Two Elizabeths, two first novels

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen was published in 1927 and At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor in 1945. They were written 18 years apart but I read these two first novels one after the other last week. Considering them side by side reveals some interesting points.

Both are novels defined, as their titles indicate, by a place, a building. Mrs Lippincote’s is a house, rented to Roddy and Julia Davenport towards the end of the war. Roddy is in the RAF and Julia is fascinated by living in Mrs Lippincote’s house, and among her things. The old lady eventually appears, like something from another time.

‘I am Mrs Lippincote.’

Superfluous statement.

The leghorn hat with its immense velvet bow, the tussore suit and parasol, the gold chains and watch pinned to the bosom transfixed Julia. The bosom itself intimidated, seemed unrelated to the female body, a structure, a shelf, a thing to pin watches to, hang chains upon. (At Mrs Lippincote’s)

The war has displaced her, and her appearance reminds Julia and the reader that there was a time ‘before the war’ and there will be a time ‘when the war is over’.

22 At Mrs L

The Hotel is somewhere on the Italian Riviera, a place where people with money and gentility go to occupy their time. It is out of season. Hotels provided a setting for chance encounters and disconcerting meetings.

The Honourable Mrs and Miss Pinkerton occupied two wide-balconied rooms at the end of the first floor corridor. Five times across the Hotel, each on a floor, these corridors ran – dark, thickly carpeted, panelled with bedroom doors… Mrs and Miss Pinkerton were of course on the sunny side, with their balconies from which the view could be patronized. The view was their own; they were to enjoy the spiritual, crude and half-repellent beauty of that changing curtain, so featureless but for the occasional passing ship. They barricaded themselves in from the assault of noonday behind impassable jalousies. (The Hotel)

We learn so much of the social expectations and assumptions from this description of the accommodation of Mrs and Miss Pinkerton. The violation of their bathroom is a great comic scene, one which also reveals much about the participants and more about the social positions in the Hotel. (A jalousie is a kind of louvred or slatted blind.)

22 The Hotel

In both novels the narrative is pegged, so to speak, by the places, the bricks and mortar. The narrative unfolds, scene take place outside these buildings, yet at the end of each day, events are resolved – or not – within their walls. In both places the characters move between private and public rooms, rooms where people retreat and can be on their own and others where the action is played out in the presence of an audience.

The interesting characters in both The Hotel and At Mrs Lippincote’s are non-conformists. Roddy is constantly fearful that Julia will say the wrong thing in front of his fellow officers, and is disappointed to find that he has not been able to mould Julia in their married life. She is wiser than her husband.

Roddy kissed Julia and went off to a party in the Mess – a men’s party, a ‘presence required’ party he explained leaving the house with a look of resignation. Watching him go, she was interested to see, as he turned for a second to latch the gate, the change that had come over him; gone the forbearance, and in its place geniality and a look of anticipation. (At Mrs Lippincote’s)

Roddy and Julia must each decide to accommodate their disappointment in the other in order to make a go of their marriage. It is likely, but not certain, that they will, by the close of the novel

In the Hotel the residents all live with the disappointments of love, and most settle for less than love. The Misses Pym and Fitzgerald open the novel on a quarrel; Mrs Kerr cannot remember ever having been loved; her relationship with her son Ronald is dutiful rather than loving; Mrs Duperrier is neglected by her husband who prefers to flirt with the many young ladies; and so on. Mr Lee-Mittison organises an expedition to collect anemone roots, which fizzles out as hosts and guests lose each other in the hills. There is a terrible irony to the Lee-Mittisons’ situation. The wife has a moment of clarity: ‘she felt sick at the thought of their hotel bedrooms that stretched, only interposed with the spare rooms of friends, in unbroken succession before and behind her.’ They have no roots, are perpetual travellers with no home of their own.

It is Sydney Warren who captures our interest. It is the story of Sydney’s unlikely and amourous adventure that forms the core narrative of this novel.

Sydney’s relations had been delighted that she should go abroad with her cousin Tessa. It had appeared an inspired solution to the Sydney problem. The girl passed too many of these examinations, was on the verge of a breakdown and railed so bitterly at the prospect of a year’s enforced idleness, that the breakdown seemed nearer than ever. (The Hotel)

Both Julia and Sydney are more spontaneous than rational, more innocent than the people among whom they live, more open to life’s experiences. The characters around them are shown to have more tawdry and meagre lives by contrast, built up in both novels through small, often mundane actions and scenes.

As an aside, I enjoyed the references to novels in both books. Lady Catherine de Burgh from Pride and Prejudice appears in The Hotel, as does Jude the Obscure. In At Mrs Lippincote’s conversation about the Brontes forges a link between Julia and the Wing Commander. (As well as reading, he knits socks, which is lovely detail.) Her seven-year old son ‘did not merely read books. He snuffed them up, took breaths of them in his lungs, filled his eyes with the sight of the print and his head with the sound of words.’ He is somewhat unconvincing, and the reader is relieved when he befriends Felicity and they play as children should.

What I find remarkable about these two writers is that they both already had an astonishing discernment for the slightest reactions or movements, the understated but telling observation which is fully evident in this their first novels. For example, in the extracts quoted – Julia’s observation of her husband’s change of expression; Sydney’s relations’ attitude to her.

The Elizabeths became friends, but I think they only met after the publication of the younger woman’s first novels.

I am currently re-reading Elizabeth Taylor’s novels in order of publication and continue to explore Elizabeth Bowen’s. Any recommendations?


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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor's novels

3 Responses to Two Elizabeths, two first novels

  1. Pingback: At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor | JacquiWine's Journal

  2. I really like the way you’ve compared these two novels, Caroline. Yes, Taylor’s observation skills are there for all to see in Mrs L – I thought it quite remarkable for a debut novel. The Hotel sounds excellent too. I’m still very new to Bowen, but I can see she has the potential to become another favourite.

    • Caroline

      Definitely. I am currently reading Friends and Relations (1931) in an old Penguin edition. Her observations are so clever.

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