Posts Tagged ‘1935 Novel’

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen ~ 1935. This edition: Knopf, 1936. Hardcover. 270 pages.

This novel is stiff with secrets. Everyone is hiding something, and the frequent silences are screaming with unspoken words.

What a tense novel, and what a compelling one, too. Such beautiful writing by Elizabeth Bowen. Though I found I was always being kept an arm’s-length away; the reader is very much the spectator here, privy to all of the secrets, but never sure quite what the next moment will bring.

A commenter on my recent post on Bowen’s The Little Girls mentioned the Henry James-like qualities of The House in Paris. Bang on, that comparison is. And, though I am a dedicated Jamesian at heart, I do find he can be a challenge to really get one’s head around. As is this novel. I had to pay attention, no room at all for straying thoughts.

The novel is set in three acts, as it were. Present-Past-Present. We are thrown into the middle of a certain situation, given a long flashback episode to explain how we got there, and then returned to the situation in time to see it come to its climax and continue on its way.

In brief:

Two British children meet in a small house in Paris. One, 11-year-old Henrietta, is breaking her journey from England to her grandmother’s home in Mentone. She is there for a few hours only, in between train connections. The other child is 9-year-old Leopold. He has travelled from Italy where he lives with his adoptive American family to meet with his real mother – whom he has never known since his birth – at her request.

There is a vast mystery surrounding Leopold and his origins; Henrietta is provided with the barest of explanations as to who he is and what he is there for, but she is warned not to speak of such things to him, or to anyone else.

The rest of the novel is involved with Leopold’s back story, and that of his mother, culminating with a sudden change in Leopold’s circumstances, which may or may not go well for him. Henrietta fades in to the distance, mute witness to what has gone on.

That’s all I am going to say, because otherwise I’d be here all the night! There’s a lot going on in here; Bowen puts her characters through the works.

One could open this book to any page and find a passage worthy of reading over and over and turning about in your mind like a sharply faceted gem, all a-glint with captured light. I will treat you to several which stood out for me, to give you a sense of the quality of the writing here.

It is a wary business, walking about a strange house you know you are to know well. Only cats and dogs with their more expressive bodies enact the tension we share with them at such times. The you inside you gathers up defensively; something is stealing upon you every moment; you will never be quite the same again. These new unsmiling lights, reflections and objects are to become your memories, riveted to you closer than friends or lovers, going with you, even, into the grave: worse, they may become dear and fasten like so many leeches on your heart. By having come, you already begin to store up the pains of going away.

and

She thought, young girls like the excess of any quality. Without knowing, they want to suffer, to suffer they must exaggerate; they like to have loud chords struck upon them. Loving art better than life they need men to be actors; only an actor moves them, with his telling smile, undomestic, out of touch with the everyday which they dread. They love to enjoy love as a system of doubts and shocks. They are right: not seeking husbands yet, they have no reason to see love socially. This natural fleshly protest against good taste is broken down soon enough; their natural love of the cad is outwitted by their mothers. Vulgarity, inborn like original sin, unfolds with the woman nature, unfolds with it quickly and has a flamboyant flowering in the young girl. Wise mothers do not nip it immediately; that makes for trouble later, they watch it out.

and

On the platform before their long journey, to speak of a next meeting would have been out of place… Good-byes breed a sort of distaste for whomever you say good-bye to; this hurts, you feel, this must not happen again. Any other meeting will only lead back to this. If to-day good-bye is not final, some day it will be; doorsteps, docks and platforms make you clairvoyant…

So there we have it.

Elizabeth Bowen.

Each word carefully, deliberately, elegantly placed where it will have the most impact.

I feel the tiniest bit out of my own humble place in boldly assigning a numerical rating to my reading of the book, but here it is: 9/10.

And then there’s this, from the back jacket of my edition. I remember comparing Bowen’s work to that of Rose Macaulay, before I knew of their connection. Called that one right, didn’t I?! I am beyond pleased with myself, as I’d already shelved these two together. Score one for the reader. Now, do I move Henry James, too? ūüėČ

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susan and joanna elizabeth cambridge 1935 001Susan and Joanna by Elizabeth Cambridge ~ 1935. This edition: Jonathan Cape, 1935. Hardcover. 348 pages.

My rating: 8/10 on a re-read.

When I read Susan and Joanna first time round earlier this year I remember feeling a bit put out by the events of the ending (I thought that the author pulled her punches somewhat and drew back from where she could have gone with it), but upon the re-read, already knowing how the climactic final scene actually ends, I was able to approach the story with a slower reading pace and a more balanced view.

I liked it rather better the second time round; Elizabeth Cambridge packs a lot into her novels; perhaps too much to really absorb in that first eager reading, when one is mostly concerned with finding out what will happen next and reads quickly, passing over the finer points without proper appreciation.

I know I have at least one reader who is keen to¬†peruse a detailed account of this novel; I am wondering how much of the plot I should divulge, because chances of people actually finding this book to read themselves are slim. (Coming back to add – it’s a non-issue now – I’ve found an online version! Link down below, at the end of the post.)

This is a very rare novel by this writer. Her stellar Hostages to Fortune which has been reprinted often enough to remain in broad circulation is much better known and much easier to find. Susan and Joanna is not as compelling a read as HTF, but it is very good in its own way; I think it is a great shame that it is so scarce. Such is too often the way with these older writers; one of their books receives the full reprint and promotion treatment (and usually because it is a very worthwhile representative of the author’s output) while the rest of the titles languish in out-of-print oblivion.

Susan and Joanna is a¬†deeply rural book; a good half of it takes place on a farm, the rest in a small village and in the surrounding countryside. Though the two main locations featured – the farm of Node and the village of Bract –¬†are purely fictional, the setting is of a particular region of England, among the Midland Downs. Though Cambridge does not dwell in an undue degree upon descriptions of the scenery, she manages to portray the physical beauty of the landscape with great sympathy and clarity. One feels that this novel is a tribute to an area she knew very well, and loved very deeply.

Motherless Susan has been raised in the proper fashion – that is, off to boarding school from an early age – by her introvert father, a lawyer who gets through life by arranging things to function¬†with the least possible disturbance to himself. Now Susan is twenty and at last back at home “for good”, but neither she nor her father have yet found their rhythm. They walk delicately around each other, being careful not to raise any subjects which might lead to an excess of emotion or potential household turmoil.

Susan has never been trained for – or indeed shown any inclination for¬†–¬†¬†an actual job or¬†“career.” She is poised for the next step in her life, but hesitates¬†on the brink. Marriage is an obvious and socially acceptable choice, and Susan has indeed considered marriage to the most suitable local candidate, Garry, nephew of the owner of the large farm Node, Miss Laura Coppen, the village’s aristocratic grande dame.¬†Susan has been friendly with Garry since childhood and¬†their relationship is now ripening into something deeper. Each meeting of the two is imbued with speculation, by¬†Susan and Garry themselves,¬†and by the deeply interested onlookers of this rural microcosm they all reside in.

But there is something which holds her back. Garry is just too easy-going and avoiding-of-trouble; he tends to slip through life allowing others to make his decisions for him. Even his growing¬†conviction that Susan would make a suitable mistress at Node owes something to his grandmother’s approval of Susan’s impeccable manners, good breeding, and undoubted personal charm. Susan senses that Garry’s admiration and easygoing courtship of her is more superficial than deep; Garry doesn’t give it all that much thought himself, until forced to by Susan’s ultimate rejection of his advances.

Bruised by Susan’s unexpected refusal, Garry turns to the third member of their childhood-friends triumvirate, vicarage daughter Joanna. Joanna is emphatically Susan’s opposite in every¬†essential way. Apple of her mother’s eye, Joanna has been encouraged to strive after success from babyhood, and her already self-assured nature combined with hard-won scholastic success makes her thoroughly impatient with wishy-washy Susan. “Naturally bossy” well describes Joanna, and¬†Susan puts up with her patronization with good grace, though she is well aware of how much contempt her erstwhile friend actually holds her in.

Upon Garry’s proposal,¬†something of¬†a rebound impulse triggered by hurt pride, Joanna sets aside her career ambitions and agrees to take on Garry and Node instead, a move inspired not just by affection for Garry, but a sense of one-upmanship towards Susan. Joanna can’t help but feel that she has scored a major point in an unspoken rivalry that has persisted since the two were young.

Susan meanwhile meets and is¬†courted by a rising young pathologist; she marries him and has a child. Upon her husband’s departure on a temporary posting in Canada, Susan moves back to Bract with her baby, and she and Joanna start to rebuild the structure of their never very strong but now sadly deteriorated friendship into something much more mature and mutually rewarding.

Joanna’s marriage to Garry and her new position in the rural hierarchy has led to a certain amount of emotional turmoil and occasional strife as the general local consensus is that the vicarage daughter has gotten rather above herself, putting herself in the shoes of the now-dead Miss Laura. Meanwhile Susan is viewed with benevolent patronage. No one has seen her husband; the unspoken assumption among the majority of the villagers¬†is that she has been abandoned by this mythical man, and has sought unwed-mother refuge in her childhood home.

We follow Susan and Joanna through the first years of their very different marriages fraught with very different challenges. The two women’s lives have diverged greatly but are now running parallel, with life-altering consequences to both of them, and those in their closest circles.

What a richly written novel this rather somber story makes. Elizabeth Cambridge sketches her characters at first with the utmost artistic economy, adding layers of detail as the story progresses, until we fully understand what makes each person tick.

Cambridge’s depiction of the rural atmosphere is also utterly believable, and¬†her observations regarding the animals so pervasive and important in such a setting equal her insights into the minds and motivations of the human inhabitants.

A criticism I read on a recent Persephone forum regarding Elizabeth Cambridge’s style was that nothing much happens in her books; they are merely a series of personal observations and¬†not very dramatic¬†domestic events. Quite true, when one steps back and looks at the format of the novels with an analytical eye. But the events are such that we can completely relate to them from our own mostly not very dramatic lives.

Personal relationships, love affairs, marriage, the birth of children, death, social structures and constantly changing and evolving outside events affecting private lives; these are all viable topics for discussion, and their fictional treatment when well handled – as they are in the case of this writer – can lead one into greater insights of one’s own emotional life and personal responses to the shared everyday human events which never truly change, no matter what the calendar year reads.

What a good writer she was; what a dreadful shame it is that five of her six novels are so very rare.

But look at what I have found!

Here is a scanned complete version of  Susan and Joanna, from Hathi Trust. It may be read online, or downloaded as page by page pdf files, if one is so inclined to do so. (And has hours of time to dedicate to the project!)

Reading¬†from a screen¬†is never quite as conducive to true enjoyment as sitting back with the actual book in one’s hands, but it is certainly better than no access to the material at all; I hope that this link brings pleasure to those others of you who are on a quest for more of Elizabeth Cambridge’s fine yet almost forgotten novels of the 1930s.

First three pages below, by way of being a teaser if you are considering whether you’d like to bother following up on this one.

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