agonising and tragic, even if you know the eventual outcome - perhaps even more so. But there is comedy and satire in the novel too, and some wonderful characters - Julian's teenage niece, awkward and lonely, is beautifully observed and Lady Waters, Cecilia's older cousin, is a magnificent study in total blindness to what is really going on around her. But this is really Emmeline's novel, and I defy you not to love her and to want the best for her.