This week Elizabeth Bowen took me to the Italian Riviera. It was 1927. There, I watched a group of seasoned travellers fritter their lives away in aimless drifting.
The start of the story had promise.
Miss Fitzgerald hurried out of the Hotel into the road. Here she stood still, looking purposelessly up and down in the blinding sunshine and picking at the fingers of her gloves. She was frightened by an interior quietness and by the thought that she had for once in her life stopped thinking and might never begin again.
I was prepared to like Miss Fitzgerald. All kinds of situations were possible. I rarely read the blurb on the back cover. It’s usually either wrong, or gives away key moments. So I had no expectations.
Inside the hotel, Miss Pym responds to the same situation.
She, after a short blank pause of astonishment up in her room, had begun to creep down the stairs warily. She listened; she clung to the banisters – tense for retreat at every turn of the staircase.
Something momentous has happened. Miss Fitzgerald has made a ‘violent exit’ from Miss Pym. She has said something terrible, ‘discharged with such bitterness of finality‘. The phrasing hints at secrets shared in trust, and weaponized in moments of crisis.
What I admire about Bowen is her economy. She moves the story forwards and backwards at the same time.
‘At this crisis of ungovernable agitation Emily (how well they knew each other!) would have taken to the hills. Miss Pym could see plainly her figure stumbling up in the glare towards the shade of the olive-trees, breast to breast with the increasing slope. She must be given a little longer to get away.
If only we could have stayed with these two women. By the second page, though, Mrs Kerr enters. She ‘stood beautifully, balanced either for advance or immobility‘. Who is she? What is she? It’s hard to say.
Though she is a focus of the attention of most characters, we’re not allowed access to her thoughts. Occasionally she tells someone about her emotions, but I’m not sure I always believe her.
Her profile did not commit her: it expressed an ironic indulgence to fashion in the line of a hat-brim, the soft undulation of hair, an earring’s pendulous twinkle, the melting suave lines of a scarf round the throat. Mrs Kerr took fashion in and subdued it and remained herself.
That’s as close as we get. I read on because I trust Bowen. She’d presented me with a group of repressed Brits sharing bathrooms, dining rooms and tennis in a sultry foreign landscape, surely something must break.
There were moments when I was interested. Passion is suggested and characters behave badly. There was comedy and some farce. But the truth is, I didn’t care. I tried to, but I began to feel that really, Bowen didn’t want that.
The guests at the Italian Villa mostly kept mannered distances from me, as well as each other, even in moments of tension. In our previous meetings, Elizabeth Bowen’s been a wonderful hostess. She’s introduced fascinating people, who’ve shared their joys and heartbreaks, and I’ve been sorry to reach the last pages of their stories.
I began to question whether this disconnect was a problem with me. Was I meant to be so conscious that these characters have too much money and luxury? A lot of literature produced up to this point in the twentieth century focused on the rich and privileged, and I don’t usually complain about it.
There was one exchange that offered an alternative explanation. On a rainy afternoon, as Joan, one of three pretty sisters, is writing a letter, Colonel Duperrier, who is a little younger than her father, starts a conversation about one of the few eligible young men in the hotel.
‘Can’t young Ammering get a job?’
‘No he can’t,’ Joan said defensively. ‘It worries him awfully. The War’s come very hard indeed on our generation. I don’t think people understand a bit.’
‘Perhaps they don’t,’ said Colonel Duperrier, who had also fought.
‘We have to make allowances for ourselves,’ continued Joan. ‘You see, nobody makes them for us. I know young people are always supposed to be fearfully idealistic and that sort of thing, but I suppose we can’t help feeling that, considering how hard things are on us, we aren’t really so bad.’
Perhaps, then, the novel intended me to feel uncomfortable. In this 1927 view life has not changed for the better, for the privileged at any rate. There is an emptiness at the heart of their comfortable lives. Behaviour, sex, class, marriage, careers and education all come under the spotlight.
I stuck it out to the end of the novel, and I’m glad to have read it. But it’s not one I’ll be keeping.