Elizabeth Bowen is widely considered to be one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century, but she only came to my attention about a year ago when one of my favourite bloggers, Book Snob, AKA Rachel, wrote a review of her novel The House In Paris. Rachel has reviewed several of Bowen’s novels and her obvious love for and insight into them made me want to find out more.
A while ago I was in Waterstones Piccadilly, and they thankfully had quite a few of Bowen’s novels to choose from; I settled on A World of Love, bought it, but then it sat on my shelf for months as review copies came flowing my way and I did not have enough time for purely recreational reading. Anyway, I eventually picked it up again a few weeks ago, started reading, and kept on reading.
The sun rose of a landscape still pale with the heat of the day before. 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 … The month was June, of a summer almost unknown; for this was a country accustomed to late wakenings, to daybreaks humid and overcast.
A World of Love envelops you in this world of sky and cloud and house within the first paragraph. There is atmosphere to this book, spades of it, so that you are completely lost in its pages and lost to the people within them. It is a book driven by characters rather than plot, and brought to mind, all at once, Virginia Woolf, Nancy Mitford (particularly The Pursuit of Love), and Henry Green’s novel Loving. I studied the latter at university for a course on modernism and time, and to be honest I don’t remember many details, except for the impressionistic style with illogical, realistic speech patterns, and dreamlike descriptions of the most ordinary things (the way a character crosses a room, for instance). Woolf is also a master of making the ordinary seem extraordinary – I was blown away when I read To The Lighthouse (also at university) as previous to that I had always found her completely inaccessible; but something about the capricious, fluid way in which she described the everyday really caught me. For example, the scene, repeated several times from different angles, of Mr Ramsey walking rather hurriedly past Lily Briscoe’s easel in the garden. It is an ordinary thing, made magnificent.
Bowen also makes the ordinary seem magnificent, but in a more straightforward way than Woolf. Here she is more like Mitford in her knack for sarcasm and black humour, with a few words implying so much.
‘What is it?’
‘What o’clock, do you mean?’
‘No. What do you want?’
‘I wondered if Jane was in here.’
‘No. So I’ve no idea where she’s gone. However, it was only that Fred keeps asking. – Did you know your pillow was shedding, one of your pillows? I wonder which.’
‘Then do take the whole bang lot away! – No, not now! (for the other approached the bed) ‘later on, Lilia, for heaven’s sake!’
Lilia continued, however, to search the lair with her large blue heavily-vacant eyes. ‘And how are you this morning?’
‘Oh, fresh as a daisy, thank you – as you can see.’
This exchange is the first time we meet Lilia (mother of Jane and young Maud, wife of Fred) and Antonia, the owner of the house, and it tells a lot about the nature of their relationship. The two women have known each other twenty years, and are bound by Antonia’s dead cousin Guy, killed in the First World War. He was engaged to Lilia when he died, and left his house to Antonia, and Antonia took in the poor lost young girl and married her off to Fred, who looks after the house and the farm. Now, they all live in a sort of uneasy harmony, never sure who has what status or who is in charge.
Jane is arguably our central character – she is awakened to ‘a world of love’ when she discovers a packet of love letters in the attic. She moons about the place reading them and it soon comes to light that they were written by the deceased Guy – but who to? While the past is delicately explored and questioned around her, Jane is all about the future. Her younger sister Maud acts as some sort of spiritual guide for the household, reading psalms aloud in the garden and being obsessed with the time. She is also always accompanied by her ‘familiar’, Gay David. This creature is obviously influenced by Guy (Guy/Gay), whose ‘ghost’ or ‘presence’ is seen and felt at several points in the novel. Maud is a funny little creature I wasn’t sure what to make of, but her purpose seems to be to remind all the other characters that there is a world outside their own heads, something they all forget quite often.
For me this was quite a philosophical novel, pondering the importance of who one loves and who one is married to, and the influence of time on our lives. Towards the end, Antonia says,
‘But for the future … we’d have nothing left.’
For this thrown-together cast of characters, that very much seems to be true.
Originally published by Jonathan Cape in 1955. Reprinted by Vintage in 1999.