I began my Elizabeth Bowen venture with her fifth novel, The House in Paris (1935), which has made a great beginning to my reading of her work. It is set over the course of one February day, when two children, Leopold and Harriet, cross paths at the home of the steely, strong-willed invalid Mme Fisher and her passive, oppressed daughter. Leopold lives with relatives in Italy and has been sent to Paris to meet his mother, whom he has not seen since he was a baby. Harriet’s mother has died and her father does not know what to do with her, so she is on her way to visit her grandmother in Nice and is spending the day at the Fishers’ house before she catches her train. The children’s time in Paris is described (‘The Present’) in a way that explores the complex relationships of the adults around them and, in a narrative claiming to be what Leopold’s mother would have told him if she could somehow have spoken the truth to him, ‘in heaven or in art’, the events leading up to Leopold’s birth are explained (‘The Past’).
The children spend most of the day waiting and the atmosphere in the house is extremely tense, weighed down with a history that is gradually revealed. Although the whole book was beautifully written, I felt most interested in the middle section, the story of Karen, Leopold’s mother, and her secret love affair. Still, the way Elizabeth Bowen writes about children is quite interesting. She does not sentimentalise them and suggests through her writing that they are as complex and perceptive as adults, equally able to attack each other and resist. They mainly differ in their honesty and lack of social awareness, which can sometimes be refreshing, at other times cruel: ‘There is no end to the violations committed by children on children, quietly talking alone’. The friendship between Leopold and Harriet becomes very strong during the time they spend together.
Mme Fisher, the woman who owns the house, has a huge amount of power and control over other characters. The full extent to which Mme Fisher has orchestrated people’s lives, destroying them in the process, is only gradually revealed. The portrait of her daughter, Miss Fisher, is rather disturbing, as it appears that she has been a passive victim all her life, both of her mother and of the friends who betray her. She has never complained and has even encouraged others to hurt her. It was difficult to believe that she didn’t show more anger at certain points, talking only of how much she loved her friends. I found there was something chilling about it, as well as in the domineering nature of Mme Fisher.
Karen, Leopold’s mother and an old friend of the Fishers, comes from a loving but uncommunicative family. Although engaged to be married, she falls in love with another man and has an affair. One episode that struck me was Karen’s mother deliberately throwing away a piece of paper with a telephone message she’d taken for Karen. The scribbled message would have shown Karen that her mother knew she’d been lying about her whereabouts and had been secretly meeting her lover, but Karen’s mother would rather pretend not to know, so that she doesn’t have to confront the unpleasant truth out loud. When Karen tries to confess, her mother only says, ‘You know I never ask you to tell me everything, Karen’. The novel combines moments of violent emotion with a picture of a repressed family life and society in which many things must remain unspoken. Karen seems to feel stifled by her predictable and calm life, even though she has agreed to continue it by marrying Ray, who is exactly who her family would expect her to marry. In her affair, she breaks through certain constraints but it leaves her somehow homeless and belonging nowhere.
Elizabeth Bowen’s writing is full of flashes of wit and interesting ideas, small illuminations that make me stop and think, to wonder whether they relate to my own life or not. I also like the way she describes what people think about one another when they meet. For example, there is a moment when Karen encounters a very brash and talkative woman on board a ship on her journey home from Ireland and they have a conversation that’s amusing because they are so very different – then say goodbye and we are told they never see each other again. There is also a beautiful scene of Karen meeting her lover in France, that perfectly conveys her anticipation and happiness. It is a stark contrast to the dreariness of the long Parisian afternoon in Mme Fisher’s house which will eventually result in Henrietta’s belief that ‘nothing real ever happens’.
Here is a passage I liked about Karen’s Aunt Violet, who although she is kind and much-loved, has many regrets when looking back on her life (and contrasts herself with Karen, who she feels is destined to have an interesting life):
All these years she had stood by, uncritically smiling, had she been wanting really, like other women, to be the heart of things, to be what was going on? No wonder she gave such tender attention to small everyday things, living as people wish they could live over again, slighting nothing. The writing-table overlooking the sea, where she rested her elbows among the brass ornaments, her bedroom curtains drawn across the daylight must be heavy with her regretful wonder, not about death, about life. Every afternoon when they had finished tea, she blew out the wavering blue flame under the kettle, then glanced round the drawing-room where she still was. Closing her piano, she heard the silence. Wherever she had lived, her life had been full of people dropping in for a moment from somewhere else, or making her their somewhere else.