I came late to Elizabeth Bowen’s writing. But since I first acquired a copy of The Last September I have been reading and reviewing her books at a pleasurable and slow pace. This is how, six years ago, I introduced my approach to her writing:
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.
I have already reviewed six of the ten novels by Elizabeth Bowen on Bookword. (For links see the end of this post). She is central to my desire to avoid pursuing new books and to read and reread more of books published for some time ago. I wrote about this recently in a post called Books and the pursuit of the new.
I found an old Penguin copy of To the North among my mother’s books. I took it on my travels and admired her all over again.
To The North by Elizabeth Bowen
The novel’s story takes place over a short period of time. It is set mostly in London and the time is between the wars.
The novel follows Cecelia, a young widow who is considering remarrying. She is a lively and attractive woman, is economically independent and she enjoys lunches and dinners and meeting up with her aunt by marriage, Lady Waters. At the start of the novel Cecelia is travelling north from Italy, returning to St Johns Wood, near Abbey Road in London.
She shares her house with her sister-in-law Emmeline. She is younger than Cecelia, and also independent. She has a car and she is a partner in a travel bureau that she and a friend have established. She is very beautiful and stylish in her own way.
On the train from Italy Cecelia meet Markie, a self-centred barrister, who is predatory and always wants what seems distant. After a mild flirtation with Cecelia he becomes obsessed with Emmeline. She normally holds herself aloof from love affairs, but Markie is an expert. They form a liaison although they agree not to marry but then he treats her very badly. Meanwhile Julian is waiting in the wings, patiently and with understanding for Cecelia.
There are some excellent supporting characters. The Blighs are friends of Lady Waters’s and provide a contrast to the intensity of Cecelia and Emmeline’s relationships. They are indulging in being unhappily married. Then there is Pauline, the adolescent orphan that Julian has responsibility for. Her interaction provides another ingenuous perspective. Elizabeth Bowen writes child characters very well. The typists, who work for the travel bureau, provide some comic interludes, as Enmeline and her partner are unable to deal with the hapless Miss Tripp and her replacement.
Elizabeth Bowen’s skill is in the minute description of the psychological shifts of each character as they interact with the others. We are presented with a number of different relationships: several marriages, a few romances, employer-employee, child- adult, and friendships between men and women and between women. One couple will self-destruct, the other will find comfort in each other.
Emmeline drives north at the end of the novel after a failed reconciliation with Markie. Their relationship is doomed.
This was the 4th of Elizabeth Bowen’s novels. She wrote 10. I have 3 more to read.
To The North by Elizabeth Bowen, first published in 1932. I used the Penguin edition, published in 1945. 286pp
Heaven Ali wrote an excellent review in 2015 on her blog of To the North. Here’s the link.
Links to reviews of novels by Elizabeth Bowen on Bookword