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.