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Friends and Relations by Elizabeth Bowen

I was browsing the shelves for anything as yet unread by Elizabeth Bowen and found not one but two old fashioned penguin copies of Friends and Relations. The novel was not known to me, but the writer is, and I have found her to be remarkable, whatever I have read of hers.

264 F&F penguin

The story

The novel opens with the wedding of Edward and Laurel. We are in the years after the Great War. This brilliant opening scene introduces the reader to all the characters, pegs them for their little foibles and faults. And it is entertaining and perceptive. Here is the bride and the father waiting for the ceremonies to begin.

Her clothes were all packed; she was buttoned into an old blazer of Janet’s and did not look like to-day’s bride. From half-past ten till noon she and Colonel Studdart, shut into the morning-room, played demon patience. Her life here was over, his at a standstill; there was nothing for them to do. (7)

This is typical of Elizabeth Bowen’s ability to present her characters through their actions.

Within weeks Janet (Laurel’s sister) marries Rodney. For a few days it seems as though the second wedding will not take place for there is an alarm. Edward’s mother, Lady Elfrida brought social opprobrium upon herself when she had an affair with Considine, and then did not marry him. Rodney is Considine’s nephew and heir. Edward refuses to meet the uncle. Although the marriage does go ahead, it is not before Janet quarrels with her brother-in-law, Edward.

‘But Edward, we really cannot quarrel. Please … Do think of what is convenient: we are relations for life. I mean, we shall stay with each other, shan’t we, at Christmas and everything? It would be impossible for Laurel and me to be divided. For as long as we live, I suppose about fifty years, we shall all always be meeting and talking over arrangements. At least, that is how we have been brought up. You must see what families are; it’s possible to be so ordinary; it’s possible not to say such a lot. …’ (46)

It seems that they are talking about his mother’s indiscretion, but this attitude of finding what is convenient, of being ordinary and not speaking of things is how they will live their lives, despite her love for him, and later his for her.

The second section describes a week in May, ten years later, when Edward and Laurel’s two children are staying with Janet and Rodney. There is a socially difficulty as Janet and Rodney live with Considine’s in his house. They decide to invite Lady Elfrida to join them, believing that after ten years Edward cannot still object and Lady Elfrida and Considine are now good friends. But Edward does object, and he arrives to remove the children. His action is the occasion for him and Janet to acknowledge their mutual love.

The third section is called Wednesday, and takes place the following week, when everything comes together. Janet admits to Edward that she engineered the meeting and marriage with Rodney to be more connected to him. Janet and Edward see the impossibility of being together more than as in-laws. They settle for being ordinary, for not saying such a lot. Briefly, others mistakenly think they have gone off together. As readers we see what the reaction would have been if the lovers had decided to be together in an unbearably difficult social situation.

The main theme

The question that dominates the novel is what to do about love that is passionate, but outside and a betrayal of marriage? Lady Elfrida became a social outcast through her affair with Considine, especially as she did not marry him. Elizabeth Bowen makes it clear that their love was genuine, but has now changed to affection. Her son Edward is considered sensitive as a result of his mother’s behaviour. But in adult life he realises that he loves his sister-in-law Janet. What should they do once they have acknowledged it? Elizabeth Bowen herself came to a different conclusion from Janet and Edward, in her own life. She drew on her affair in the novel The Heat of the Day.

264 F&R new cover


Theodora is a great creation, a kind of wild child in the first section, and then a mould-breaking adult, one of the surplus women of the inter-war years. Like Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Bowen was very good at children in her writing. The House in Paris revealed her expertise. Theodora is some kind of relation, and brazenly out of step with her parents.

The Thirdmans were shockingly out of it. They had brought their girl, Theodora, for whom at each introduction they joyously turned. But she was never beside them. (11)

Theodora meets the bridesmaids on the lawn playing clock golf.

Their four little pink satin shoes were green-stained. There would be trouble, Theodora noted with pleasure. She was fifteen and, except for the bridesmaids, the youngest present. Every allowance made for her unfortunate age, her appearance was not engaging. She was spectacled, large-boned and awkwardly anxious to make an impression. (11)

Theodora fails to make an impression on anyone at the wedding. Ten years later she lives with a school friend, frequently spends time at Considine’s house, and visits Laurel and Edward in London. She cannot fail to make an impression as an outspoken adult. She provides light relief in the novel, but also reveals what happens to those who don’t fit in society in the inter-war years.


264 Elizabeth_BowenElizabeth Bowen is skilled at communicating a great deal in a short space. She is also able to show the drama of small events, moments in domestic time, which have resonances down the years.

Friends and Relations by Elizabeth Bowen, published in 1931. My copy was published on that cheap brown wartime paper by Penguin in 1946. Price one shilling. 151pp

Related posts

Books Snob’s blog review of Friends and Relations, in which she is pleased to have become acquainted with Elizabeth Bowen.

I have reviewed the following on Bookword blog:

The Last September

Two Elizabeths, two first novels (At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor, The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen)

The Heat of the Day

The House in Paris


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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Bowen, Reading, Reviews

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

When women’s destiny is marriage, what is one to do with the unassuming wife of a Very Great Man when she is widowed at 88 years of age? Here is the opening paragraph of All Passion Spent. Lady Slane’s husband was an exceptionally eminent and venerated man (former Viceroy of India, former prime minister), and she was his exemplary wife.

Henry Lyulph Holland, first Earl of Slane, had existed for so long that the public had begun to regard him as immortal. The public, as a whole, find reassurance in longevity, and, after the necessary interlude of reaction, is disposed to recognise old age as a sign of excellence. (p5)

117 All passion coverThe dilemma concerning Lady Slane’s last years is faced by her six children (in their 60s themselves). They decide that she will stay with each of them in turn. She has other ideas. She is in for the long game. She waits until p33 to become active in decisions about her own life, even in the novel of which she is the protagonist. We already know, however, that she has thoughts concealed from her adult children. To their consternation, she announces that she saw a house in Hampstead thirty years before and that it will do for her now. She rents it and lives in it with her maid.

This decision brings three new friends. The owner of the house, Mr Bucktrout, is a rather other-worldly man, with unusual ideas about the imminence of the end of the world, and about Lady Slane’s needs in the house. They become friends, along with the handyman, Mr Gosheron. Mr Bucktrout is rather a comic figure but kindly towards his tenant. Here is Lady Slane’s first encounter with her landlord. She had entered the house before him and was upstairs when she heard him arrive.

… peeping over the bannisters, she saw, curiously foreshortened to her view, a safely old gentleman standing in the hall. She looked down on his bald patch; below that she saw his shoulders, no body to speak of, and then two patent-leather toes. He stood there hesitant; perhaps he did not know that his client had already arrived, perhaps he did not care. She thought it more possible that he did not care. He appeared to be in no hurry to find out. Lady Slane crept down a few steps, that she might get a better view of him. He wore a long linen coat like a housepainter’s; he had a rosy and somewhat chubby face, and he held one finger pressed against his lips, as though archly and impishly preoccupied with some problem in his mind. What on earth is he going to do, she wondered, observing this strange little figure. Still pressing his finger, as though enjoining silence, he tiptoed across the hall, to where a stain on the wall indicated that a barometer had once hung there; then rapidly tapped the wall like a woodpecker tapping a tree; shook his head; muttered ‘Falling! Falling!’; and, picking up the skirts of his coat, he executed two neat pirouettes which brought him back to the centre of the hall, his foot pointed nicely before him. (p51-2)

Her third old gentleman friend is Mr FitzGeorge, a rich connoisseur and collector. They met years before in India, and each had very favourable reactions to the other, but took things no further. He has waited, and she has cherished her memories. After a brief rekindled friendship FitzGeorge dies leaving his fortune to Lady Slane. Her children are excited about the prospects of inheriting in their turn. She confounds them again by donating it to the nation.

Years before, she sacrificed her desire to be a painter to her marriage, and in her peaceful retreat in Hampstead she has time to reflect on what might have been if she hadn’t slipped accidentally into marriage. Her family, it is revealed, know nothing of her interior life, her youthful ambitions, or indeed of her desires now she is a widow.

So what are we to make of the title: All Passion Spent? Lady Slane has not indulged hers. Perhaps the title refers to the effects of ageing to disperse passion over time. Lady Slane’s passions were for painting and – unacknowledged – for the young FitzGeorge. Both were sacrificed to the Very Great Man.

Lady with a Red Hat by William Strang.

Lady with a Red Hat by William Strang.

All Passion Spent presents an attractive picture of an old woman. She confounds the expectations of everyone. She strikes out on her own (albeit with her maid) and finds new friendships. She spends her time as she chooses. These are all good things for an old woman to do. But she is hardly a role model, however as she has had to wait until she was 88.

Perhaps the best thing she does is free the next generation but one from the same fate. Her donation of FitzGeorge’s fortune to the nation frees her grand-daughter from the expectation of a good marriage based on her prospects. Deborah comes to see her and reveals that she would like to be a musician and, no longer seen as an heiress, can realise her hopes for her future.

There is much pleasure in this book, like the three gentlemen’s characters. They are depicted with humour and more than a touch of caricature. The same is true of Lady Slane’s French maid Genoux. She says ‘Miladi’ to everything, but plays no real part except to expedite and account for the smooth running of the domestic stuff. She too is an old woman, but her situation is not of concern to Vita Sackville-West. The author’s attitude is perhaps typical of her time and class – the novel was first published in 1931. And Lady Slane’s charm, despite all those years in the great man’s shadow, is genuine. I finished this book with a sense of a life squandered by the social expectations of the time, and only a little pleasure at the heroine’s resolution.

 Vita Sackwille-West con sombrero by E.O. Hoppe

Vita Sackwille-West con sombrero by E.O. Hoppe

One more observation about Vita Sackville-West – she looked good in hats! I think she knew.

This novel was recommended by Emily and you can find her enthusiastic review on her blog EmilyBooks. Thank you Emily.

Book Snob also reviewed it on her blog, in 2011, and found that the novel confounded her expectations that it was going to be a light read. She highlights the loneliness of Lady Slane in her marriage.

All Passion Sent, by Vita Sackville-West republished by Virago Modern Classics in 1983. Introduced by Joanna Lumley.

Next in Older Women in Fiction series is The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam, published in 2009. It will be posted in October 2014.

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading