Elizabeth Bowen

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.


Something I really enjoyed about the Easter holiday was going to a singing event at a local church on Friday.  Quite a large crowd of singers turned up and we spent the afternoon rehearsing Mozart’s Requiem with some instrumentalists, before performing it as a concert in the evening. I find Mozart’s Requiem such a beautiful piece of music, so I was quite excited about this event. The singing was aided by tea and hot cross buns, and the concert raised money for the church’s new choir school so there were some cute little choir boys who handed out bouquets to the soloists at the end!

Another nice thing about the weekend was realising that I have acquired several new books that I am looking forward to reading. First of all, speaking of Barbara Pym, while I was at my parents’ house at the weekend, I managed to hunt down A Very Private Eye, a collection of Pym’s diaries and letters, and I can’t wait to find out more about the life and personality of a writer I admire. I think it is interesting when reading an author’s letters or diaries to see how much the person seems familiar from their novels and to what extent a different side to their character is revealed. I will be particularly interested to read Pym’s diaries from while she was studying in Oxford and her letters to Philip Larkin. He is one of my favourite poets so for a while now I have wanted to learn more about the friendship between them.

While rummaging through boxes of my old books at my parents’ house, I also unearthed a Muriel Spark novel, A Far Cry from Kensington, which (if I am organised enough) I hope to read for the Muriel Spark Reading Week at Stuck-in-a-Book. I have loved some of Muriel Spark’s books (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means) while strangely there are others I have not liked much at all (Loitering with Intent is one I remember). I do find her interesting so I’m definitely looking forward to reading this novel, especially as a quote from the Sunday Times on the cover describes it as set in ‘a 1950s Kensington of shabby-genteel bedsitters, espresso bars and A-line dresses’. That sounds perfect to me.

One of my recent book purchases is The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen, which I have already started reading. As I like her writing very much, I have decided to try to read as many of Elizabeth Bowen’s novels as I can over the next few months. She also published some travel writing (A Time in Rome) and wrote memoirs about her childhood (Seven Winters) and her family’s house in Ireland (Bowen’s Court), so I’d like to try these different genres of her writing as well. The House in Paris is so far a beautifully written and mysterious novel, and I hope to write more about it later.

Finally, I have also acquired a copy of The New Moon with the Old, a novel by Dodie Smith. I enjoyed I Capture the Castle but only discovered recently that Dodie Smith had written other novels for adults. The New Moon with the Old looks like an entertaining and magical story about a woman who becomes secretary to an eccentric family, so I’m saving it for when I’m in the mood to be cheered up by my reading.

Has anyone read (or would you like to read) any of these books?

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It’s strange how the short story Mysterious Kor has stayed in my mind ever since I read it a few years ago. I think it had such an impact on me because of two things: the relationships between the three characters – a young woman called Pepita, her boyfriend Arthur and her flatmate Callie – and the captivating images of a deserted, endless, moonlit city that is both wartime London and the ghost city Kor.

The setting is the city at night, at the entrance to a park, near an Underground station from which Pepita emerges with Arthur, a soldier home on leave from the war. I found the most striking aspect of the story to be the stunning descriptions of the moonlit night and how they manage to hint at the atmosphere of London during the Second World War. The moon is compared to a searchlight which exposes everything, making the city seem unearthly, ‘like the moon’s capital, shallow, cratered, extinct’, and causes people to hide indoors out of fear, not of being bombed because that would not  happen on a moonlit night, but of ‘something more immaterial’. The way people are described in this story is also unusual; they look at each other without expression or seem to move mechanically, obeying commands. The earth seems to have been transformed into an alien place, by the incredible brightness of the moon or by the war.

The title of the story comes from a poem Pepita quotes to Arthur about an abandoned, dreamlike city which she thinks about all the time. Kor has a powerful hold on Pepita and I think the story suggests why she needs this inward symbol of emptiness and timelessness during the chaos and deprivations of the war. She tells Arthur that Kor has ‘no history’, it’s been deserted for thousands of years, but it is strong and cannot be destroyed; it is a possible refuge from transience and danger.

When Pepita tells Arthur she hates civilisation (as the poem says, ‘the world is disenchanted’) and she would laugh on the day when Kor was the only city left in existence, he challenges her, saying ‘I thought girls thought about people.’ Pepita replies ‘How can anyone think about people if they’ve got any heart? I don’t know how other girls manage: I always think about Kor.’ To me, this means she can’t bear to think about reality, that she has shut down her sympathy in order to survive, and that Kor represents an unchanging, imaginary world to which she can escape. However, the way Elizabeth Bowen writes about London on that moonlit night doesn’t make it seem at all disenchanted to me; there is the impression that a spell has been cast on the whole city. This might be because the boundary between the real city of London and the unreal city of Kor has become blurred; to Pepita, London is Kor (‘you mean we’re there now, that here’s there, that now’s then?’).

Another compelling attraction of Kor to Pepita is the privacy and isolation it represents. Mysterious Kor conveys the way in which people were forced together during wartime. Pepita and Arthur can wander the streets, bars and cinemas of the city without finding a place they can be alone or that’s not crammed with people, and then as it gets late they must return to the flat that Pepita shares with Callie. The way people have to share their living space seems to be a change brought by the war. The girls’ flat is a Victorian drawing room divided into three rooms, and in a flash the moonlight reveals the lost splendour of the Victorian world that has now vanished. Kor, on the other hand, is vast and can be explored endlessly in dreams.  Pepita imagines it as a world that she and Arthur would have all to themselves. This suggests an impulse that could, I think, be a result of the war: to leave this world behind and begin a new one, in the blank, white surroundings of Kor.

As I said, in addition to the wonderful setting, the relationships between the characters also made the story memorable for me. Pepita is secretive and moody and resents Callie for not finding somewhere else to go and allowing her and Arthur to be alone in the flat, while Callie is innocently tactless, living vicariously through Pepita’s relationship. She is very concerned with doing what is proper, while Pepita is more restless. The story revolves around fleeting but personal conversations, showing how intimacy can be created in the crowded wartime city, as Arthur wonders why Pepita is so haunted by the city of Kor. In describing Kor and the atmosphere of London at night, Elizabeth Bowen’s beautiful writing creates vivid images that stayed with me for a long time.

(I wrote this post for Irish Short Story Week at The Reading Life.)