I found two Elizabeth Bowen novels in the bargain box at the Oxfam shop this week. Both from the 1950s. If her short stories were to go by, I was in for a treat.
I opened A World of Love as soon as I got home. It begins: ‘The sun rose on a landscape still pale with the heat of the day before.’ Hmm, I thought, does that make sense? It’s a poetic way to describe a heat-wave.
I read on. ‘There was no haze, but a sort of coppery burnish out of the air lit on flowing fields, rocks, the face of the one house and the cliff of limestone overhanging the river.’ I read slowly, not sure if I liked this, still niggling at that first sentence.
There were three long paragraphs of description, and it was in the same mannered style. Wallow with me, Bowen seemed to demand. Love the idea of this place as I do.
‘This light at this hour, so unfamiliar, brought into being a new world – painted, expectant, empty, intense. The month was June, of a summer almost unknown; for this was a country accustomed to late awakenings, to daybreaks humid and overcast.’
A flirtation with the mystical was all very well, but where were the characters? Neither the writing nor the story had hooked me yet and I was on page two.
In her short stories, Bowen’s style was clear and concise. I hunted down The House in Paris, a novel she published more than twenty years before this one, and found the same clear prose. A World of Love, then, was the work of a mature writer, someone with a literary reputation, who knew what she was doing.
I decided to persevere. The main setting, Montefort, was a crumbling manor-house on the edge of a cliff, that may or may not be metaphorical, and was so central to events that it might have been intended as the real focus of the story.
The three principle characters, Jane, the beautiful young daughter of the house, Lilia, her mother, and Antonia, Jane’s aunt, seem to carry equal weight. The power structure that has existed for all of Jane’s life is about to be challenged, by Jane’s discovery of some letters, written before she was born.
Nothing is explained, but gradually, things are said. As one character interacted with another, usually acrimoniously, I became aware of hidden depths. The writing that I found so obstructive forced me to read slowly, and therefore to think, to revise my initial judgements. Could that convoluted syntax be a deliberate ploy? Maybe she intended a resistant reader.
There were lively moments in the dialogue:
Once more Lilia was rallied by that thought. ‘Well, I don’t mind – but that there’s no place I care to have ices in. Also, spoiling our dinners.’
‘Mother, one can’t spoil rhubarb.’
But I continued to get annoyed with the deliberate oddities. Why, ‘Pyramidal the flowers were upon the piano…’? At one point, Peregrine ‘…vacillated over the rugs and parquet till he stood behind her..‘ I think I understand what she’s trying to convey about his manner of walking, but I would rather she hadn’t.
The rediscovered letters were cleverly played. As character after character takes control of them, each reveals a fragment of their history and content, and taking temporary ownership brings unlooked for consequences, too.
As usual, I didn’t take proper note of the epigraph before I began reading. Part of the line Bowen quotes is, ‘There is in us a world of Love to somewhat, though we know not what in the world that should be…’ Wikipedia says that the author, fifteenth century poet-clergyman, Thomas Traherne, meditated on, ‘philosophy, happiness, desire and childhood’. Yes, I see now that what she created was something fleeting and clever. It was a story of quiet actions, but deep resonances.
Bowen writes of one character, getting off a passenger plane:
His glance ran over the thin crowd, as he slowed down past it, not so much expectantly as with a readiness to be expected, an eagerness to smile could he find the cause.
I think that embodies my experience of this novel.
*Photograph from Bill Hammond, ‘Remembering Elizabeth Bowen at Farahy’