Tag Archives: The Last September

Must Writers live in Beautiful Places?

The association of writers and beautiful places seem boundless: Jane Austen in Bath, the Brontes in Howarth in Yorkshire, Wordsworth in the Lake District, Elizabeth Bowen in Bowen’s Court in Ireland and Elizabeth Taylor lived beside the Thames near Reading. One of the pleasures of moving to Devon is the wealth of lovely places to visit. On a recent trip to Greenway in South Devon I mused on the connection between writers and their homes.

Greenway

Greenway May 2017

On the heights near the mouth of the River Dart is the house that Agatha Christie built for her summer holidays, referring it to the most beautiful place in the world. Now a National Trust property, Greenway is an impressive place to visit. And the house is more or less as it was in the 1950s.

Hall in Greenway, May 2017

What this offers the writer

For the writer’s leisure the following delights are on offer

  • Tennis counts
  • Croquet lawn
  • Boating on the river
  • Garden walks
  • Local archaeology
  • Piano playing
  • Board games

The Greenway house is full of boxes, collections of decorative boxes of all sizes from snuff boxes in display cases to other boxes in all styles. This seems fitting for a writer of mysteries. Without the boxes Greenway would seem quite empty.

And for inspiration?

The house itself would have been a pleasure to write in; the library, the sitting rooms, the tables and chairs set up around the house, the gardens in fine weather, all these would be a delight.

Then there’s the view, the gardens and the sea less than 2 miles away.

Agatha Christie used the house in 1956 as the setting for one of her Poirot mysteries: Dead Man’s Folly, in which a local girl is found murdered in the boat house on the eve of the village fete.

Being a best-selling writer Agatha Christie enjoyed considerable wealth, which meant she could afford this level of luxury.

Other houses

Jane Austen’s Writing Table, Chawton

Few writers receive the rewards from their writing at the level of Agatha Christie. For example, Jane Austen lived off her brother’s charity in Chawton, Hampshire. It is pleasant, but not on a grand scale.

Elizabeth Bowen held her house in such regard that she wrote a history of Bowen’s Court in 1942. It featured in her early novel The Last September, which I reviewed.

Home of Emily Dickinson, Amherst, Mass in 2007

No writer was more closely associated with her home than Emily Dickinson, largely because she rarely stepped out of it. Now a museum, I visited the house in Amherst, Mass and was charmed.

For a collection of photographs of writers’ houses see this Guardian feature: Temples of Literature by Nick Channing.

I’m a bit of a romantic and like to imagine writers in garrets and humble rooms, suffering for their creative talents, penning their works of art, making beauty in difficult circumstances. But I can see that inspiration and creativity are fed by living in beautiful places, or just from the writer’s imagination.

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Top posts about women’s novels on Bookword

Here are the top 6 posts featuring novels by women from my blog in the last year. I notice that half of them refer to an Elizabeth. Half were written before the Second World War. The exceptions are Elizabeth is Missing, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and The Stone Angel. These three are also from the older women in fiction series:

  1. The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen
  2. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
  3. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence
  4. Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
  5. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
  6. The Land of Green Ginger by Winifred Holtby

Enjoy reading the posts again, or for the first time. Links are included.

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

Last September

Do you keep a cache of chocolates after Christmas, so that you can savour again the pleasures of treating yourself? The novels of Elizabeth Bowen are like that. She is a novelist I am glad to have come across late in my reading career. I picked up a copy of The Last September recently in an Oxfam second-hand shop and in February 2013 it came to the top of my reading pile. Read more …

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

Not a conventional heroine, Mrs Palfrey is a genteel widow, needing to live somewhere, not invited and not minded to share a home with her daughter in Scotland. She moves into the Claremont Hotel on the Cromwell Road in London, joining a small group of elderly residents. Upon this group Mrs Palfrey practices a deceit. Having fallen in the street, she is rescued by Ludo, a young writer. Her grandson Desmond has failed to visit her at the Claremont. Ludo, who is also lonely and attracted by the adventure of play-acting agrees to stand in as Mrs Palfrey’s grandson. Mrs Palfrey achieves a grandson and a visitor and establishes her status among the residents. One of the charms of the novel is how Mrs Palfrey and Ludo cope with the risks and difficulties that this deception gives rise to, including a visit by le vrai Desmond. Read more …

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence

25 Stone Angel

The Stone Angel is narrated by Hagar Shipley, intended to be current when it was published in 1964. Her story is framed by her situation: an old woman, cared for by her less favourite son and his wife, and becoming increasingly ill, forgetful and always a handful. ‘A holy terror’ is her son’s description. The reader must agree. It is the picture of her decline in old age that most shocks, even now. The dilemmas for Hagar, her son and daughter-in-law, the medical staff and others who come into contact with her, cannot not be resolved. It’s a powerful portrayal, not without humour affection or sharp pain. Read more …

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Maud is old and becoming very forgetful, suffering from dementia. She is the narrator, which is an ambitious aspect of the novel: the ultimate unreliable narrator? At the start of the novel she lives on her own, cared for by her daughter Helen and a professional carer. Her forgetfulness is evident from the first chapter when she buys yet more tinned peaches to cover her memory lapse in the local shop. Her condition worsens as the novel progresses. She tries to find her friend Elizabeth and unravel the mystery of what happened to her sister 70 years before. Read more …

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

209 To_the_Lighthouse

Before the First World War the Ramsay family is holidaying on Skye. The youngest boy James (5) wants to go to the lighthouse the next day, but weather makes the expedition doubtful. The family and house guests, including the painter Lily Briscoe, go about their activities, walking on the beach, listening to the great Mr Ramsay and reading to James. Mrs Ramsay presides over a dinner party. Ten years go by, and the house is neglected. Mrs Ramsay and two of her children die, a marriage turns sour, everyone gets older and the Great War engulfs Europe. Many of the original house party return to Skye. Lily Briscoe sets about completing her painting and Mr Ramsay sails with his two youngest children to the lighthouse. It is not the story that carries the reader on but the impressions, responses, and insights of her characters. Read more …

The Land of Green Ginger by Winifred Holtby

The Land of Green Ginger is the name of a street in Hull, briefly glimpsed by Joanna when she was a child. Its intriguing name represents her ambitions for a life in a different place, for travel, excitement and exoticism. Joanna is an attractive heroine and a very flawed one. Her attraction comes from her otherworldliness, and her desire for more than life has offered her. And indeed this belief carries her through to the novel’s conclusion. Read more …

137 LofGG cover

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Most Popular Posts on Bookword

I’ve been walking in France. So only one new post and now I refer you to some of the most popular posts on the Bookword Blog to date. Please comment and let me know what you think.

I am thrilled by the success of the older women in fiction category. About 50 novels have been suggested so far. And I initiated the list because I thought there was a shortage of older women in fiction! Two novels are included in the list below. You can visit more of the twelve reviews in this series. Click on the category to find all the posts.

Book Reviews

  1. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. This review has never been out of the 15 most read of my posts. It’s a charming but distressing account of an older woman who on being widowed moves to live in a hotel in the Cromwell Road, London. Published in 1971, it still has things to tell us about ageing today, not least the challenge of loneliness. I wrote about what we can learn from Mrs Palfrey in a more recent post, which you can find here.
  2. The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen. I reviewed this soon after I launched the blog, and in the last 6 months it has become very popular (something to do with search engines?) and is currently the single most popular post on my blog. Elizabeth Bowen was a wonderful writer, and in this novel she explored Ireland in 1920 and the ways in which people communicate and don’t. The title refers to the impending troubles in Ireland of the 1920s. I have also reviewed her war-time novel (one of her best) The Heat of the Day, chillingly observant about people and why they behave as they do.25 Stone Angel
  3. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence. Also in the series on older women in fiction, this is the story of Hagar Shipley, who is furious at her growing dependence as she ages, and at the ways in which she is treated by her son and by the medical staff who care for her. She is not going quietly into that good night. Margaret Laurence was a Canadian writer.
  4. Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys. Jean Rhys was not afraid to look into the darker aspects of life, in this case a woman who has very few resources, except her body, living in the demi-monde of Paris. It is bleak, amusing, insightful and leaves a sense of unease, especially in view of the author’s own later life.

    The young Jean Rhys

    The young Jean Rhys

Connected to Books

  1. Decluttering my books. Who would have guessed that the trying question of managing books would be so popular? And so riven with emotion. What to remove and the manner of the disposal. I was preparing to move house at the time I wrote this post, but it seemed to strike a chord with people who buy books. Book buyers always need more room.
  2. How do you organise your books? Another popular post about book management. This one also surprised me because so many people showed an interest in how books are arranged in their homes: alphabetically, by genre, by colour, by size …?

83 WPFF bookpile

Others

A word rant, rather against my better judgement I made some criticisms of word use, as I like to play up the positive and not use the blog to vent spleen. But people had two reactions: they read it, and if they knew me they declared a fear of offending me with their use of language.

And our tribute to our editors, on the publication of our book also received lots of attention.101 RWA cover

I hope you find something to enjoy in this round-up of popular posts from the blog.

 

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Learning, Older women in fiction, Publishing our book, Reading, Reviews

The Craft of Blogging – (7) Finding Readers

Is anyone out there? Is anyone reading my blog? I sometimes wondered, especially when I started, but even after nearly two years I check my blog readership most days. One reason to blog, for me, is because it is a kind of ‘citizen publishing’. So there’s no point unless I find readers.

138 google logoThanks to Google Analytics I know quite a bit about how many people read my blog each day, what they are reading and whether they are new readers or returners. I know that if I write about books, the physical objects, I get many comments. Acquiring books, arranging books, decluttering books, art made from books and books for prisoners – these have always provoked responses. My most recent post on this theme is Abandoning Books, which is still attracting interest.

Last SeptemberAnd I also know, thanks to Google Analytics, that some of my book reviews are ‘stayers’, that is that they are read steadily – every week they appear in my top 10 most-read posts. Occasionally another review will join the standards: recently my comments on The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen became even more popular than the evergreen review of Mrs Palfrey in the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. Other reviews rise and then fall away again, like Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys.

mrspalfrey greenThis feedback is very helpful to me to understand the blog’s readership. The statistics are useful, especially as I am not interested in simply maximising the number of readers, for this is not a commercial blog. Rather I want to know which posts are being read.

Getting readers

Here are six things I have learned about building readership in two years of blogging.

  1. Quality matters

138 Oblique bookshelfThe advice from successful bloggers is to post quality items at regular intervals. One reason I am a slow blogger is that I want to be sure of the quality of my writing, after all writing is the subject of my blog. Not only do the books I write about deserve good attention but so do the readers of the blog. Sloppy writing on a post can easily put readers off. I have not returned to blogs where I have suffered this.

And good quality posts include interesting pictures and links.

  1. Post at regular intervals

Regular intervals? Well, I am not sure about this. Do they mean frequent? I’ve said I am a slow blogger. I vary posts irregularly between five and six days. I don’t have any evidence that the variation affects my readership. Some people say that there are good days for posting. Certainly I know that the day fewest readers visit my blog is Saturday. But I doubt whether the day of posting makes much difference to bibliophiles.

  1. Have a subscription button

138 subscribeI encourage readers to subscribe at the end of every post. [Have you signed up?] This means that a steady group of people receive notifications of new posts.

  1. Use twitter to promote the blog

I follow and am followed by many more people on twitter than on my blog. Many of them declare bookish interests. I use hashtags to promote blog-related tweets including about my posts and often they pass them on … hooray for social media. The bookish ones I use are described by blogger Paula Read Nancarrow. I also use #readwomen2014 because I like to promote women writers. I blogged about that here.

  1. Use other connections

When I started blogging two years ago I sent all my friends the link via email. I now have an http link in my e-mail ‘signature’ which I rarely remove. Sometimes I send a friend a link to a post I think will interest them. And I do the same with my reading and writing groups. I try to comment frequently on other blogs. After all I can’t expect comments on my blog from readers unless I do.

  1. Other suggestions – websites, wider social media eg Facebook,

You will read advice to get yourself listed on bookish websites that list blogs, and to use other social media (especially Facebook). I am sure these can be useful. Anyway, I think they may be beyond my current technical capacity!

The young Jean Rhys

The young Jean Rhys

Bloggers with large followings: what have you done to promote your blog? What advice do you have to give bloggers who want to reach more readers? What am I missing?

 

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The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

This is an unusual book – in its subject matter and in its structure. In her introduction to the Vintage edition, AS Byatt reports that she had read it several times, and not always with appreciation. But for a discriminating reader she suggests ‘that it is one of those books that grow in the mind, in time’.

103 House in P coverThe story is told in three parts, framed in a single day. Part One is set in ‘the present’ (ie 1930s) in the house in Paris, where two children have been brought together because Henrietta (11) is on her way from London to stay with her Grandmother in France and is being cared for by Miss Fisher. Coincidentally, Leopold (9) has arrived on the same day from Italy and is anticipating meeting his mother, Karen, whom he has never known. She fails to turn up.

The second part recounts the story, in the past, about ten years before, of Karen and her affair with Leopold’s father. This part of the story takes us to Cork, London and the towns of the English Channel. We find how Miss Fisher and her irascible mother are involved.

Finally in Part Three we return to the house in Paris, later in the same day, and Mme Fisher’s revelations about Leopold’s past and follow what happens to the two children as they prepare leave the house. Mysteries are revealed and the actions of the adults explored so that by the end of the novel both children are able to move on to the subsequent phases of their lives, although little has actually happened.

53 EBI found Elizabeth Bowen’s portrayal of the two children especially successful. These two are affected by their expectations of the adults, but at a level that the adults do not always see. The relationship between the children is revealed with all the awkwardnesses, probing, sympathies, quarrels of two children thrown together. They are both innocent of much about the adult world, especially sexual behaviour, but both sense it, especially Henrietta and are trying to understand the consequences of adults’ behaviour. Here is the description of Leopold adjusting to his mother’s refusal to meet him.

His eyes darkened, their pupils expanding. Yes, his mother refused to come; she would not lend herself to him. He had cast her, but she refused her part. She was not, then, the creature of thought. Her will, her act, her thought spoke in the telegram. Her refusal became her, became her coming in suddenly, breaking down, by this one act of being herself only, his imagination in which he had bound her up. So she lived outside himself; she was alive truly. She set up that opposition that is love. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I shall see her some other day.’ (p201-2)

The three-part structure seems designed to get the reader to re-examine her understanding of the previous sections. Karen, in the middle part, is the key character and we follow her through the expectation of marriage, a short visit to an uncle and aunt, and then her relationship with Max. We find that she was a close friend of Miss Fisher. Coming to this second section after the tensions of Leopold’s vivid beliefs about his mother and subsequent disappointment means a reassessment of the characters in the first part. Elizabeth Bowen seems to be saying, look again, now you have this knowledge. It’s an interesting device for a novel, and Elizabeth Bowen uses it with great assurance.

The complexity of her prose, noted in my reviews of The Heat of the Day, The Last September and The Hotel, also makes you read carefully, and takes you into the psychology of her characters.

There is no end to the violations committed by children on children, quietly talking alone.

… Henrietta turned down her eyes, smoothed her dress on her knees and remarked with the utmost primness: ‘You must be very glad: no wonder you are excited. I am excited, going to Mentone.’ Then swinging her feet to the ground, she left the sofa and walked to the radiator, above which she spread her hands. Glancing aloofly to see if her nails were clean, she seemed to become unconscious of Leopold. Then she strolled across to examine a vase of crepe paper roses on the consol table behind Charles’s chair. Peering behind the roses, she found that they were tied on with wire to sprigs of box. She glanced across at the clock, smothered a yawn politely and said aloud to herself: ‘Only twenty-five past ten.’ Her sex provided these gestures, showing how bored she got with someone else’s insistence on his own personality. Her dread of Leopold gave way to annoyance. Already she never met anyone without immediately wanting to rivet their thought on herself, and with this end in view looked forward to being grown up. (p18-9)

I found the relationship between Karen and Miss Fisher the least convincing aspect of the book. Well, not their friendship, but its survival of Karen’s affair, the role of the interfering Mme Fisher and the death of Max.

103 EBTwo things about the subject matter made an impression on me. The first is the easy way in which people of Karen, Henrietta and Leopold’s class moved about Europe during the inter-war years. Transposed to the present day, perhaps involving the Eurotunnel, this story would not seem surprising. Maybe I am just influenced by the current anti-Europe political rhetoric, but it is worth remembering that ties with the continent have been strong for some time strong, and this is reflected in much literature of the time: in much of Henry James and Edith Wharton, for example.

And the second thing is Elizabeth Bowen’s frank exploration of sexual mores at the time. Some of it is highly wrought. Here’s the moment when we understand that Karen and Max (both engaged to other people) will mean more to each other.

‘We’ll bring the tray in when we go.’

But they both sat back, her hand lying near his. Max put his hand on Karen’s, pressing it into the grass. Their unexploring, consenting touch lasted; they did not look at each other or at their hands. When their hands had drawn slowly apart, they both watched the flattened grass beginning to spring up again, blade by blade. (p119-20)

The House in Paris is a feast for a discerning reader, of the novelist’s art, of the insights into the behaviour of young people and of children.

Here are some links to Blog reviews:

There is an excellent and thoughtful review by Booksnob.

And another by EmilyBooks, who calls it a tour de force.

And yet another by Girl with her Head in a Book.

GHave you read The House in Paris? Have you anything to add?

 

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The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

I read this thriller twelve months ago and I noted that I expected to reread it and soon. It turns out that rereading is very rewarding, and nothing is spoiled by knowing the plot, indeed the other features of the novel become more evident.

53 Heat cover

It’s set during the Second World War and the tension comes from the suggestion that one of the main characters, Robert, is involved in treason. The novel opens as the creepy Harrison prepares to meet Stella. Stella has already rejected Harrison, ‘asked him to go away and stay away’. We have been warned that ‘he was not, however, through.’ Harrison visits Stella in her flat and reveals his plan to blackmail her: his silence about Robert can be bought if she becomes his mistress and does not see Robert again. The scene in which Harrison reveals his hand, is carefully drawn out in Chapter 2 and is a powerful example of an effective scene in fiction. Stella’s feelings alter from irritation of being bothered by a man she does not want to see to shock and disbelief at what Harrison tells her and finally confusion about what she should do. Can she believe Harrison? What should she do to protect the man she loves? If Harrison is right should she protect Robert? How can she know? The story is set up, the tension holds, as the interactions between Harrison, Stella and Robert run their course.

53 roped off road

One of the most impressive aspect of this novel is the depiction of living in London during the Blitz.

They had met one another, at first not very often, throughout the heady autumn of the first London air raids. Never had a season been more felt; one bought the poetic sense of it with the sense of death. Out of mists of morning charred by the smoke from ruins each day rose to a height of unmisty glitter; between the last of sunset and first note of the siren the darkening glassy tenseness of evening was drawn fine. From the moment of waking you tasted the sweet autumn not less because of an acridity on the tongue and nostrils; and as the singed dust settled and smoke diluted you felt more and more called upon to observe daytime as a pure and curious holiday from fear. All through London the ropings-off of dangerous tracts of streets made islands of exalted if stricken silence, and people crowded against the ropes to admire the sunny emptiness on the other side. The diversion of traffic out of blocked main thoroughfares into byways, the unstopping phatasmagoric streaming of lorries, buses, vans, drays, taxis past modest windows and quiet doorways set up an overpowering sense of London’s organic power – somewhere there was a source from which heavy motion boiled, surged and, not to be damned up, force itself into new channels. (p90-91)

Elizabeth Bowen does not forget the dead, and she provides a strong image of them, present through their absences.

Most of all the dead, from mortuaries, from under cataracts of rubble, made their anonymous presence – not as today’s dead but as yesterday’s living – felt through London. Uncounted, they continued to move in shoals through the city day, pervading everything to be seen or heard or felt with their torn-off senses, drawing on this tomorrow they had expected – for death cannot be so sudden as all that. Absent from the routine which had been life, they stamped upon that routine their absence – not knowing who the dead were you could not know which might be the staircase somebody for the first time was not mounting this morning, or at which street corner the newsvendor missed a face, or which trains and buses in the homegoing rush were this evening lighter by one passenger. (p91-2)

This passage illustrates her rather difficult style and its density has the effect of slowing the reader, so you have to engage with the direction of the sentence, its meaning, its surprise. In the example above, the sentence that begins ‘Absent from the routine’ by its end has conjured up the non-presence of the dead, and has a very pleasing rhythm.

53 Pauls

The novel is claimed as a London novel, and it is indeed very clearly located around the Regent’s Park area, although, echoing Stella’s confusion, the blackout means that sometimes she does not know where Harrison has taken her. An interesting article about its London-ness, by Jane Miller (author of Crazy Age), can be found on the London Fictions website. The London location and the heightened sensibilities of living there are contrasted with Stella’s visit to the rural calm of Ireland. Ireland remained neutral during the war, although not unaffected by it (Stella uses months’ supply of house candles, unknowingly). A second contrast is to Holme Dene, where Robert’s mother lives, in the Home Counties. Holme Dene is permanently for sale and rigidly in thrall to Muttikins. Elizabeth Bowen’s description reveals a great deal about Robert’s family:

…upstairs life since the war, had up there condensed itself into very few rooms – swastika-arms of passage leading to nothing, stripped of carpet, bulbs gone from the light-sockets, were flanked by doors with keys turned. Extinct, at this night hour Stygian as an abandoned mine-working, those reaches of passages would show in daylight ghost-pale faded patches no shadow crossed, and, from end to end, an even conquest of dust. (p258)

One important theme of the novel concerns allegiances, what individuals owe to other people. In war it is an unquestioned assumption that one will have allegiance to one’s country and abhorrence of fraternization or spying for the enemy. The central questions of the novel are about Robert’s treachery or not, and Stella’s duty to him or her country.

Stella’s visit to Mount Morris in Ireland raises questions about place in allegiance, of one nation to another, and the bequest to Roderick brings up questions of who owes what to whom in the next generation. To whom, Elizabeth Bowen appears to ask, when the chips are down, do we owe our loyalty? Her answer, I think, is to the integrity of the self and one’s love for others.

It is also a novel about appearances and what is concealed and whether you should trust what you see, what you feel, what you want to trust. At the centre of this theme is Harrison, a shady character, about whom we never know much, not his work, his past, or where he goes or what he does when he is not with Stella. And like Stella we do not know whether to believe what he implies. We do not want to believe that Stella’s lover is a traitor.

Stella has the reputation of a woman who shamefully abandoned her husband. Her son Roderick learns the truth from a woman who has been feigning madness for years. But the truth is not that simple, for Stella has preferred people to believe what they thought was the truth rather than acknowledge to the world that her husband did not want to stay with her. Even Stella’s affair with Robert is presented to the reader as not of the real world.

The lovers had for two years possessed a hermetic world, which, like the ideal book about nothing, stayed itself on itself by its inner force. (p90)

Appearances of the characters reflect something about their role in the plot and their characteristics as well as Elizabeth Bowen’s confidence in handling them. Harrison comes and goes in a shady way. Stella is not directly introduced until Chapter 2. Robert does not appear until Chapter 5. Many of the minor characters appear and disappear as acquaintances did in London’s reduced social world.

53 EB

Despite being a published writer for 25 years Elizabeth Bowen found it difficult to finish the novel. She wrote the early sections during the war but it was not published until 1948. She had fallen in love with Charles Ritchie, a Canadian diplomat, to whom the book is dedicated and considered the physical model for Robert. Their affair continued, despite his return to Canada, his marriage and frequent separations, until she died in 1973. (For more details of this and other writers’ lives during the war see Lara Feigel’s The Love-charm of Bombs).

I love this novel. I expect I will read it again and again. I hope I can encourage you to read (or even reread) it.

For another enthusiastic blog review see Book Snob’s here. My reviews of earlier Elizabeth Bowen novels are here: The Hotel, and The Last September.

 

Reminder: the next general Readalong will be in December. If you want to make a reading suggestion please do so. I will announce the choice in the next few weeks.

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The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

Do you keep a cache of chocolates after Christmas, so that you can savour again the pleasures of treating yourself? The novels of Elizabeth Bowen are like that. She is a novelist I am glad to have come across late in my reading career. I picked up a copy of The Last September recently in an Oxfam secondhand shop and in February it came to the top of my reading pile.

The Last September was published in 1929, when Elizabeth Bowen was 30. She went on writing until 1969, and died in 1973. Her best known book is probably The Heat of the Day (1949) set in wartime London.

Last September

Ireland in 1920 is the location of The Last September. This is the period when the Black and Tans, a motley collection of British armed forces, were sent to Ireland to deal with the insurgents fighting for Irish freedom. A bloody period in Irish history was just beginning. She is often described as a novelist of the inner life and likened to Jane Austen for it. A strong theme of this novel is the intrusion of the outer world into the domestic, the personal, the inner worlds of the characters in the house – Danielstown.

About six o’clock the sound of a motor, collected out of the whole country and narrowed under the trees of the avenue, brought the household on to the steps. Up among the beeches, a thin iron gate twanged; the car slid out from a net of shadow, down the slope to the house. Behind the flashing windscreen Mr and Mrs Montmorency produced – arms waving and a wild escape to the wind of her mauve motor-veil – an agitation of greeting. They were long-promised visitors. They exclaimed, Sir Richard and Lady Naylor exclaimed and signalled: no one spoke yet. It was a moment of happiness, of perfection. (p7)

Ah, the perfection of that phrase ‘an agitation of greeting’! This is the opening paragraph, a sound of a car from beyond the boundary of the demesne, bringing long-promised visitors and a moment of ‘happiness and perfection’. And thus we are warned that it will not last, this happiness and perfection. Indeed the title of the novel has already indicated it.

Silence or circumlocution are her themes. Silence about certain topics. Notice, in the opening paragraph that short phrase: ‘no one spoke yet.’ Sir Richard leaves the room if anything significant is mentioned. Lady Naylor will not speak directly. Here, for example, she is attempting to warn off the very nice young English subaltern who is courting her niece, and whose English good manners drive her to more directness for once.

‘Oh, Mr Lesworth!’ she cried, disconcerted. She resumed firmly but with inspiration, something between a hospital nurse and a prophetess: ‘The less talk, the less indirect discussion round and about things, the better, I always think.’ (p181)

Less talk and less indirect discussion fill the remaining pages of the novel, until its concluding paragraph:

Sir Richard and Lady Naylor, not saying anything, did not look at each other, for in the light from the sky they saw too distinctly. (p206)

There are many characters in this short novel, and Bowen has no difficulty in getting the reader to see them as individuals, often in a few deft words. A good example is the description of Lady Naylor’s tone with Gerald, quoted above: ‘something between a hospital nurse and a prophetess’.

The house is almost a character, in itself. In it live Lady Naylor and her husband Sir Richard, their respective nephew and niece, Laurence and Lois (late teens, early 20s), and their guests Mr and Mrs Montmorency, whose arrival opens the book. There are other people in their social circle, and Elizabeth Bowen’s descriptions and use of them in the plot have again reminded people of Jane Austen: the voluminous Mrs Fogarty, the unmarriageable Miss Hartigans, sharp and stylish Marda Norton. One of the sub-plots concerns Mr Montmorency’s pathetic yearning after what he cannot or does not have including the inevitable Marda. He can never be sure whether the decision not to emigrate to Canada was right or wrong, and whether to build a bungalow, or not.

Lois is the focus of the narrative, her relationships with Gerald Lesworth, her cousin Laurence, the exotic Marda, her friends in the locality and in London. In the course of the novel she develops a taste for the world beyond Danielstown, and encounters the outer world, which she cannot share with the people in the house. She moves further and further away, as young people must.

The Last September has something of the attraction of a short story, the glimpse of a small world, and over a short timescale, but everything distilled, sharp, moving us towards the denouement.

Elizabeth Bowen is justifiably celebrated for the quality of her prose, and especially for her powers of description. Inanimate objects almost take on intention, emotion, reaction and become, as the house does, part of the action. Rosalind Brown, in her Mslexia blog in January, Influence me, Elizabeth Bowen, quotes Elizabeth Bowen’s description of the dining room and then consciously models her own prose on it. There’s no higher praise for a novelist.

Since I finished this novel I’ve found her first one, The Hotel, in a second hand shop, so I have another treat waiting for me.

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