Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Nasty old ladies and eccentric young girls

Reading Elizabeth Bowen

I had a Rip Van Winkle moment last week. Influenza (or something remarkably like it) having kept me at home for a month, I was on my way to Brisbane. Stopping in the town of Murwillumbah (where I grew up) I got out to take money from an ATM. It was a new-fangled model I'd not seen before. After trying to put my card into the receipt slot, I took out my glasses to look at the machine properly, studying it closely, looking at every part, averting my eyes all the time from a horrible transparent green perspex bubble, which flashed, continuously. This, of course, turned out to be the slot for the card. At a newsagent upstairs, where I went to buy a paper, a woman was buying instant lottery tickets, all with peculiar names. 'I'll have three Shazams and two Pookie Ookies." Or something like that.

Then, at a service station, while observing a very resigned-looking woman fill her car (it was an ugly place, on the highway, with no pleasing thing in sight), it struck me that the rest of the world wasn't working their way through the works of Elizabeth Bowen. (Though there are some women, as I write this, doing exactly that, you may be sure, Mildred.)

When you spend a lot of time with an author over a short time you begin to see patterns in their work. A comment in one book becomes a major thread in another. When I mentioned this to Underground Man, who is going through a bit of an Elizabeth Bowen blitz as well, he said at once, 'Nasty old ladies and young girls.'

Well, yes.

Her young girls, and by this I mean teenagers, are particularly appealing. And though Bowen's books are set roughly from the 1920s to the 1960s, the period she wrote in, they are very like girls you meet today.  Portia, in The Death of the Heart (1938), is heartbreaking in her belief in the importance of real feeling against the cynicism, neglect and betrayal of her elders. Her friend, Lilian, is a hoot (and let's not forget the importance of humour in Bowen's work - I laugh, often).  When Portia asks Lilian what she is doing tomorrow, Lilian replies:

'Confidentially, Portia, I don't know what may happen.'

(And then there is the dear, lolloping, spotty, eager-to-please Pauline in To The North - and her friend Daphne. And the dreadful Theodora in Friends and Relations: 'She was spectacled, large-boned and awkwardly anxious to make an impression.' Theodora forces herself on people and is forbidding and opinionated. She will make a dreadful old lady.)

Portia, Bowen's most intricate and sympathetic portrait of a young girl, doesn't understand the world at all.

Lilian had all those mysterious tomorrows: yesterdays made her sigh, but were never accounted for. She belonged to a junior branch of emotional society, in which there is always a crisis due. Preoccupation with life was not, clearly, peculiar to Lilian: Portia could see it going on everywhere. She had watched life, since she came to London, with a kind of despair - motivated and busy always, always progressing: even people pausing on bridges seemed to pause with a purpose; no bird seemed to pursue a quite aimless flight. The spring of the works seemed unfound only by her: she could not doubt people knew what they were doing - everywhere she met alert cognisant eyes. She could not believe there was not a plan for the whole set-up in every head but her own.

Eva Trout, (in Eva Trout (1969) -  one of those books with the heroine's name as the title - Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina - they all meet sticky ends, as does poor Eva) is one of the most appealing characters I've ever met. She is large, handsome and about to become very rich, at 24, when the book starts. Eva is like a large child and remains so throughout. But a very likeable one, strange and vulnerable.

 Like Portia, she is betrayed by those who are charged with looking after her. Like Portia, she is an orphan who doesn't understand how the world works. Her mother died while running away from the family when Portia was small. Her father, an industrialist, whom we gather had an affair with the man later made her guardian, was always absent anyway. So who was she to learn from? No one has ever loved Eva properly (though some people are obsessed with her and think they do) until a child, who was 12 when she was 24, grows up. One longs for Eva to be happy...  But you know what they say about the gun on the mantlepiece in chapter one (though in this book it appears much later). Eva dies in the last sentence. It is all very fitting. I think this might be my favourite Bowen - it is a very strange book. Few people seem to write strange books anymore, and we are all the poorer.

Emmeline, in ToThe North (1932) is also on the verge of an unavoidable, accidental death right in the last sentence. This pattern made me fear for the fate of Jane in A World of Love (1955), who in the last chapter is a passenger in a car going to an airport. The trip is described in such detail that I become sure that Bowen is about to kill her. But she arrives at the airport, and the passenger she is meeting, unknown to her, alights.

But she doesn't die. In the last sentence, she only falls in love at first sight.

Bowen is one of the major novelists of last century. Heir to both Virginia Woolf (whom she knew), and  Jane Austen (to whom she has been compared), the density of her books makes almost every other writer seem superficial. And you need to concentrate.

I liken it to driving along a winding cliff road at the dead of night, rain pouring down, windscreen wipers thrashing. White-knuckled, you keep your eyes on the road. Miss something - a phrase, a nuance - and you're lost.

Re-reading is essential.

And if that makes it all seem a bit difficult, there is also (and here I adopt a Nigella Lawson persona, glancing flirtatiously at the camera before she devours a slice of deep-fried chocolate cheesecake) deep, deep, pleasure.

P.S.  Nasty old ladies? Mostly they are middle-aged and manipulative. But one ( the dying Mme Fisher in The House in Paris is almost pure evil).

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