If ever there was a writer who improved upon re-reading, it’s Elizabeth Bowen. Bowen’s style isn’t simple or easy to follow. Her syntax is famously knotty, often baffling until you figure out which words to emphasize and everything clicks into place. Here’s a classic from her masterpiece, The Heat of the Day (1948), which describes London during the Blitz:
Parks suddenly closed because of time-bombs—drifts of leaves in the empty deckchairs, birds afloat on the dazzlingly silent lakes—presented, between the railings which sill girt them, mirages of repose.
Until you realize that the subject of the sentence is the long noun phrase “parks suddenly closed because of time-bombs” rather than just parks, and that the verb is “presented” not “closed” this makes no sense at all. A reader at Jonathan Cape, Bowen’s publisher, said that her sentences were baffling until you understood the emphasis and then everything clicked into place.
At any rate, Bowen is never straightforward in her syntax. She can contort even simple sentences. Again from Heat: “He seldom was, and was not this time, put out.” Honestly, that one almost parodies itself.
But Bowen’s circumlocution, misdirection, even apparent clumsiness serves a function. I think Rohan is spot on when she says of Bowen’s prose: “that sense of interference between our attention and the point prevents us from imagining that the point is, itself, in any way direct or obvious.”
Nonetheless, especially in her first novel, The Hotel, which I’ve just been reading with Jacqui, Bowen is sometime just plain opaque. Consider for example this sentence:
Her reprehensible undistress had been a constant temptation.
A character, a young man, is here reflecting on why he’s left Germany with its economic crisis to come to be with his mother in Italy: the undistress refers to the mother’s lack of interest in the crisis. At least I think so—it’s really hard to tell! The substance of the sentence is as tricky as its context. What is “undistress” anyway? I can just about make sense of it as an adjective, but as a noun it flummoxes me. Is undistress the same as lack of distress? Is that the same as calmness? And why would it be reprehensible? So reprehensible, in fact, as to be tempting. It seems the distress we can’t help hearing in “undistress” ought to have carried the day: as if his mother should have been worried about it. We might think it would be nice to be drawn to someone who’s refusing to be worried about a political crisis, but the language here is more alarming than reassuring.
Not everything in Bowen is hard going, though. There are plenty of good bits. We find, for example, the occasional piece of social commentary, a la the Dowager Lady Crawley in Downton Abbey: here two characters are reading the English papers:
“There’s been the pit disaster.”
“Miners,” said the lady distastefully, “always seem to be getting into trouble. One is so sorry, but it is difficult to go on and on sympathizing.”
More frequent are striking apercus. Sometimes these are given to characters—“She had found that in actually dealing with children theories collapse and one must retreat on the conventions”—and sometimes to the narrator: “Sydney, who was still near enough to her own childhood to mistrust children profoundly, wondered what Cordelia could be getting at.”
And best of all are things that are just plain weird: a woman suddenly plucks a bitter orange from a tree and bites into it: “She glanced shamefacedly at her tooth-marks in the orange, then guiltily up at the windows of the Hotel, then she wiped the orange and tucked it quietly away behind her.” The tooth-marks are good, and so is the wiping and that “quietly.”
More conventional but quite beautiful are some moments of description: “She must have been made conspicuous by her abstraction or by her yellow dress; people turned to stare at her and a tram announced by a hum of overhead wires rushed past with a long smudge of faces turned her way.” I like the smudge.
If I haven’t said much about what The Hotel is about, it’s because I’m not sure. (And also because Jacqui is so good at summaries. Be sure to read hers.) I think—and this is what most makes the book worthwhile, even if it’s not always easy going—it’s about queerness.
The hotel of the title is on the Italian Riviera. The guests are British, and they’re mostly women. Most interesting to me are two pairs: Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald, and Sydney Warren and Mrs. Kerr, the mother of the young man who comes to visit from Germany.
The novel begins brilliantly, with Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald wandering dazedly around the hotel and the resort after having had a terrible fight. We don’t see the fight, we never learn what it was about, we don’t even know who these women are, and we have to piece together what they mean to each other. It’s pretty clear they are lovers, though, and I really wished they’d been more present in the book. Even in this episodic novel, they disappeared for long stretches of time, though they importantly close the book. On a picnic together, they remember the day they almost lost each other, which gives a kind of happy ending that nonetheless reminds us of loss just when it clams to be celebrating togetherness.
In this sense they comment on the more oblique and much less resolved relationship between Sydney—a young woman who had planned to be a doctor and who has been sent to the Riviera by her family to accompany her cousin, one of those invalids who are really just women who need a break from life of the sort you find in so much fiction in the late 19th and early 20th century, and, they hope, to get married—and the much older Mrs. Kerr. It seems pretty clear that Sydney loves Mrs. Kerr. It’s not at all clear what Mrs. Kerr thinks of her. Sydney is a kind of factotum to the older (richer) woman, sometimes a kind of daughter or even a pet who Mrs. Kerr deigns to take an interest in, and sometimes something much more like a lover.
Bowen’s refusal to clarify is brilliant. But she’s clear that other characters (men especially but not only) wonder and worry about it. Consider this exchange, three-quarters of the way through the novel. A visiting clergyman, James Milton, is talking with Mrs. Kerr’s son, Ronald:
“An hotel, you know, is a great place for friendships.”
“Mustn’t that be,” said Ronald, “what people come out for?”
“But are there really people who would do that? asked Ronald sharply, in a tone of revulsion, as though he had brought himself up more squarely than he had anticipated to the edge of some kind of abyss. “You mean women?”
Well, as the kids say these days, that escalated quickly. The reference to friendship is redescribed as a code for same-sex desire, a desire that Ronald, at least, is revolted by. The book is at its best when it’s at its queerest: that is, when it offers us relationships that challenge the homo-hetero binary, relationships that are hard to name.
If Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald are straightforwardly gay, Sydney and Mrs. Kerr are, I don’t know, not. They’re something else. But whatever it is it’s powerful. Partly through the book—here come some spoilers now, watch out—the clergyman Milton proposes to Sydney, out of nowhere. She rejects him as gently as she can. But then just as unaccountably she later accepts. All of which leads to an amazing scene near the end of the book when the couple along with Sydney’s cousin and Mrs. Kerr rent a driver to take them on an excursion into the mountains. Coming back down they run up against a timber wagon that has almost tipped over one of the hairpin turns that Sydney has spent the ride silently wishing the party would plunge over. Something about the moment—the shock, or maybe the shock is just a cover for a decision she’s already come to, unconsciously—prompts Sydney to break off the engagement. It has to do with her feelings for Mrs. Kerr, but we don’t know how exactly. Nor do we find out. At the end of the novel, Milton leaves in embarrassed chagrin. Sydney is set to leave too. And only on one of the last pages do we sense that Mrs. Kerr will in fact be devastated by the loss, though whether out of love or out of loss of power is uncertain.
The Hotel is a chilly novel, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I did have a hard time with it, never able to get stuck in it, always reading a few pages at a time, and often having to go back over those knotty sentences.
However lukewarm I am about The Hotel I certainly do love Bowen in general. She’s sadly underrated and definitely poorly classified. People often compare her to Woolf—with whom she had a rivalrous but also mutually admiring relationship—for no other reason as far as I can see than that they were both women writing at around the same time. But Bowen is much better understood as part of that great British mid-twentieth century tradition of women writers who defy the longstanding and increasingly useless distinction between modernism and post-modernism. This tradition—which for me includes writers like Jean Rhys, Barbara Comyns, Elizabeth Taylor, Angela Carter, and Penelope Fitzgerald: a pretty heterogeneous bunch!—is uncannily experimental, the strangeness of the works heightened by how ordinary they first seem.
In The Hotel Bowen seems to still be finding her way. When we were talking about it on Twitter, Jacqui said it’s as if Bowen were rooting through English fiction of the period for ideas. Milton seems like someone out of a Forster novel, though perhaps less interested in art. And sometimes the prose, which at its worst is sub-Jamesian, overtly imitates The Master: “The party hung fire, embarrassed by this choice of attractions, then continued to move slowly up the avenue in a close formation.” I thought only James was allowed to use the expression “hung fire”!
In other words, if you’ve never read Elizabeth Bowen before, I wouldn’t recommend starting here. It is, after all, a first novel. (Though first novels often seem to me most representative of a writer’s preoccupations, and that’s not the case here.) I’m curious about her two earlier collections of stories. Bowen’s wartime stories are justly famous—if you’ve never read “The Demon Lover,” you’re in for something special—and I wonder if she had already mastered the form. At any rate, it’s impressive how quickly Bowen improved as a novelist. Her next one, The Last September—a moving description of the Anglo-Irish war—is miles better and a terrific point of entry into her work. More conventional in structure and more compressed in scope than The Hotel, The Last September feels like a novel in a way that the earlier book doesn’t. After that I’d recommend two terrific but dark novels of the 30s, The Death of the Heart and To the North (which has one of the most ominous final scenes ever) and of course her absolute masterpiece, maybe the greatest novel about the Blitz, The Heat of the Day.
Has anyone read any of her late novels (Eva Trout, The Little Girls, etc)? I wonder what they’re like.