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‘A World of Love’ by Elizabeth Bowen ****

I have read a few of Elizabeth Bowen’s books to date, but still have rather a lot of her oeuvre outstanding.  With this in mind, I could not resist picking up a copy of her novella, A World of Love, which was first published in 1955.  This is one of Bowen’s later works, and only two finished novels were written after it.

The premise of A World of Love is that a twenty-year-old woman named Jane Danby, 9781784873950living in a crumbling old house in County Cork, Ireland, finds a package of old letters in the attic.  This leads her ‘into the world of love’, in which a rather eccentric neighbour, Lady Vesta Latterly, ‘rich, promiscuous, parvenue Englishwoman… will play a part in Jane’s awakening.’  The house, Montefort, ‘harbours a group of people held together by odd ties of kinship or habit, and haunted by the memory of its former owner who was killed in France as a young man.’  Jane lives there with her parents, Fred and Lilia, and twelve-year-old sister Maud, ‘all of whom owe their domestic situation to Montefort’s owner, Antonia’, who inherited the house from her cousin Guy, who died during the First World War.  The Danby family’s place here is ‘uncertain, never secure, never defined.’

A World of Love takes place during a heatwave.  It begins on a sultry June morning.  Here, writes Bowen, ‘The sun rose on 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 river gorge cut deep through the uplands.  This light at this hour, so unfamiliar, brought into being a new world – painted, expectant, empty, intense.’  As I have come to expect with Bowen’s writing, her descriptions sing.  The way in which she writes about Jane, too, is unusual and exquisitely layered.  When she introduces her protagonist, she asserts: ‘Kindled by summer though cool in nature, she was a beauty.  The cut of her easy golden hair was anachronistic over the dress she wore: this, her height and something half naive half studied about her management of the sleeves and skirts made her like a boy actor in woman’s clothes, while what was classical in her grace made her appear to belong to some other time.’

Bowen goes on to explore the isolation which surrounds the house and its inhabitants.  The day before, she explains, ‘They had all been to the Fete, and a backwash from it still agitated their tempers and nerves – in the house itself residual pleasure-seeking ghosts had been set astir.  The Hunt Fete, which drew the entire country, now was the sole festivity of the lonely year, for Montefort the only annual outing – which, more and more each summer, required nerve.’

The Vintage edition of A World of Love is introduced by Selina Hastings.  She notes that this book was written soon after the death of Bowen’s husband, but does not perhaps encompass the depths of sadness which one might expect.  Instead, writes Hastings, ‘although the book is in a sense a ghost story, with the pervasive presence of the dead permeating both place and plot, yet its mood is lyrical and light, a spirited comedy of manners finely balanced over a more sombre subterranean level of betrayal, frustration and loss.’  Bowen herself, indeed, called this novella ‘a joy to write’.  Hastings praises Bowen’s protagonist; she notes that she ‘has an almost wilful independence of spirit very different from the other solitary young girls who people Bowen’s novels.’

The family dynamics at play throughout this novella are deep and somewhat complicated.  The letters which Jane discovers quite by chance, wrapped up in a muslin dress which she takes a fancy to in the attic, provide a crux in the novella, causing – or perhaps just providing a means for allowing – the characters to quarrel amongst themselves.  These letters are not overly interesting to Jane at first: ‘The ink, sharp in the candlelight, had not faded.  She could not fail, however, when first she handled them, to connect these letters with that long-settled dust: her sense of their remoteness from her entitled her to feel they belonged to history.’  They soon begin to grow with an almost mythic importance in Jane’s mind, however.

A World of Love is an opulent novella, written by the most observant of authors.  Much of the little action which plays out here revolves around the characters, and what they mean to one another.  There is often a great deal of tension embedded within their relationships.  Each of Bowen’s creations is unusual in some way; Maud, for instance, has an imaginary friend of sorts named Gay David, who is banned from entering the dining room, and Lilia has ‘a neurosis about anyone standing outside a door.’  Whilst not overly plot heavy, there is a lot to consider within A World of Love, and it is a novella which I am sure to be thinking about for a long time to come.

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The Book Trail: From Rosamond Lehmann to F. Tennyson Jesse

This particular edition of The Book Trail begins with a wonderful sequel by Rosamond Lehmann, printed by Virago Modern Classics.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to put this list together.

 

1. The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann 1768393
‘Taking up where Invitation to the Waltz left off, The Weather in the Streets shows us Olivia Curtis ten years older, a failed marriage behind her, thinner, sadder, and apprently not much wiser. A chance encounter on a train with a man who enchanted her as a teenager leads to a forbidden love affair and a new world of secret meetings, brief phone calls, and snatched liaisons in anonymous hotel rooms. Years ahead of its time when first published, this subtle and powerful novel shocked even the most stalwart Lehmann fans with its searing honesty and passionate portrayal of clandestine love.’

 

5481462. Love for Lydia by H.E. Bates
Love for Lydia was the first novel with an English setting that H.E. Bates wrote after the second world war, and it was his own favourite among his Northamptonshire novels. The Northants setting becomes the background both ugly and beautiful for the story of a young girl, the daughter of a decaying aristocratic household, and her lovers, of which the most important is the narrator himself.  Published in 1952, it is essentially an autobiographical novel, and, though much of his fiction reflects his own life and background, this probably contains more than in any other piece of fiction – That may explain why it is such a satisfying book. Bates spent a brief time as a reporter on the Northamptonshire Chronicle, and there are other echoes of the author’s personal experiences here in the character of the narrator, Richardson. Lydia, it seems, is based on, or was inspired by, a young lady he once glimpsed on Rushden railway station – “a tallish, dark, proud, aloof young girl in a black cloak lined with scarlet”. Lydia in the story is the sheltered and selfish Aspen daughter, and the novel chronicles her affairs with Richardson and two of the other young men. It has been described as a novel of “a young man’s struggle to understand and resolve himself to a formidable world of change and uncertainty”, and the novel ends in his committing himself to Lydia in a much more mature and lasting way than he could have done at the beginning of the story.’

 

3. The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen 195987
‘In The Heat of the Day, Elizabeth Bowen brilliantly recreates the tense and dangerous atmosphere of London during the bombing raids of World War II.  Many people have fled the city, and those who stayed behind find themselves thrown together in an odd intimacy born of crisis. Stella Rodney is one of those who chose to stay. But for her, the sense of impending catastrophe becomes acutely personal when she discovers that her lover, Robert, is suspected of selling secrets to the enemy, and that the man who is following him wants Stella herself as the price of his silence. Caught between these two men, not sure whom to believe, Stella finds her world crumbling as she learns how little we can truly know of those around us.’

 

17769934. One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes
‘It’s a summer’s day in 1946. The English village of Wealding is no longer troubled by distant sirens, yet the rustling coils of barbed wire are a reminder that something, some quality of life, has evaporated. Together again after years of separation, Laura and Stephen Marshall and their daughter Victoria are forced to manage without “those anonymous caps and aprons who lived out of sight and pulled the strings.” Their rambling garden refuses to be tamed, the house seems perceptibly to crumble. But alone on a hillside, as evening falls, Laura comes to see what it would have meant if the war had been lost, and looks to the future with a new hope and optimism. First published in 1947, this subtle, finely wrought novel presents a memorable portrait of the aftermath of war, its effect upon a marriage, and the gradual but significant change in the nature of English middle-class life.’

 

5. The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor 1707951
‘”Here I am!” Flora called to Richard as she went downstairs. For a second, Meg felt disloyalty. It occurred to her of a sudden that Flora was always saying that, and that it was in the tone of one giving a lovely present. She was bestowing herself.’ The soul of kindness is what Flora believes herself to be. Tall, blonde and beautiful, she appears to have everything under control — her home, her baby, her husband Richard, her friend Meg, Kit, Meg’s brother, who has always adored Flora, and Patrick the novelist and domestic pet. Only the bohemian painter Liz refuses to become a worshipper at the shrine. Flora entrances them all, dangling visions of happiness and success before their spellbound eyes. All are bewitched by this golden tyrant, all conspire to protect her from what she really is. All, that is, except the clear-eyed Liz: it is left to her to show them that Flora’s kindness is the sweetest poison of them all.’

 

3971136. A Compass Error by Sybille Bedford
‘In this sequel to The Favourite of the Gods, seventeen-year-old Flavia, on her own in the south of France in the late 1930s, lives with the confidence and ardor of youth. She knows her destiny-it lies at Oxford, where she will begin a great career of public service. But this view of herself is at odds with reality; it springs from ideas she has of her idolized English father and of her blessed Italian mother, Constanza. Only when she is caught up in an intrigue that is to determine the fate of those she most loves does she begins to discover her own true nature-even as she loses the bearings of her moral compass.’

 

7. The Shutter of Snow by Emily Holmes Coleman 1393098
‘In a prose form as startling as its content, “The Shutter of Snow” portrays the post-partum psychosis of Marthe Gail, who after giving birth to her son, is committed to an insane asylum. Believing herself to be God, she maneuvers through an institutional world that is both sad and terrifying, echoing the worlds of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Snake Pit.”  Based upon the author’s own experience after the birth of her son in 1924, “The Shutter of Snow” retains all the energy it had when first published in 1930.’

 

1396478. A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse
‘A Pin to See the Peepshow is a fictionalized account of the life of Edith Thompson, one of the three main players in the “Ilford murder” case of 1922.’

 

Which of these books have you read?  Do any pique your interest?

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Two Reviews: ‘Kadian Journal’ and ‘The Little Girls’

The Little Girls by Elizabeth Bowen ***
9780099287780I have found Elizabeth Bowen’s novels a little hit and miss in the past, but since absolutely adoring The House in Paris, I was eager to read more of her work. I selected The Little Girls as my next choice, and initially found it a little difficult to get into; Bowen’s writing is notoriously beautiful and complex, and it always takes me a chapter or two to feel entirely comfortable with the way in which she writes.

The plot of The Little Girls, with a mystery at its heart, appealed to me, and whilst I came away without loving it, it is definitely a novel which I admire. The novel, as with many of Bowen’s, is very character driven. I was not, however, pulled in enough to warrant a four or five star rating, and only found myself completely engaged with the section in which the three protagonists were ‘little girls’. Bowen, for me, creates far more believable child characters than she does adults, and I was struck by every character trait and peculiarity about them. The dialogue here is often meandering, and a few retorts were utterly nonsensical; this can make the novel feel a little confusing at times. Had The Little Girls contained very little dialogue, the chances are that I would have loved it.

 

 

Kadian Journal by Thomas Harding ***
Harding’s reflection on grief, after his only son, Kadian, is killed in a freak cycling 9780099591849accident, opens on that pivotal day. The family are cycling in the Wiltshire countryside, when he is killed; of witnessing the accident, Harding writes: ‘He’s suddenly way ahead of me. A hundred feet perhaps. He must have gathered speed. And then there’s a flash of a white van, moving fast from left to right, at the bottom of the slope. It shouldn’t be there. And the van hits Kadian. Driving him away from view, away from me.’

Much of the memoir uses this choppy narrative style, which works very well to describe the accident and its aftermath, but is not so effective at other times. For the most part, Harding’s prose is both heartfelt and very matter-of-fact; the latter made me feel rather detached from the whole. It felt, at times, as though I was intruding upon somebody’s personal diary, which I had no right to read. There was no real sense that Kadian Journal was meant for a general readership; it felt too raw, in many ways. Harding also uses rather a lot of repetition unnecessarily, which I did find wearing after a while. Kadian Journal is a nice tribute to a lost son, but it did not always plunge the depths or the despair which I would have expected from such a book.

 

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