Part Three of my review continued from here: To The North by Elizabeth Bowen
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So much is disarmingly conveyed by Bowen, as we enter the social Catherine deBurgh like scenario (unless I’ve got my Austen wrong), a scenario in the house where Cecilia first met Henry, but now embodied by Lady Waters…
“Cecilia, arriving, was very much bored to find Gerda with her little air of muted vivacity, flitting about the drawing-room. Contriving to look as appealingly rustic in London as she had looked exotic at Farraways, Gerda wore a large chip straw hat and frilly frock with a fichu. With a cold eye, Cecilia watched her tucking her gloves away behind a sofa cushion with all the coy propriety of a favoured squirrel.”
“Here Henry, feet on the white hearth-rug, back to a roaring fire, had first smiled at the young Cecilia sitting under a lamp.”
Neither girl seems a happy to share Lady Waters…
“‘Gerda and I,’ she said affectionately, ‘have been buying eiderdowns.’”
…and Cecilia’s response to Lady W is almost bi-sexual in its irony…
“‘Emmeline’s and my eiderdowns don’t wear out,’ she said. ‘I suppose we are quiet sleepers.’”
“Cecilia, a social Columbus, could have asked nothing better than a continent full of strangers, and knew well how to build up a rumour in a day.”
And Gerda is sent off to pass messages from Lady W on the telephone to others…
“‘– Oh, dear child,’ Lady Waters continued, turning to Gerda, ‘remind me that I want you to do a little telephoning for me after lunch: it would be such a help.’ Poor Gerda realized that this was her congé.”
Meanwhile, a lot is straightened out for Lady W’s benefit about the romantic rhombus of Cecilia herself, Emmeline, Markie and Julian…
“Scenes flashed, words danced through Cecilia’s brain; her relations with Julian appeared more and more remarkable. Only one fact deterred her – Julian’s appalling eligibility;…”
From absurdism to Austen then back to absurdism again, as if Bowen has her own congeries of a ‘congé’ to manage! Working it out by means of her own unique genius with the bespoke fiction crafted for herself and for all us Boweneers. We, too, need to work it out alongside her, by alternately, like a pendulum, brainstorming it and gently tickling it with the odd literary critique or comb.
“Peter Lewis preferred to call their secretary ‘the stenographer’, the word brisked him up with its ring of efficiency and things went more slickly, as in a film of American office life.”
“Peter, who had been tiptoeing round the room cracking his finger joints, opening and shutting things in an agony of suspense.”
Peter and Emmeline, doing their accounts for MOVING DANGEROUSLY (a travel firm of their bespoke personal services as well as roses for clients abroad when things go wrong); as we move ourselves later, by means of Cecilia and Emmeline talking together, into the uncharted waters, if not Waters, of the often misunderstood machinations of the romantically rhomboid Cecilia and Emmeline and Markie and Julian… but who is the sudden intrusively misgeometrical Connie Pleach who, C says, has an ‘unholy’ desire for E?
Earlier Emmeline “had crawled sedately west for a little, in second gear, down the Euston Road, in the lee of a lorry clattering with steel girders. Leaving the hoarse dingy clamour, the cinema-posters of giant love, she turned into Regent’s Park, swept round under lines of imposing houses and, out of the park again, steadily mounted to St John’s Wood.”
This cinematic ‘giant love’ becomes a meticulous and mysterious maze of minutiae, whereby Cecilia’s experience of the death of Henry figuratively becomes an old house and its grounds that are sold to a speculator for others to make more modern mœurs for themselves. A long rarefied vision that includes … “After dark – where once there was silence, a tree’s shadow drawn slowly across the grass by the moon, or no moon, an exhalation of darkness – rows of windows come out like lanterns in pink and orange; boxed in bright light hundreds of lives repeat their pattern; wireless picks up a tune from street to street.”
… being the essence of the Bowenesque …
“Emmeline started. She had sat staring so fixedly at Cecilia that Cecilia had disappeared; instead, she had seen spinning sentences, little cogs interlocked, each clicking each other round. She sat blinking at this machinery of agitation that a word spoken two days ago had only now set going.”
“– what has once happened, happens again. Here she was at a standstill, her plot only half spun out.”
“Daisies pirated everywhere…”
A crystallising short Bowen timelessness and subtle innuendo chapter to beat all such chapters, perhaps. Thoughts as pirates of the day’s Proustian self. Emmeline writes to Markie, written, as later described, “in secret ink” — and this is Christmas Day in my own real-time for a time squeezed out by other days, her days… — and she writes…
“It looks like a day slipped in between Monday and Tuesday, that has nothing to do with the week. I wish you were here. There is so much I should like to say that I seem to have nothing to say. Perhaps some day words will be different or there will be others. When you get this it will be Tuesday evening and what I see now will be gone.”
But she has not yet posted the letter as he turns up into her day by surprise from his own previous day, as he calls it, a day spread over by some overnight party ending up here in her garden, which he had not seen in daylight before… “the whole fumy void of a night which, like hell, had no clocks, in which no remission was to be hoped of the hours…”
The business of cats in this early morning garden, and a garden we all see in Bowenesque minutiae as well as in fullness…
The business and nature of parties, too, adumbrated.
I am always surprised when servants turn up in Bowen, as they often do, and Emmeline calls one servant to get coffee.
The business and nature of letters, in those days, beyond the slickness of today’s emails with a whole different protocol of time logistics. The unposted letter, will she give it to him by hand or burn it, as his presence changes the nature of the letter itself, if not the words she wrote. Meanwhile, a real “letter bag bumped up their steps” amid her sifting of rose petals .
“Till now, she had offered to no friend her hours outside time: now the budding magnolia, plucked and discarded, breathed its unmeaning fragrance…”
“…she should not, in most secret ink, ever have spoken. But she had not yet spoken: the letter was still unread.”
“…this cold zone of solitude.”
A rarefied context whence Emmeline scries her relationships, today with Markie, — and perhaps with Cecilia who, having stayed overnight, wakes with surprise at Markie’s sudden presence…
“….he was regarding himself in the flank of the silver kettle, in which he appeared like the Frog Footman, shockingly globular. ‘I don’t look much,’ he said, ‘to write letters to.’”
“An idea of tussling with her for a letter she would not give him, uncertainly taken up, had quite soon bored him … Besides, he valued her sweet, lame letters.”
Goldfish at their first breakfast, as rarefied or pirated an image as the ‘Arctic’ solitude…
The letter to Markie found beneath a Bowen blotter, and “the day was in full bloom.” In such a bloom with which she employed to change the nature of the letter and the marks made on it, yet again?
“At the same time, his one halting impulse – linked with the speed of the car through the glowing country – began to take on a roughness, the whole prestige of savagery: something seen, as it were, by the tail of his rational eye but never looked at quite squarely.”
“: he [Julian] felt a born minor character.”
….and this generated some sympathy and empathy in me, especially when at the end of this chapter, I could not remember what his job was and why he had a secretary to work a blind in his office and how does he know Peter Lewis?!! My memory again? Moving dangerously through this book, rather precariously… as I tried to relate Julian to his sister Bertha, for or by whom he had been given more responsibility regarding Pauline while Bertha had been away, and visualising the chance cross-currents in a turbot restaurant as Emmeline and Markie happened to take a corner table close to Bertha and Julian’s table.
“This tête-à-tête with his sister, this mournful association with her in gloom and impotence, as though before birth, by some unkind twist in heredity, they had both been shanghaied together, drove home like a stake through his heart the idea of solitude.”
…pre-echoing that sense of heredity and anti-natalism in ‘Eva Trout’?
Talking about minor characters , we learn a lot about them in a single skilled paragraph:
“She [Bertha] wanted a massage after her journey, a fitting at her corsetière’s, a new silver saucepan to boil milk in her bedroom, a chat with her specialist and one of those mackintosh coats she had just seen advertised for her dog. She desired to visit her hat shop, which concealed itself upstairs in Mayfair with a discretion so sinister one might expect to rap three times on a panel or be regarded narrowly through a grille. The ostensible reason for her departure was that she had arranged to buy Pauline a new party frock.”
The sinister hat shop with a goddess like Bowen behind that grille, not completely unlike Ann Lee’s?
I’m a born minor reader, perhaps.
“; the clock’s incredulous face confronted her from the mantelpiece.”
This is the famous ‘stenographer’ chapter (a word first spoken by Lewis), the stenographer, Doris Tripp, whereby social tensions and explicit ‘exploitation’ of the 1930s day between employer and employee, and between the separate genders, too, where such tension meets the unconscious Sapphic one between two women, — amid new tangled travel and global gestalt and timelessness, and the prospect of flying on public planes in early 1930s where a Bowen text almost meets that of a Lovecraft as well as an Aickman… where darkest KÔR meets London, moving dangerously, the travel of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, too, as seen by me last night on new fangled TV, edging upon farcical absurdism and ‘unholy theatricals’ explicitly mentioned in this chapter … blow, Gabriel, blow…— an unadopted alternate world as automaton… and all because Emmeline had worn a pretty green dress that day?— the obviousness of critique as avoided by any Lewis worth his salt…
“‘Mr Lewis left you a note,’ she said.
‘Thank you,’ said Emmeline, who had already found it.
‘He was sorry to miss you: I think there was something he felt he had to decide.’
The stenographer’s estimation of Peter was at times depressingly obvious;”
“‘I’m afraid that was quite wrong. They should have had “Unknown Republics”.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said the stenographer with dignity. ‘I’m afraid it did not occur to me that Andorra was unknown.’”
“She [Emmeline] had spoken today to Markie of Peter’s project that she should fly to Paris to get into personal touch with two young Serbs who had started a sister agency. […] The silk was still warm from the sun; she still saw Markie’s square-tipped fingers where the silk creased a little inside the elbow.”
“: in vain her stenographer’s pointed tapping, in vain the clock: place and time, shivered to radiant atoms, were in disorder.”
“…unholy theatricals: […] the curtain – having dropped, as they say on theatre programmes, for a few minutes to denote the passage of time – rose on an Emmeline fully enlightened, stricken,…”
“Tripp was not the richer by half a smile.”
“…and when I move my elbow I knock my funny bone. When Mr Lewis yawns it goes right down my back.”
“Emmeline’s exaltation was dangerous and unsparing, she would have cut off her own hand to advance travel and had undoubtedly taken a finger or two of Tripp’s.”
“Maps were maps, the world shrank in its net of red routes, of rails and airways: this was a small office regarding a courtyard, where Tripp bumped her elbow and Peter crackled his finger joints. Light, centring round one figure, withdrew from the distance, from continents into which she had shot her travellers like arrows, from rippled seas, ribbed hills, white-and-shady cities to which this office had been the arch.”
This review continues here: https://nemonymousnight.wordpress.com/879-2/