I read A World of Love by Elizabeth Bowen for Reading Ireland Month 2023, during the week of Classics at Cathy’s 746Books.
O’Brien versus Bowen, A Fair Comparison?
Having just read and loved Edna O’Brien’s trilogy The Country Girls, written a mere 5 years later than this novella, I thought I would easily get through this. They lived in the same country and both wrote in the English language, however they were worlds apart in their use of language, their choice of protagonist and place.
There is a 30 year difference in age, but while O’Brien writes with lucidity and frankness (too frank for many, thus her work was initially banned) Bowen writes with unfathomable verbiage that obfuscates the narrative and left me wondering what this had been about.
A World of Love? I think not.
War Changes Everything
A young man who would have owned a grand Anglo-Irish house, inconveniently dies in World War I, leaving a fiance Lilia, who sadly has no status having not yet married him, and a cousin Antonia, who will inherit the mansion. Needing a farm worker to run the place and perhaps feeling sorry for Lilia, Antonia brings these two together, they marry and have two girls, Jane and Maud.
One summer 20-year-old Jane pokes around the attic and discovers a bundle of letters folded into an old dress. There are a few conversations that circle the letters, though rarely address them – which is a little like the tone of the novel, people speak and avoid all the issues.
The Importance of Community
There is an annual festival, which should be a day of excitement, and for Jane it is, but it is the only community event the family ever participate in, they are isolated and out of touch with the everyday reality of other lives, living in the shadow of the past, of a future that never manifested.
Ultimately, we learn that this family, like the muslin dress and the letters folded away in it, are living a life suspended between the past and the present, one that Jane, who is in the peak of her youth, clearly wants to bust out of. Her finding the dress and the letters is a sign of much needed change, something that disrupts the stagnant air of an old house, arrested in time.
Times Pass, Youth Reinvents the Present
When Jane descends wearing the musty, antique dress, a symbol of the past, Antonia gestures for it to be taken away, while Jane insists the presence of the sachets suggest it was meant to be worn again.
‘No, on the contrary – no, it had had its funeral. Delicious hour for somebody, packing away her youth. Last looks at it, pangs, perhaps tears even. Then down with the lid!’
‘What, does youth really end with a bang, like that?’
‘It used to. Better if it still did.’
Antonia, as so often, spoke into nothing – for Jane, not awaiting the answer to her idle question, had got back up and gone to the looking-glass. There she stood, back turned to the bed, searching impersonally for the picture Antonia had failed to care to find or for the meaning of the picture, without which there could be no picture at all. ‘What egotists the dead seem to be,’ she said. ‘This summery lovely muslin not to be worn again, because she could not? Why not imagine me?’ She stepped back on to a flounce of the hem, which tore. ‘Who’d she have been? she wondered, roping the fullness round her to see the damage.
In the last two pages, there is the arrival of a guest at the airport, an indicator that change is afoot.
It has taken me a few days to sit with this novella and reflect on what it might have been about, to be able to write anything about it.
For me the characters were under developed, not much of note or intrigue happened, and though there was this theme of stagnation and the dying out of a breed versus the presence of youth that wants to break through all of that, there were too many unnecessary words used to describe that which does occur, that made for a frustrating reading experience.
The Rebel Protagonist
It reminded me a little of a similar feeling I had reading another Anglo-Irish novel set in a big house, Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour, it seems I don’t particularly enjoy reading novels about misanthropes sitting around in big manor houses.
I admit that classics I do enjoy, tend to feature more rebellious protagonists, like Colette’s Claudine at School, Claudine in Paris, Claudine Married and Claudine and Annie or Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, Nella Larsen’s Passing and Quicksand, and Jane Bowles Two Serious Ladies and the excellent Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky.
Do you have any favourite classics of a certain type?
Reading Ireland 2023
This week, its contemporary fiction for Reading Ireland and I’m planning to read Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses, which was the winner of the 2022 An Post Irish Book Awards Novel of The Year and was just longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023.
I’m sure I read some Elizabeth Bowen back in the day, but I can’t remember my impressions, which isn’t a good start. No, I don’t have a particular ‘type’ I like. I seem to be impulse, or recent blog driven in making my choices. Edna O’Brien next, I think!
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As you may have noted, there are rarely reviews of classics on here, but every so often I pick one up and too often get halted by the grandiose use of language. I like the way you make your choices Margaret!
Well, why not? You book bloggers would be failing in your duty if you didn’t have influence on your readers’ choices 😉
Well, this is disappointing. I read The Heat of the Day (1949), and Eva Trout really liked them both.
There are four more of her titles listed in 1001 Books but maybe I will borrow them from the library just in case I don’t like them!
I have tried to read The Death of the Heart so many times and just haven’t been able to get into it, for many of the reasons you state here.
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I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one that finds this particular use if language wanting. I’m glad I read it at the same time as Edna O’Briens books, because they demonstrate a clarity that is missing here. I doubt I’ll try another. I did read ‘The House in Paris’ years ago pre-blogging days and I felt the same, I was hoping that was a one off. It seems not.
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I have two of Elizabeth Bowen’s books—The Death of the Heart and The Heat of the Day—on my Classics Club spin list. Oh dear. I wonder if either of these will be books I’ll enjoy reading.
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The thing they have going for them is that they’re short novellas. So if you have the time and inclination you can power through them in a few hours. I found I couldn’t sustain the reading, so kept putting it down until one evening I force-read myself. Bonne Courage if you spin one of those Deb.
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