Posts Tagged ‘Bowen, Elizabeth’

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.


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.


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? 😉

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The Little Girls by Elizabeth Bowen ~ 1964. This edition: The Reprint Society, 1966. Hardcover. 256 pages.

The verdict is in regarding me and Elizabeth Bowen.

I do believe she gets the nod.

Though I found The Little Girls rather hard going at times, I came out the other side of this sometimes confusingly complex novel a convert. I can see why she’s such a polarizing writer; people seem to either love her or find her needlessly convoluted.

After this particular reading experience, I have to agree with the convolution-critics, but the end result is a rather compelling thing. Memorable in the longer term, I suspect it will be. And definitely one to re-read, if only to come to it with a questing eye to all of the clues the author provides in relation to its nebulous ending.

Dinah Piggott, a comfortably well-off widow in late middle-age, has embarked upon a project to assemble a collection of objects representing the people of her nowaday, to be sealed up in a cave at the bottom of her garden with a view to eventual discovery by a future race, once this one has vanished. Her friends and family are on the whole cooperative in each donating the requested twelve expressive objects, though Dinah has just come to the realization that her amassing collection contains a discouraging number of duplicates: strings of artificial pearls and pairs of nail scissors (some broken) are conspicuous by their frequency.

No matter, she is firm in her resolve to create her message to the future, though when she is confronted with the logistics of actually sealing the cave up and not being able to mull over the objects, she is taken aback by her own feeling of reluctance to let it all go into the dark, never to be seen (by her) again. Which triggers another train of thought, related to the time capsule concept.

Fifty years ago, Dinah – “Dicey” –  was an 11-year-old schoolgirl at St. Agatha’s, and she and her two closest cronies – accomplices? – had, at Dinah’s instigation, buried (in dead of night) a coffer containing a secret personal object from each of them, a collection of animal bones, and a letter in an invented language written in its creator’s blood.

Now Dinah has had a sudden compulsion to reach back into the past, to find her two friends, to engineer a reunion, and to disinter that long-buried coffer together, as a way to recapture the close companionship of their shared youth.

Dinah posts a series of deliberately provocative newspaper advertisements (…”if alive but in hiding, the two should know they have nothing to fear from Dicey, who continues to guard their secret…”) in five different newspapers which have readership throughout England, hoping for a bite.

And yes, indeed, both old friends respond, though with caution rather than full-out enthusiasm. For fifty years have passed since their shared school days; the Great War and the Hitler War have taken place in the meantime, with subsequent societal reorderings. The headstrong and occasionally wicked “little girls” of 1914 are now sedate older women with certain positions to uphold in their respectable social circles. Whatever they were then has not carried through to the now.

Or has it?

The centrepiece of this multi-layered novel is a flashback sequence to those schooldays, when clumsy, imaginative Diana(Dinah/Dicey), talented and indulged dancer Sheila(Sheikie), and academically gifted Clare(Mumbo), were a triumvirate to be watched with slightly horrified caution by their elders as well as their peers.

Dinah was something of the ringleader in schoolgirl exploits, though the others were hardly follow-blindly types; all contributed something vital to their partnership, and none were afraid to bluntly dismiss anything that approached each girl’s definition of “nonsense”.

This is not a gentle tale, though there are episodes of great tenderness. Dinah, for all of her apparent aggressiveness of character, surprises us by the amount of dedicated love she inspires in those she in turn holds dear, though we don’t find this out until the final episode, after an unwitnessed and undescribed near-tragic mishap befalls one of the key characters.

The novel’s ending is ambiguous, though I chose to interpret it as hopeful. Peace, if not entirely made, is seen as becoming ultimately possible between those of our characters most at odds.

The Litte Girls, for all its challenges to the reader – that sentence structure! – is brilliantly written, frequently humorous, occasionally off-putting, and ultimately deeply poignant. Great gaps are left here and there in the narrative, causing the reader a certain amount of discomfort as one struggles to realign the narrative, but it does all fall into place as episode builds upon episode, and those disparate clues I referred to early on show their importance to the whole.

Ah, yes, and there is a garden, wherein some key scenes take place. It is Dinah’s, and it is one of our clues to her particular character. (This passage also serves as an example of Bowen’s writing style. See if you can get through it all in one go, without backing up here and there to try to find where you’ve strayed outside the lines!)

On each side, the path was overflowed by a crowded border. Mauve, puce and cream-pink stock, double, were the most fragrant and most crushingly heavy: more pungent was the blue-bronze straggling profusion of catmint. Magnificently gladioli staggered this way and that – she was an exuberant, loving, confused and not tidy gardener; staking and tying were not her forte. Roses were on enough into their second blooming to be squandering petals over cushions of pansies. Flowers in woolwork or bright chalk, all shades of almost every colour, zinnias competed with one another. And everywhere along the serpentine walk where anything else grew not, dahlias grew: some dwarf, some giant, some corollas like blazons, some close-fluted, some velvet, some porcelain or satin, some darkening, some burning like flame or biting like acid into the faint dusk now being given off by the evening earth.

Gorgeous, yes?

An auspicious way to start of 2018’s reading year.

The personal rating: 8.5/10




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