Objectively this is probably a four star book but I’m going the full hog because of how much relentless pleasure it gave me, not least of all because of its laugh-out-loud humour and original and wholly compelling cast of characters. It took Elizabeth Bowen a long time, until her last two books, to try her hand at a full blown comic novel and boy does she do it well. (The inept introduction makes the extraordinary claim that in this novel Bowen abandons comedy.)
Eva Trout, an orphaned heiress, cannot find her feet in the world. She’s a familiar Bowen heroine, the bluster of her unschooled innocence creating havoc wherever she goes. Few writers do children better than Bowen and this is again the case here. She gets that wondrous x-ray tilt children put on things. Iseult, her former teacher, is a fabulous portrait of the disillusioned clever woman who has married beneath herself and Constantine, her lawful guardian, is one of Bowen’s best ever creations.
It’s purposely overwritten (see the quote below about a day in Cambridge) but in a mischievous and consistently mannered way which wages its own private war on cliché. Bowen, you can tell, hates clichés and often mocks them by turning them on their head or inserting them into a sentence or passage which is grammatically bizarre. “But absence,” he wheedled, “makes the heart grow fonder. It’s completely unheard of that it should fail to.” There’s barely a sentence in this novel anyone else could have written – with, maybe, the exception of late Henry James who she pays homage to with her contorted sentence structures. Fitting that the leading male is called Henry.
On a social level the novel can be read as a depiction of England’s uneasy transition from the pastoral into modernity– there’s the village vicarage which becomes a kind of foundation stone for Eva and contains in atmosphere the inexpensive reassurances of the 19th century; this is counterpointed by the sexually predatory charlatan Constantine (Eva’s dead father’s lover) in his high rise office who, though super rich, has no job title. Eva herself finds sanctuary in the vicarage until the inevitable expulsion. She then fills her new home with all the inventions of modernity. The old world priest is replaced by a succession of faith healers, art therapists and new age ministers. When these fail her she is drawn back to the past which takes the form of a visit to the National Portrait Gallery where she goes from the Tudors to the Stuarts through to the Victorians in an effort to find out how much identity can be found in a face. Not much, she concludes, still trying to find her own face.
Part of my love for this book was instigated by my familiarity with its settings – fantastic evocations of Paris and especially London which enabled me to see the familiar anew; and the description of Chicago where she goes to buy a child on the black market reminded me of my own trip there as a child when I felt the full force of its aggressive insistence on the future, its alienating and dwarfing rejection of every yesterday.
The novel also pays lip service to psychoanalytic ideas of its time, which act as a kind of hidden floorplan. The child Eva buys is a deaf mute which offers Bowen exuberant opportunity to explore the world of alternative healing. Every relationship here is subjected to a psychological autopsy. We seem decades further up the line from Virginia Woolf when in fact only twenty years have transpired. Bowen is confronting modernity with a razor sharp eye for satiric detail, but without the wistful sentimentalised nostalgia of Brideshead Revisited, and a hair-triggered sensibility alert to both the beauty and absurdity of the worlds in which Eva finds herself. One of the things that makes this so fascinating is that it’s the work of a writer precipitated out of her own era into a new one – the 1960s. She’s as tenderly affectionate as she is scathingly mocking and it was this subtle and difficult tightrope act that helped make this novel so loveable, that and its high tide imaginative vitality, awesomely impressive for a seventy year old woman.