Elizabeth Bowen wrote ten novels, of which until recently I had read four. I loved them all - they were The Death of the Heart, which I actually re-read for the 1938 Club, The Heat of the Day , The Last September and, probably my favourite, To the North, which I first read in 2011 and re-read earlier this year. So when I started browsing for Simon and Kaggsy's 1968 Club, I was delighted to find I had a chance to read Bowen's final novel, Eva Trout. I knew next to nothing about it, but had high hopes. I was sure I'd love it - I wanted so much to love it - but I can't wholeheartedly say that I did. What I didn't know when I embarked on it - not that it would have put me off - was that the novel has had a very mixed reception. Greeted with respectful admiration when it first appeared, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it has subsequently been criticised for lack of coherence and uncertainty of tone among other things. To be honest, I was quite relieved to discover this as I kept thinking there was something wrong with me - that I wasn't quite getting it.
We first meet the eponymous Eva Trout as a young woman of twenty-four, not strictly beautiful but tall and imposing. She's living as a paying guest with a Mr and Mrs Arble, Eric and Iseult (who was her teacher during a short period when she actually attended school). But she spends most of her time with the family from the local vicarage, and indeed she first appears taking Mrs Dancey and the children on a jaunt in her Jaguar. Her living arrangements have been made with the approval of her guardian Constantine, though in just a few months this will no longer be necessary, as Eva is a 'big heiress': her deceased father, who was probably Constantine's lover, has left her his millions to inherit on her twenty-fifth birthday. She's looking forward to her independence, but when it comes she scarcely knows what to do with it. Her first move is to rent Cathays, a house in Kent. Her extreme ignorance of the world and its ways - she has spent most of her life trailing around with her father - makes it hard for her to know how to cope with day to day life, but she just about gets by. She's visited there, first by Eric, who seems to have a crush on her, and later by Iseult, who is already full of doubt about Eric and Eva's relationship:
"You have no notion how Eric misses you. For instance—couldn't you possibly come to us for Christmas? Like you once used to do; I think very happily. And even Christmas seems very far ahead, far too ahead for Eric. Why, if you do come then, it will have been seven—no, eight, nine?—months since he's seen you. A long time."
"Nine," said Eva, looking up at the evergreen.
"Then at least, Christmas?"
"Christmas is in December?"
"It is usually.—Why? Is there anything else you think of doing?"
"In December I shall be having a little child."
Iseult, not surprisingly, assumes this is Eric's child, and their marriage ends as a result, though we don't learn this till later. So ends Part One of the novel.
In Part Two, eight years have passed and we find Eva living in America. She has a child, Jeremy, who is 'deaf and dumb', and it's clear that he's adopted, though the circumstances are not spelled out. Soon she returns to England and reacquaints herself with Henry, one of the Dancey children from the vicarage, who is now twenty and at Cambridge University. Despite the difference in their ages, Eva falls in love with Henry, and they spend time together though Henry is unsure of his feelings for Eva. She's devoted to Jeremy, with whom she has a sort of telepathic communication, though she's never explored any possibilities of helping him to communicate with others. She's nervous of the world, feels threatened by other people, constantly moves house and even to different countries to avoid perceived threats. Eventually she settles Jeremy with a French couple who promise to further his means of communication, and she plans a faked elopement with Henry - a plan which goes spectacularly wrong and ends in tragedy.
So what's this novel really about? That's what I was asking myself throughout and I never really decided on the answer. At times it seems like a sort of comedy of manners, but there are so many dark elements that it was hard to sustain this as an interpretation. Failures in parenting and/or education are important -- here's Eva talking about her feelings of being let down by Iseult:
"She desisted from teaching me. She abandoned my mind. She betrayed my hopes, having led them on. She pretended love, to make me show myself to her—then, thinking she saw all, turned away. She--"
"—Wait a minute; what were your hopes?"
"To learn," said Eva. A long-ago tremble shook her. " To be to become—I had never been," she added "I was beginning to be."
He remarked, with enthusiasm, "A gifted teacher."
"Yes. Then she sent me back."
"Sent you away?"
"No; sent me back again—to be nothing."
It seems that Eva is trying to make up for her own lack of good parenting to be a perfect mother to Jeremy, but though they do have an extraordinarily close relationship for most of his life, she makes a decision which he clearly perceives as abandonment and which will have fatal consequences. If he could speak, he might say, as Eva does, 'she betrayed my hopes, having led them on'.
There's so much that's good in this novel. Bowen's prose continues to be beautiful even in its complexity, and a great deal to mull over and think about. But it's hard to warm to Eva (not that this is necessarily a bad thing) or to understand her motivations, as we generally see her from the outside rather than being privy to her thoughts. Perhaps I'd find it more satisfying on a second reading, though not yet. Meanwhile, I'm not at all sorry to have read it - I'm hoping other people will write about it for the Club, and I'd welcome any comments on here telling me how wrong I am.